“Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere”*…
* G.K. Chesterton
As we try to remember which side of the brain on which to draw, we might spare a thought for Joshua Abraham Norton, better known as Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico; he was buried on this date in 1880. An immigrant from South Africa, Norton became disgruntled with what he considered the inadequacies of the legal and political structures of his adopted home. On September 17, 1859, he took matters into his own hands and distributed letters to the various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself “Emperor of these United States”:
At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.
—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States
Norton issued a number of decrees, some of them visionary (e.g., the establishment of a League of Nations, the construction of a bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland). Ignored by the local, state, and national governments, he spent his days inspecting San Francisco’s streets in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulettes, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco.
Norton died in poverty; but a group of San Francisco businessmen, members of the Pacific Club, established a funeral fund and arranged a suitably-dignified farewell. The Emperor’s funeral cortege was two miles long; the procession and ceremony were attended by an estimated 10-30,000 people– at a time when San Francisco had only 230,000 residents.