In a time marked by pandemic and international suffering, it’s important to know that our elected leaders are taking the measures necessary to ensure our much-needed safety and stability. Unfortunately, right now, that can’t be guaranteed, at least not in the United States. Because our government is illegitimate. Our current President wasn’t legally elected. Nor was the one before him. In fact, we haven’t had a legitimate governor-in-chief placed in office since 1859, when Joshua A. Norton righteously declared himself Emperor of the United States.
We had a good run at democracy. Fifteen Presidents over seventy years is a really impressive effort for the first of the modern democratic republics. But it was enough, wasn’t it? Let’s look at the United States in 1859: rampant partisanism, slavery being all… slavery, states rights are a problem all of a sudden. It’s over with. The country was going to hell, and democracy couldn’t elect a man strong enough to keep it together. We’d all be damned, if not for Emperor Norton of San Francisco.
Joshua Norton wasn’t born in San Francisco. In fact, he was born far away from it, on a feudal island off the coast of Europe called Great Britain. Like the patriotic colonists of the pre-United States United States, Norton wasn’t long for being British. Introduced to the isle in 1819, he and his family sailed away from it just one year later, to settle and grow in another far-off land, this one known as South Africa, located in South Africa.
Citizen Norton would grow from childhood to adulthood in South Africa, but after the death of his father left him with a sizeable inheritance of $40,000 (1.2 million today), he disembarked from this second continent and made his way to a third, settling in San Francisco in December 1849, at the beginning stages of the California Gold Rush. Unskilled in digging, the would-be Emperor built himself a stake in the local real estate market. By 1853, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Norton’s personal wealth had grown from that initial $40,000 to a quarter of a million dollars (1.2 million and 7.7 million).
At this point, the path to imperial grace should be a no-brainer; we all know rich white guys with real estate backgrounds make the best leaders. But Joshua Norton’s path took an unexpected turn. In 1852, China was experiencing a rice famine. Norton, now a multimillionaire by our standards but, critically, not by his, did what all of us would have done and bought a shipload of Peruvian rice in an attempt to corner the rice market and price gouge a starving nation.
The plan was foolproof until fresh rice shipments sailed into the San Francisco harbor from sources unknown (or unreported). The plan had been fooled. Norton’s stake in the great rice caper was only worth $25,000, but his subsequent lawsuits against co-investors and a series of financial mishaps to come would leave him without his real estate empire and accumulated fortune. The wake of these mishaps of goodhearted investing tore away at Norton, and, according to writer Robert Ernest Cowan (in The Forgotten Characters of Old San Francisco), “constituted a severe blow to [his] sanity”. Retiring early, Cowan added that “when he emerged in 1857, he gave palpable and distinct evidence of an overthrown mind”.
There’s no clear record of Joshua Norton’s activities between the downfall of his real estate empire and September of 1859. His eventual return to the public eye, however, came with no pretense of shame for the earlier collapse of his life. There was no time for it. The nation was in need (remember — slavery, etc.) and Joshua Norton was the man it needed. So, on September 17, 1859, Joshua A. Norton of Great Britain by way of South Africa, became Norton I, Emperor of the United States.
“At the preremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens” wrote Norton, “I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” A large majority. There you have it.
The decree naming Norton emperor was his first, but by no means the last he would issue from office. The historical record of these decrees is tough to track. In 1995, Gladys Hansen’s San Francisco Almanac came up with a list of verifiable Norton decrees. Today, that list is available on the website of the San Francisco museum.
Among the earliest of Norton’s regal decrees was the dismissal of Virginia Governor Henry Wise for his hanging of abolitionist John Brown in December of 1859. In February of 1860, Norton demanded that representatives from all states meet at Platt’s Music Hall in San Francisco to rewrite and establish new laws. On July 16 of that same year, Norton dissolved the United States. Frustrated by the continuing action of an illegitimate government, his next decree, published in October, barred congress from meeting in Washington.
