Suppose fortune fails to smile upon you. Despite your best efforts at gaining wealth, you are bankrupt and have no professional skills to speak of. You could give up and embrace a life of destitution. You could try to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make a fresh start in life.
Or you might proclaim yourself emperor of the most powerful nation on the planet.
That is the option chosen by Joshua Norton, who was the first and last Emperor of the United States.
Joshua Norton was born in the United Kingdom in 1819. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to South Africa. There, the Norton family enjoyed a life of relative luxury, so when he was nearly 30, Joshua was able to relocate to the United States with a sizable amount of money at his disposal.
Joshua dabbled in real estate and commodity trading. Things went decidedly south for him when he sought to capitalize on a famine in China. He tried to corner the market on rice imports to China by sinking his savings into a shipload of Peruvian rice. He bought it at 12 cents per pound, confident he could easily multiply repay his costs and more once the rice reached its destination. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one with this idea. When his ship arrived at China, he found the ports filled with plenty of other ships of Peruvian rice. He was forced to sell his shipment at 4 cents per pound.
He tried to recoup or his losses by voiding his rice commodity contract. When that effort failed, Joshua found himself nearly penniless and without any real prospects for the future.
That’s when he decided to change careers. Why bother with scraping about, trying to make ends meet, when there is a job opening for a position for which he was well qualified? Politics has always been the haven for those who have been unable to find success in the business world, but why settle for something as trifling as elected office when there is something far grander to claim?
On September 17, 1859, Joshua made a startling announcement. From that point forward, he was to be known as Norton I, Emperor of the United States. He wrote up an official declaration and delivered it to George Fitch, editor of the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin. That evening, the readers of the Bulletin received the stunning news:
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 San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; 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 February 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.
Thus began the celebrated and glorious rule of America’s only emperor.
Some suggest the fellow’s mental state was a wee bit off. While there might be some truth to this, in all fairness, he doesn’t even make the Top Ten List of kooks, freaks, and whackadoos that have been elected from California, not to mention the rest of the United States. Admittedly, he was a bit odd, but what does that say about the people of San Francisco? They reacted to the news that they had an emperor as if he really was their monarch. They addressed him with his imperial title and accepted his privately-printed currency at local business establishments. The currency came in denominations between 50 cents and ten dollars. Today, surviving specimens fetch more than $10,000 in auctions.
Joshua — or Norton I, as we must now call him — dressed for the part. He acquired an old military uniform and immediately took on royal airs. He paraded through the streets of San Francisco as if he owned the place and issued official imperial proclamations.
His proclamations were about serious matters. During his reign, he fired a governor, prohibited Congress from meeting, convened a public meeting to address the societal problem of evil, and ordered the arrest of a politician who refused to pay him the proper respect.
Oh yes… He also dissolved the Congress of the United States. On October 12, 1859, with the stroke of a pen, Norton I did away with the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Say what you will about his authority to do such a thing, but it’s hard to poke holes in his rationale: “Fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled.” When Congress had the unmitigated gall to continue to meet despite the imperial edict, the emperor ordered General Winfield Scott to proceed immediately to the halls of Congress to arrest the whole sorry lot of them.
His decrees were sent to San Francisco newspapers, which willingly published them, only adding to Norton’s ego and celebrity status. In 1863, responding to Napoleon III’s invasion of Mexico, he also assumed the title “Protector of Mexico.” He later abdicated that title, claiming, “It is impossible to protect such an unsettled nation.”
While most of his decrees failed to be carried out to the level of his satisfaction, he continued in his role without missing a beat. And although most of his proclamations were rather silly, some of them were considerably foresighted (and certainly better thought through than most of the stupid laws that have been documented on this site).
The emperor commanded his subjects to clean the streets of San Francisco and to build a bridge from Oakland Point to Goat Island. In a bow toward constitutional monarchy, he also sought input from his subjects to see if they would prefer a tunnel, instead of a bridge. Sixty-four years later, his command was carried out when the Bay Bridge was opened for traffic.
He also pushed for building figurative bridges. He ordered all religions and sects to iron out their differences peaceably (as well as ordering the leadership of Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to publicly recognize him as emperor so he would have the spiritual authority to end the Civil War) and called for the creation of an international organization that was prescient in its resemblance to the United Nations.
