Did you know that America once had an Emperor?

Joshua Abraham Norton was the self-proclaimed Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I of the United States of America. He was a heralded citizen of San Francisco, and in the year 1859 he proclaimed himself Emperor of these great United States. Norton was born in England, but there is still dispute on when the particular date was. In 1849, he emigrated here from South Africa, and he amassed great wealth in the real estate market. However, a few years later he faced severe financial difficulty due to a bad investment, which contributed to a decline in his mental state. He left San Francisco for brief period after this.

Upon returning to San Francisco, he became upset with the political and legal structure of the United States–He believed that the US was run on corruption, inefficiency, and self-interest. And because of this, on September 17, 1859, Norton decided to take the bold step of announcing himself emperor of the United States:

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 S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; 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 Feb. 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.
—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.
While most thought he was a joke, Norton took himself pretty seriously. He enacted many decrees, such as abolishing the Congress soon after becoming emperor. Later, he would issue a decree to have the military to depose of the officials in Congress:

WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;

NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress.

He would later order the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Churches to publicly proclaim him Emperor, and abolish both political parties–Democrats and Republicans–in 1872. As you already know none of these decrees and orders came into fruition. However, his order to have a bridge or tunnel built to connect Oakland and San Francisco did come into fruition in 1930s with the construction of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge.

Emperor Norton was quite the character. He donned old uniforms given to him by his loyal subjects and a shopkeeper who wanted to be known as the outiftter for his majesty. In fact, the city of San Francisco even provided him with uniforms when his would become too worn. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or umbrella. Police officers saluted him when he walked the street. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot. 

He also received perks for being a local celebrity.He received VIP treatment at local, upscale restaurants. When wanted to attend a play or opera, he had little trouble about getting a box seat for free, and he would, sometimes, be honored at these events. Emperor Norton achieved such great fame that characters in books were based off of him. Mark Twain, who resided in San Francisco during part of Emperor Norton’s “reign”, modeled the character of the King in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on  Norton. Robert Louis Stevenson made Norton a character in his 1892 novel, The Wrecker. This guy even printed his own money!

Emperor Norton died on January 8th, 1880. The San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on its front page under the headline “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is Dead”). In a tone tinged with sadness, the article respectfully reported that, “[o]n the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain…, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life”. The Morning Call, another San Francisco newspaper, published a front-page article using an almost identical sentence as a headline: “Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.” His funeral was held on Sunday, January 10th. It was estimated over 30,000 people attended this solemn event.

Here’s to you Emperor Norton. Your an inspiration to everyone who hates the government.


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