THE LONGEST PROCLAMATION? Emperor Norton at the Lyceum for Self-Culture
When Emperor Norton collapsed and died at the southeast corner of California and Dupont Streets, San Francisco, on the the night of 8 January 1880, he was on his way to the monthly debate of the Hastings Society.
The debates now took place at the California Academy of Natural Sciences, on the southwest corner of California and Dupont, having originally been held — starting in 1878 — at Pioneer Hall, the home of the Society of California Pioneers.
And, yes, it was "Hastings" as in UC Hastings. This was a debating society run by law students from the newly established Hastings College of the Law.
It was the sort of public forum where the Emperor had made himself a fixture for years: places where local citizens were having discussions about what — in social, economic, cultural and political terms — made for a good society.
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Another of these forums gathered monthly under the rubric of the Lyceum for Self-Culture.
Emperor Norton was a regular attendee — and it appears that it is in the context of the Lyceum that the Emperor issued his longest Proclamation. Read on.
The Lyceum for Self-Culture, established in June 1869, can be seen as part of the ethos of reform-minded self-improvement that came to prominence in the Lyceum, Chautauqua and Ethical Culture movements that emerged and became popular broadly between the antebellum period and the 1920s.
Of the three, weekly Ethical Culture meetings had more of the trappings of a traditional weekly church service — although the point of departure was most akin to the liberal religion of Unitarianism. The Lyceum and, later, the Chautauqua projects — these, too, occasionally advanced religious ideals. But, they were broader and more civic in their orientation — and they were structured as prototypical lecture (or concert) series, seeking to provide large platforms that could attract and cultivate national speakers with national reputations.
The Lyceum for Self-Culture, in San Francisco, seems to have been something of a hybrid of these efforts. Like the Society for Ethical Culture, the Lyceum cultivated a local community by offering regular, weekly gatherings. And, while — like the larger Lyceum and Chautauqua projects — the Lyceum of Self-Culture hosted speakers, it also seems to have been small enough to hold group discussions among participants who were understood to be members.
In a circular published shortly after its launch in 1869, the Lyceum set out is goals this way (page 9, column 1, here):
THE LYCEUM FOR SELF-CULTURE seeks to supply a social want in the present period of religious transition, and is intended to bring together thoughtful and earnest persons for free conference on all the problems of life, destiny and duty. In a time of general restlessness and discontent, when external authorities have ceased to command confidence, when so many feel the old foundations to be insufficient, and existing religious institutions no longer furnish them a satisfactory home, there is yet, even in sceptical minds, a conviction that virtue and truth are attainable; and those that seek in the right spirit are at least more likely to find, than those who slink into indifference and sloth. The stimulus of other minds operates on us as a motive and help to enquiry; and in the exchange of our best thoughts and feelings we are all enriched. Even the expression of our errors gives opportunity for their correction. We are, therefore, drawn together for a purpose which all mankind have ever approved; and we employ for mutual benefit the only faculties by which mankind has ever advanced a single step. We aspire — we reason — we welcome instruction. We extend a cordial welcome to all, and invite every seeker for truth to aid by presence and cooperation, the accomplishment of our common desire. We have no ISM to establish, no system of proselytism, nor any pre-established mode of warfare on existing systems. Our purpose is to arrive at truth, though systems grown reverent and hoary with age should fall, and our most cherished theories and dearest philosophies be exploded.
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The Lyceum met at Dashaway Hall — 139 Post Street between Kearny and Dupont. This was only about about a block to the west of the Mechanics' Institute, at 31 Post, which was one of Emperor's regular afternoon haunts.
The Hall was built by the Dashaway Society, a temperance organization established on 1 January 1859. In his History of California (1866), Franklin Tuthill explained how the Dashaways adopted their name:
A company of firemen ("Howard, No. 3"), sitting in their engine-house late at night, celebrating New Year after the custom of the country, fell to musing over their prospects, and were vouchsafed a vision of their probable fate. At last they agreed solemnly to discontinue the use of intoxicating liquor — "to dash away the cup."
The proceedings of the weekly Lyceum meetings at Dashaway Hall — including occasional comments at these meetings by Emperor Norton — were reported in the short-lived Common Sense: A Journal of Live Ideas, published from May 1874 to May 1875. Common Sense was the flagship publication of the Common Sense Publishing Company. The journal's editor was William N. Slocum. His wife, Amanda M. Slocum, was listed (on the same line) as "Assistant" — but, it seems clear from a scan of the journal's pages that she probably was functioning as co-editor.
Common Sense was a clearinghouse of information — reportage, commentary, lecture texts and letters — on "liberal" and "radical" writers, practitioners and societies of free thought and spiritualism, with a focus on the Pacific Coast. An ad for the journal published in its sixth issue described Common Sense as "an advocate of human rights" that was "devoted to literature, art, science, to the educational and industrial interests of the day, and to social civil & religious progress."
