The Emperor's Bridge Campaign




It's the third word of Joshua Norton's original Proclamation of 17 September 1859, delivered 156 years ago today.

"At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton...."

But what does it mean, "peremptory"?

Often, the word is misheard or mistranscribed as "preemptory" or "preemptive" — as in: something done to prevent an unwanted act by another. And this does make a kind of sense. Norton was, after all, declaring himself Emperor in order to prevent the continuation of a system of governance that he saw as unsustainable. 

But the word he uses is peremptory — and this word has a meaning of its own.

Webster defines it this way:

  • not providing an opportunity to show cause why one should not comply
  • admitting of no contradiction
  • expressive of urgency or command
  • characterized by often imperious or arrogant self-assurance
  • haughty

Synonyms?  Autocratic, despotic, dictatorial, domineering, imperious, masterful, overbearing, bossy, tyrannical, authoritarian and authoritative.

In the example of Emperor Norton, we see how those last two — "authoritarian" and "authoritative" — sometimes can be two sides of the same coin. To be sure, the Emperor took himself and his Emperorship very seriously. But, blustery and high-handed as his Proclamations can be, one rarely has the sense that the Emperor is striking a tone of haughtiness for its own sake.

Rather, it is Haughtiness with a Higher Purpose. Across the arc of the Emperor's Proclamations, what emerges is a gentleman who wanted to create a society that was more fair, more just, more tolerant and inclined to the common good. What we also know is that Emperor Norton was known to be a kind, genial, even humble fellow who never overstayed his welcome.

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But here's what's really interesting. As often as all of those words — imperious, high-handed, bossy, autocratic — have been used to describe Emperor Norton; and for all the particular ways in which he embodied a peremptory spirit...

Joshua Norton claimed to be declaring himself Emperor "[a]t the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens...."

If he was being peremptory, he was simply expressing an impulse and an attitude that already existed amongst the people.

For those of us who consider ourselves to be citizens of Norton's Empire, that's a thought that seems worth pondering on this Empire Day.

If you're in or near San Francisco, the seat of the Empire, today, please join The Emperor's Bridge Campaign at 6 p.m. sharp for a brief celebration in Redwood Park — adjacent to the landmark Transamerica Pyramid.

Aferward, we'll head to the nearby Comstock Saloon to raise a glass to the Emperor in the shadow of the fabulous sculpture of him that presides over the main bar there.

Hope to see you!

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