Who can put Norton in his proper place? He was a king only by the consent of a people who recognized in him no authority except the making of mirth. He was a royal figure who could only exist in a democracy. Were the country ruled by a genuine potentate, Norton would have been put down as either a rival to the throne or an affront to its dignity. He epitomized Monarchy as Beggary, as an institution which peculiarly demanded much of the people while giving little in return. He helped feed the tabloid writers and at less expense than certain other royals active in our world today. Kings and Emperors did not like this kind of truth revealed and would have eliminated the clowning menace to their power. Joshua Norton was no threat to the will of the people. He was one of them. He could not be otherwise in America. Here is his greatness. For in Norton, we find affirmation of every person's right to express her/himself and to be taken as an authority, to have her/himself heard in the great national debate. And when we laugh at him or one of his proclamations, he serves to remind us that freedom of speech includes the right of others to differ with or even ridicule what we have to say. Few of his solutions to the problems of his day and ours were workable, but how many of us know all the answers? History is filled with the examples of men and women who thought they did and then arrogated terrible power to themselves; who invented right to do so when there was none usually at the price of pain and suffering for the many. Norton reduced the memory of all these to the harmlessness they richly deserved. Norton gave us a chance to laugh at the institution of monarchy and point up our own foibles as a free people. (Ah, would there be a mad king in our times who would dare to proclaim against the whispers of sexual innuendo and moral absolutism which have crippled our government and our press?) Insanity of Joshua Norton's kind may be one of our best checks against absurd government. In diversity alone, in the allowance for the mad outburst as well as the starkly sane observation, can democracy be for all the people.
Copyright 1998 by Joel GAzis-SAx