With its twenty-ninth issue, published on 28 November 1874, the journal added, just below the title on the first page, a line that read: "SPIRITUALISM, ITS PHENOMENA AND PHILOSOPHY, SOCIAL REFORM, WOMAN SUFFRAGE, ETC."
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When Common Sense published its 1 August 1874 number, a few months earlier, the country was nearly two years deep into its national obsession with "the Beecher-Tilton affair." This was the "scandal" in which Henry Ward Beecher, the prominent and popular minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Elizabeth Tilton, whose husband, Theodore, was Beecher's best friend and business partner, stood accused of conducting an illicit affair.
Multiple church and civil trials and hearings either exonerated Beecher or were inconclusive. Indeed, with confessions, retractions and obfuscations on both sides, and with no eyewitnesses, it remains unclear to this day whether the affair in question was one of hearts alone — or of bodies as well.
In a Proclamation dated 30 July 1874 and published in the August 1st issue of Common Sense, Emperor Norton offered a verdict of his own. The Proclamation is remarkable both because it was published in a journal rather than in a newspaper — the Emperor's preferred medium — and because of its sheer length.
Fourteen years earlier, Emperor Norton provided the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin with an advance copy of his prepared remarks for the national convention, to be held on 8 February 1860, that he had summoned with his original Proclamation of 17 September 1859. Correctly surmising that no one would show for the gathering — indeed, helping to ensure this would be the case — the Bulletin published the Emperor's remarks four days early, on February 4th.
The published text of Emperor Norton's planned public address was a little longer, at 461 words, than the 430-word Proclamation published in Common Sense on 1 August 1874. But, the earlier text was not a Proclamation. The item in Common Sense appears to be the longest piece of writing by the Emperor that was published under the general headline, "Proclamation."
The truth is, it's hard to imagine that any newspaper in 1874 — including the Pacific Appeal, the African-American-owned and -operated abolitionist weekly that was publishing most of Emperor Norton's decrees during this period — would have given Emperor Norton the "column real estate" necessary for a Proclamation of this length. Most of the Emperor's newspaper Proclamations were a couple of sentences long — two or three very brief paragraphs, tops.
Even allowing for the fact that longer-form commentary was Common Sense's stock-in-trade, the fact that the journal published Emperor Norton's long Proclamation was a tribute to the Emperor. Common Sense maintained a high literary standard and was not going to publish anything that didn't rise to the level.
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So, what did Emperor Norton have to say about Beecher-Tilton?
His general target was a spirit of self-righteousness and pride. Less obvious is whether the Emperor's specific target was Beecher for pretending to be something that he wasn't — preaching against free love but taking it on the side — or Beecher's sanctimonious accusers for being so eager to take him down.
Either way, the message was the same: With goodness and peace as the end and religious liberty as the means, we all would do better to get out of the judging business and tend our own gardens.
It's a beautiful Proclamation.
Know all men by these presents, that we, Norton I, by the Grace of God, Emperor have read the records of the Beecher Tilton scandal, and are led to regard the same as one of those Providences of God that are so frequently found to pave the way to larger views, and more brotherly feeling among mankind, and to that unity of sentiment on the great subject of religious liberty that is so essential to our peace and safety as a nation. If we cannot all be of one mind, we must all remember that our neighbors have the same right to differ from us that we have to differ from them.
We have observed of late that some of our people were altogether too good to be happy themselves, or to permit others to be so. Among these may be counted the members of Plymouth Church, whose purity was altogether too sweet to be wholesome. An All-wise Providence has seen proper to humble their pride and scatter their councils, till no such babbling has been heard in the land since the confusion of tongues.
Now, therefore, we, as aforesaid, Norton I, Emperor, by the Grace of God, do proclaim and ordain, that all our good and loyal subjects, each one seeking for himself the kingdom of heaven in humility and simplicity of heart, do leave all others to do the same for themselves also; and that they do forever eschew and throw off all that pharisaical puritanism that is so irksome to themselves and so disagreeable to their neighbors, and become simply good men and women, judging not others, lest they be judged themselves.
It is the first desire of our heart to see our subjects thoroughly united in our church, and this can only be done one the broad basis of leaving every man free to think for himself, and letting his life adorn his principles. God cannot be deceived. He will know His own, in whatever disguise they may be found. No subterfuge, no pretense, no outward forms, no certificate can seal His eyes. Many will say Lord! Lord! But to those only who have done right and showed mercy, and in His name fed the hungry and clothed the naked, and been especially mindful of the little children, will he answer, "here am I!"
God willeth not the death of a sinner, and the Emperor willeth not that any of his people should live except to repent of any evil they have done in the past, and to walk in the paths of righteousness and peace.
Give under our hand, this 30th day of July, A.D., 1874.
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