“Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Hardly anybody understands Einstein. And nobody understands Emperor Norton.”
A conversation last weekend reminded me that not many people know the story of Emperor Norton, even though many of you will have seen him regularly as I use a picture of him (larger version to the right) as my avatar on Twitter and some other forums.
Joshua Norton was the first – and to my knowledge, only – Emperor of the United States of America (and Protector of Mexico). Now, you might quibble over that description, given that the Constitution of the USA doesn’t mention an Emperor amongst all its clauses and amendements and you’d be right. Unromantic, but definitely correct. You see, while other Emperors waited around for Popes and assemblies to crown them, Norton took a much more can-do attitude to life and simply declared himself Emperor one day. You would expect nothing less from an American Emperor, simply embodying the declarative pioneering spirit of his nation by going ahead and just doing it, then waiting for everyone to catch up.
The punchline, of course, is that eventually people did catch up. Norton’s reign lasted for over twenty years from his proclamation in 1859 to his death in 1880 and he received the sort of attention you’d expect a ‘genuine’ Emperor to get – free meals in San Francisco’s finest restaurants, his decrees and declarations published in all the city’s newspapers, police officers saluting when he passed them on the street and the respect and admiration of his fellow citizens/subjects. A tale is told of him preventing a mob from lynching Chinese workers by standing between the two groups and praying, with no one daring to cross the space he’d created.
As I argued in a post I wrote for The Sharpener a few years ago, Norton was a man who saw a gap in the market for a monarch and filled it. His is a story that reminds us that however often we might fantasise about power and the ways to achieve it, in the end it all comes down to consent – a man can only be your Emperor if you want him to, and if you do feel like having an Emperor, then there are many worse options than one who “shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country”.