Today in 1859, the United States earned its first monarch when Joshua A. Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States. This unprecedented proclamation did little to change the political landscape of 19th century America, but it did ensure that the man behind the crown would be remembered as one of the most eccentric characters in the history of the nation.
Joshua Abraham Norton was born in London, England, sometime during the second decade of the 19th century. He came of age in South Africa and did not move to the United States until 1849. He settled in San Francisco, the city that would be his home for most of the rest of his life. He had $40,000 to his name when he arrived, a tidy fortune in the mid-1800s. He started dabbling in the booming California real estate market and in four years was worth a quarter-million dollars. A Chinese famine in 1852 and the associated fallout convinced Norton to invest heavily in rice, a move that cost him dearly when a glut of rice appeared on the San Francisco market. With his debts running out of control, Norton’s real estate was foreclosed on and he declared bankruptcy in 1858. Like so many others who had come to California to seek fortune and had lost, Norton left town.
When he reappeared in San Francisco again, Joshua Norton was a changed man. Those who knew him before his self-imposed exile described him now as odd and eccentric. Whether this was due to his financial failure or some other cause is unknown. All that is certain is that Norton began espousing his views on the inadequacies of the US federal government. Somewhere in his mind, Norton arrived at the conclusion that he was the answer to the nation’s problems. On September 17th, 1859, Norton sent letters to all the San Francisco newspapers proclaiming himself to be “Emperor of these United States.” He would later add the title “Protector of Mexico.”
Norton the First wasted no time in issuing decrees which addressed what he viewed as failures of the American system. Since his rule was absolute, at least in his head, he saw no need for a Senate or House of Representatives. On October 12th, 1859, he decreed that the two bodies were hereby dissolved. A month later, he decreed that the US Army should forcefully remove all elected federal officials in Washington because they were in violation of his earlier decree.
In 1862, with the Civil War raging, Emperor Norton tried to bring the two sides together by ordering all Christian churches in the United States to publicly ordain him as Emperor. Like his earlier decrees, this was completely ignored. While most of Norton’s orders were fanciful or incredibly impractical, a few of them seemed strangely prophetic. For example, he called for the formation of a League of Nations, a body that was actually created after the First World War. He also called for the construction of a bridge or tunnel between San Francisco and Oakland; although not carried out by his decree, the bridge was opened in 1936 and the Transbay Tube in 1972.
By the early 1860’s, Norton was a well-known local celebrity. He spent his days inspecting the streets of San Francisco, dressed in a quasi-military blue uniform complete with gold-plated epaulets and a beaver hat dressed with a peacock feather. He ate at the city’s finest restaurants despite the fact he was penniless; some owners even put up plaques marked with the Imperial “seal of approval”. Norton was also a fan of the arts; balcony seats were reserved for him in almost all the theaters in the city.
It was during this time that Norton is said to have performed one of his most famous acts of diplomacy. During the 1860s and 1870s, there were a number of anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco. Riots, some resulting in fatalities, broke out on several occasions. During one such incident, Norton allegedly positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets, and with a bowed head started reciting the Lord's Prayer, loudly and repeatedly, until the rioters dispersed without violence.
After sunset on January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton collapsed at a downtown intersection. A passing policeman ran for help, but Norton died before a carriage could arrive. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a respectful obituary the next morning, say that “Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”
Rumors had circulated claiming that Norton still possessed his fortune; in truth, he did not have enough money to pay for his own funeral. A local business association paid for his coffin and the city paid for his burial in the Masonic Cemetery. The funeral procession for the late Emperor was two miles long and contained more than 30,000 people.