Despite his outward disdain for political parties (he officially dissolved both the Republican and Democratic parties on August 12, 1869) and his attempts at political neutrality (during the Civil War, he alternated between gray and blue military jackets and fired both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis), he personally held to the tenets of Republican Party and the Union cause.
The federal government of the United States appears to have taken no official position concerning Emperor Norton I. Possibly the distractions of the Civil War and Reconstruction kept pushing his imperial decrees to the back burner.
That’s not to say that his claims to royalty were completely dismissed. The 1870 U.S. Census identifies a Joshua Norton, residing at 624 Commercial Street, San Francisco, California. It puts his age at 50 years and identifies his occupation as “Emperor.” It also says that he was insane, but that doesn’t necessarily negate his claim to imperial position.
His legitimacy of office was recognized by one foreign power. Norton sent many letters to Hawaii’s King Kamehameha V. Kamehameha grew so disillusioned with the government of the United States that he ultimately refused to recognize the official US government and its representatives, opting to recognize Emperor Norton I as the only U.S. governmental authority.
His attempts at foreign relations did not fare quite as well with the United Kingdom. Despite writing repeatedly to Queen Victoria, offering an alliance of marriage, she appears to have not been amused at the prospect. The queen never responded.
Norton was well-liked by the residents of San Francisco, and the affection was reciprocated. The emperor was a zealous defender of the honor of his capital city and declared it to be a “High Misdemeanor,” with a penalty of $25, for anyone to refer to the city by the diminutive “Frisco.” The San Francisco Board of Supervisors bought the emperor a new uniform to replace one that was becoming a bit threadbare. In gratitude, Norton issued a “patent of nobility in perpetuity” to each of the supervisors.
When, in 1867, Norton was arrested in an attempt to have him committed for psychiatric treatment, the citizens of San Francisco rose in defense of their emperor. The editor of the Daily Alta wrote: “that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.” Public outrage was so intense that Police Chief Patrick Crowley ordered the immediate release of the emperor and publicly apologized on behalf of the San Francisco Police Department. The emperor was quick to show he harbored no ill feelings and granted an Imperial Pardon to the man who arrested him. From then on, members of the SFPD saluted Norton on sight.
The great and glorious reign of the United States’ only emperor came to an abrupt end on January 8, 1880. Norton was walking to a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences when he suddenly collapsed. Despite receiving immediate medical care, he died en route to City Receiving Hospital. San Francisco newspaper The Call printed the sad news: “On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moonless night, under the dripping rain … Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”
An investigation into Norton’s financial affairs revealed that he not only left this world without naming an heir to his throne, he also departed with barely a penny to his name. He had about $6 in his pockets at the time of his death. An inventory of his worldly goods included a single gold sovereign, worth around $2.50; his collection of walking sticks; a saber; a variety of hats, including a stovepipe, a derby, a red-laced Army cap, and another cap suited to a martial band-master; an 1828 French franc; and a handful of the Imperial bonds that he sold to tourists at 7% interest; copies of his letters to Queen Victoria, and 98 shares of a defunct gold mine.
There were also fake telegrams purporting to be from Russia’s Alexander II, offering his congratulations over the upcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and from the President of France predicting that such a union would be disastrous to world peace.
With insufficient funds to pay for a proper funeral, an association of San Francisco businessmen created a funeral fund to purchase a rosewood casket and appropriate funeral. The solemn event took place on January 10, 1881, with as many as 10,000 mourners lining the streets. He was interred at the Masonic Cemetery, with the city of San Francisco paying the expenses. In 1934, his remains were transferred to Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Colma, California.
His celebrity status lives on through the literary characters he inspired. Authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Christopher Moore, Morris, and René Goscinny, Selma Lagerlöf, G.S Denning, and Neil Gaiman have created characters based on Norton I. Mark Twain, in particular, was fascinated by the emperor. His most popular book, Huckleberry Finn, features two characters directly inspired by Norton I: the Duke and the King.
For more information visit The Emperor Norton Trust, a website dedicated to honoring the life and legacy of the only Emperor of the United States.