A Pretty Good Citizen for an Emperor

Today marks the 161st anniversary of the ascension to power of the first and only emperor of the United States. On September 17, 1859, San Francisco newspapers carried the declaration of Joshua Abraham Norton that “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States,” he was officially declaring himself emperor.

Today it’s probably fairly obvious, as it was then, that this “Emperor Norton” was most likely dealing with a mental health crisis, but the declaration captured the attention of the boom-or-bust, gold-crazed city for a couple of reasons. First, prior to an investment three years earlier that hadn’t panned out, Norton had been a somebody of importance in San Francisco.

I mean, he kind of looks like someone with authority. Unknown author / Public domain

London-born, he’d spent most of his early life in South Africa where his father operated a highly successful shipping business. Joshua Norton made and lost a good deal of money himself in that part of the world before moving to San Francisco in 1849 after suffering the deaths of both parents and two siblings.

Despite these setbacks, Norton didn’t seem to have any trouble building up his fortune once he reached California where he became an influential presence among influential people. So, when he went bust, then quiet, then reemerged as the Emperor of the United States, people were interested in the story.

Newspapers certainly were. They continued to print Norton’s imperial proclamations including a series which abolished the Congress, by force of the Army, because in its actions he saw 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.”

This after Congress had failed to respond to his summons to convene in San Francisco 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 United States of Emperor Norton’s day was one of great political upheaval, with a rapidly expanding western frontier and a war between states that pitted cousin against cousin and brother against brother.

If Emperor Norton could have had a Facebook account, I’m betting this would have been his profile picture. Beinecke Library / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

And that brings me to the second reason I think the proclamations got play in the media. Because I think the reading public sort of got what he was saying.

If he’d had a Facebook feed, I have no doubt it would have been filled with people he loved and respected screaming at each other over their differing political ideologies. That’s enough to threaten the stability of anyone’s mental health. And I mean, really, who of us hasn’t, at one time or another, thought it might just be easier to declare ourselves emperor, abolish Congress, and start from scratch?

Not that I want the job. Just to be perfectly clear. But the sentiment? Well, there are days.

Emperor Norton’s reign extended beyond the immediate violence of the American Civil War and his proclamations, penned at the Mechanic’s Institute Library on Post Street in San Francisco, continued to find their way into print.

Oakland Bay Bridge. All thanks to Emperor Norton. Kind of.

Over the years he called for public school and public transportation access for African Americans, fair treatment of Chinese workers in American courts, and the extension of numerous rights to Native Americans. He even proclaimed the need for a bridge to be constructed between Oakland and San Francisco, of the variety that definitely exists today.

He regularly participated in political meetings, attended lectures, and spent time getting to know his community while attending the theater and frequenting local saloons. For an emperor, Joshua Norton was a pretty good citizen. When he died, penniless, in January of 1880, his funeral was allegedly attended by more than ten thousand people, and San Francisco’s business community made sure Norton was buried in style.

Because that’s what you do for an emperor.