The Unselfish Ruler
Norton I, Emperor of the United States
The story of the life of the first and only emperor of the United States, Joshua Abraham Norton, seems quintessentially American. Born to a middle-class Jewish family in England, Norton came to the United States around 1845 from South Africa and set up shop in San Francisco as a mercantile middleman. He met with an immigrant’s fairy tale, and within five years, he was both rich and well respected. But a poorly timed rice shipment ruined Norton, and by 1858, he was living in a working-class boardinghouse. There, he did what anyone would do in such circumstances: he launched an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. Then, on September 17, 1859, Norton hand-delivered a letter to the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin. It declared and proclaimed him to be “Emperor of these United States” and ordered the states to send delegates to him by February in order to “make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.” The paper printed it, of course.
Emperor Norton began his rule with a flurry of declarations. On October 12—in a move for which you might feel some sympathy—he abolished Congress because of the “undue influence of political sects.” When Congress failed to comply, he ordered Major General Winfield Scott to use the US Army to “clear the Halls of Congress.” That Scott also failed to comply did not stop Norton from issuing further decrees—he made over 500 in his lifetime, choosing to publish most of them in the Pacific Appeal, a local Black-owned newspaper. Some were strikingly prescient, such as his order to build a bridge and tunnel to Oakland—presaging the Bay Bridge and Transbay Tube. One 1872 decree deserves special attention from 2024 AHA annual meeting attendees: “Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word ‘Frisco,’ which has no linguistic or other warrant . . . shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.” That’s over $600 in today’s money. Consider this your due and proper warning!
But Norton was not just an eccentric issuing memoranda from a desk. He was a public figure and a familiar sight in San Francisco. Wearing an elaborate uniform, he made regular inspections of the city’s streetcars and other public works. Norton issued his own currency, which was accepted locally. He attended political gatherings and the theater. When a private police officer arrested him for “insanity,” the move prompted outrage from both the newspapers and the public, and Norton was quickly released with a heartfelt apology. King Kamehameha V of Hawaiʻi recognized him as the sole leader of the United States. Mark Twain, then a local resident, modeled the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on him. After his death on January 8, 1880, the San Francisco Chronicle ran the headline “Le Roi est Mort” and reported that over 10,000 people attended his funeral. Even the 1870 census listed his occupation as “Emperor.”
Perhaps it was Norton’s ability to will his imagined reality into existence that makes him so singular. Or maybe it’s how he went about his life, his attempt to use dictatorship for benevolence, whether by issuing proclamations or placing his imperial person bodily in the way of anti-Chinese rioters. As the Daily Alta wrote, Emperor Norton “had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.” To be an unselfish emperor is not an easy task.
I have noticed of late the growing appeal of the unselfish emperor, mostly as nostalgia. I made a joke of Norton’s desire to abolish Congress, but where now is the leader to cut through political gridlock? Surely, such a person could do immeasurable good. When faced with similar questions, the Roman Republic, the model for so much of our modern civic aspirations, found Sulla, a man who revived the office of dictator as a means to end civil strife. But, as the republic found out, dictatorship is a hard habit to break, and it’s hard to tell a Norton from an Augustus.
L. Renato Grigoli is the editor of Perspectives on History.
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