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Who was the emperor of the United States?

Few realize that the US was once "ruled" by a beloved monarch from San Francisco.

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Key Takeaways
  • Joshua Norton was once a successful businessman before he fell into ruin and what some contend to be madness.
  • Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico in 1859 "at the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States."
  • During his time as emperor, Norton abolished Congress and political parties, requested the formation of the League of Nations, issued currency, and was much-loved by the people of San Francisco.

Currency from the Imperial Government of Norton I.

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In the late 19th century, a lucky patron of one of San Francisco’s many restaurants might see a rare and auspicious sight: A man dressed in blue uniform with gold epaulettes, wearing a hat set off with a peacock feather and a decorative rose, and wielding a sabre. Looking closer, that lucky patron might notice that although the man’s uniform was distinct, it was maybe a bit shabby; looking even closer, they might catch him paying for his meal with a piece of currency from ‘The Imperial Government of Norton I’.

If that lucky patron was a stranger to San Francisco, there’s no doubt this would have been an entirely bewildering experience. But any native San Franciscan from this time would recognize one of the city’s most cherished citizens: Joshua Abraham Norton, whose (un)official title was Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Emperor Norton in his uniform.

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The rise and fall of Joshua Norton, businessman

Norton hadn’t always been the Emperor of the United States and the Protector of Mexico. First, he was a San Francisco businessman. Born in London but raised in South Africa, Norton came to San Francisco in 1849. The story goes that he arrived in San Francisco with an inheritance of $40,000 and, over the course of a few short years, grew that sum into $250,000 (roughly $8 million as of this writing) by buying and selling commodities and speculating in real estate. This is likely an exaggerated story, but it is true that Norton was a successful businessman. Until, that is, he made a disastrous gamble on rice.

China had just banned the export of rice so that their own starved citizens could eat, meaning the price of rice in San Francisco had grown to exorbitant levels. Norton bought an incoming ship’s worth of rice, trying to corner the market and capitalize on rice’s high prices. However, more ships carrying rice came causing the price to drop precipitously. Rather than take his losses and move on, Norton engaged in a years-long litigation with his rice dealer. Gradually, his fortune dwindled, he defaulted on his debts, and Norton’s fortune broke. With his fortune, it seems his mind broke as well.

The rise of Joshua Norton, emperor

By 1859, newspapers across the city began to print the following declaration:

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

Any city of sufficient size will produce or attract people who can at best be described as eccentric. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we ignore these people. But that was not the case for Emperor Norton.

Norton was beloved in San Francisco. He was bowed to and saluted on the street. Restaurants and theaters gave him free admission or accepted the fake currency notes he cobbled together. People on the street bought his Emperor Norton Bonds for a half-dollar, while others paid him “taxes.” In this way, the once-prosperous man continued to eke out a living.

But soliciting charity wasn’t the only activity Emperor Norton took part in. He also frequently issued decrees that provided guidance as to the governance of his imperial state, which the local newspapers were more than happy to publish. His first act as emperor, in fact, was to abolish Congress:

It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing through the Union, is abused; that 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 to by paying his pro rata of the expense of Government–in consequence of which, WE do hereby abolish Congress, and it is therefore abolished.

When Congress stubbornly refused to be abolished, Emperor Norton ordered the army to forcefully clear Congress from the capitol. The army didn’t appear to obey this particular royal edict.

While Emperor Norton’s decrees were not respected, his royal personage was absolutely sacrosanct in San Francisco. When a security guard arrested Emperor Norton for vagrancy, the public outcry was immense. According to one writer, “since he has worn the Imperial purple he has shed no blood, robbed nobody, and despoiled the country of no one, which is more than can be said for his fellows in that line.” Emperor Norton was quickly freed, and from then on, all police officers saluted him in the streets.

Despite being such an eccentric, many of Emperor Norton’s decrees were actually fairly reasonable. He abolished the Democratic and Republican parties (keep in mind that many of the framers of the Constitution never wanted political parties to begin with), he allegedly pitched the idea for a League of Nations many decades before the real one was established, and he proposed that a bridge and a tunnel be built between San Francisco and Oakland. Many years later, the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and Transbay Tube were constructed. Today, there is an ongoing effort to rename the Bay Bridge as the Emperor Norton Bridge.

The fall of Joshua Norton, emperor

Regrettably, even His Imperial Majesty proved to be mortal. In 1880, Emperor Norton collapsed in front of Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral. Although every effort was made to get Emperor Norton to the nearest hospital, he passed away before he could be transported.

Although there were rumors that Emperor Norton had retained much of his previous fortune and was merely pretending to be impoverished, this was quickly dismissed. The Emperor had died with only a few dollars to his name.

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In an article titled “Le Roi Est Mort” (“The King is Dead”), the San Francisco Chronicle described the ensuing details of his funeral. Though he was originally slated to be buried in a minimal coffin supplied by the state, a group of San Francisco businessmen arranged for Emperor Norton to be buried in a rosewood casket in a more respectful funeral. Ultimately, at least 10,000 people attended his funeral to pay their respects to an icon of San Francisco. Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, was laid to rest in the Masonic Cemetery of San Francisco, though his remains now lie in Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California.

Joshua Norton, the Only United States Emperor

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Joshua Norton, the Only United States Emperor

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