Two years later, in October of 1863, Norton’s well-known dog, Lazarus, died, leading the Emperor to throw a large funeral. Elsewhere in the Empire: Civil War. Norton’s later wartime actions were limited, and only the celebration of a railroad is listed among Hansen’s recount of his life during that period. Seven months after the war’s end, though, the Emperor’s second dog, Bummer, life-long friend to Lazarus, would also die. Bummer’s epitaph was written by Mark Twain. (Mark fucking Twain??)
In the middle years of his reign, Norton “dissolved and abolished” the Democratic and Republican parties, citing “party strife”. Good thing we didn’t actually do that, yeah? Additional decrees asked for money to be spent on airships and the cleaning of streets in Sacramento. In 1870, he ordered that the Grand Hotel give him a place to live or be banished from his realm.
In 1872, a new imperial decree imposed a $25 fine on anyone who dared refer to the Emperor’s adoptive San Francisco as “Frisco”. It’s by the grace of some god that he didn’t live to hear “Minny” or “SuFu”. Later that year, he ordered that a suspension bridge be built between Oakland and San Francisco. Even later, he sensibly amended this decree to allow a survey to determine whether a bridge or tunnel would be best to connect the two cities. These actions clearly demonstrated the Emperor’s good sense, as a bridge along his preferred path would be built between 1933 and 1936. Then he ordered the San Francisco Board of Supervisors arrested for ignoring his decrees.
During his reign, Emperor Norton I was respected and revered by the citizenry of San Francisco. He was met with bows and waves on the street, and his occupation in the city directory was listed as “Emperor”. Local newspapers eagerly digested and printed imperial decrees, Theater owners saved seats for him and his dogs, and restaurants around the city offered free lunches in exchange for imperial favor. When the Emperor’s uniform started to show signs of wear, local lawmakers and army officers paid for a new wardrobe. His home, a rented room at a San Francisco lodging house, was paid for via a stipend entrusted by the local Masonic lodge.
Over the course of his twenty-year reign, Norton only rarely departed from the dignified character imposed by his position. Once, he was reported to have smashed the window of a shop that posted his caricature, announcing that it was “an insult to the dignity of an Emperor”. A separate incident saw the Emperor arrested by a rogue San Francisco policeman who sought to have him committed. Immediate public and media outcry saw the arrest swiftly reversed and earned an apology from the Police Chief. From then on, police officers would salute Emperor Norton when he passed them on the street.
An 1873 order calling for a worldwide Bible Convention to be held in San Francisco would be the last of Norton’s recorded decrees before his death from a stroke in 1880. Buried on January 10th at the Masonic Cemetery, Hansen writes that his funeral procession was two miles long, and that 10,000 people turned out for the service.
Despicably unknown as the last true ruler of the United States throughout the modern union, Emperor Norton’s legacy is well-kept in San Francisco proper. A series of plays written during and after his lifetime tell the story of his imperial majesty. In January 1980, the city marked the 100th anniversary of his death in the form of a lunchtime ceremony. Today, there’s a bar, Emperor Norton’s Boozeland, operating out of the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood. There’s also an organization that seeks to rename the Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco and Oakland, after the Emperor who conceived and ordered its construction. Perhaps most notably, the character of the King in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is said to have been inspired by Emperor Norton himself.
The world can be scary, and this is a chaotic time. I find, though, that it helps to remember that all of this is just the natural downfall of a nation without its true leader, slowed only by the grace of his reign. In 1859, Emperor Joshua Norton I took control of a nation coming apart at its seams, where issues of slavery and political division threatened its collapse. Twenty years later, Norton left a united country, with the evils of yesterday put to rest, never to rise again. So take my wise and earnest lesson well: the next time you feel the United States is improperly-built or broken, don’t fall into the follies of voting or seeking legislative response. Search, instead, for the most righteous and gracious Norton II.
- America’s Emperor, San Francisco’s Treasure: Who Was Emperor Norton? by Ryan Levi for KQED
- Emperor Norton Plaque at the Salesforce Transit Center, from Atlas Obscura
- How Emperor Norton rose to power by Gary Kamiya for the San Francisco Chronicle
- Joshua A. Norton from the San Francisco Museum
- San Francisco Almanac by Gladys Hansen, 1995
- The Strange Case of Emperor Norton I of the United States by Evan Andrews for History.com