The Story of Emperor Norton I

Aidan Herklotz

The United States of America has had 45 presidents (or 44 depending on who you ask), but only once has the U.S had an Emperor. This is the story of Joshua Abraham Norton, the first and only Emperor the United States of America.


     Part 1) Early Life and Immigration.

Norton was born in 1818 to a Jewish couple, John Norton and Sarah Norton. He originally lived in London, England, but about two years after he was born, his parents moved to South Africa as part of a British colonization scheme. During their time in South Africa, Norton’s parents eventually amassed a large amount of wealth, which Norton inherited after they died in 1848. After his parents died, Norton decided to leave South Africa and emigrate to the States. He arrived in San Francisco, California in 1849.

     Part 2) Success in San Francisco.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, Norton discovered a business opportunity to spend his newfound wealth on. Here’s some context: during the 1850’s, a massive rice famine was occurring in China, so they cancelled all rice-shipping to the U.S. as an attempt to solve the problem. This caused the cost of rice to jump up severely, so California was in great need for some nice rice. Because of this, in 1852 when Norton heard that the last Peruvian rice shipment was coming into San Francisco, he jumped on the opportunity to corner the market immediately. He bought the ship, but when it came he heard word of multiple other rice shipments arriving from Peru. Norton had been scammed. Afterwards, he lost basically all of his money in a matter of weeks. Norton declared bankruptcy in 1858.


     Part 3) Emperor.

By around 1859, Norton had lost everything. His wealth, his property, and eventually, his sanity. Norton had become completely discontented with the American system of government, he decided that the Republican system had failed, and only a monarchy could save the country. On September 17, 1859, Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States, and he was completely ignored by the government (but not by local papers). Nonetheless, Norton began his work immediately. He would frequently patrol the streets of San Francisco, making sure the people were safe and the streets were clean. And, basically, the people adored him. Often, he would gather people on various street corners and give long, philosophical speeches on many topics. One of Norton’s first imperial decrees was to formally abolish the US Congress. When this was ignored, he issued that the army march on DC to depose the congress, which was ignored as well. During the Civil War, Norton decreed that both Catholic and Protestant churches recognize his Imperial Authority. In 1869, distressed with political factions, he abolished the Republican and Democrat parties. The citizens of San Francisco adored Norton so much that they made Emperor Norton merchandise, and some shops even allowed the circulation of Norton-themed currency. In 1867, a rookie police officer actually arrested Norton one day whilst he was patrolling the streets on the charge of lunacy. The people were so outraged upon hearing this that they actually showed up at his court hearing and demanded he be released, which actually worked. Luckily for the officer that arrested him, Norton issued an imperial pardon for one “Officer Armand Barbier.” Another one of Norton’s more unusual imperial decrees was to make the using of the slang term “Frisco” a misdemeanor, which personally I am totally for. While the government for the US would never acknowledge him, Norton was recognized as Emperor by the Empire of Brazil, and he was the only American leader that king Kamehameha of Hawaii would do negotiations with.

     Part 4) Later Life and Death.

During these times, the people of California thoroughly hated the Chinese, mostly because of trade and famines (see the rice issue from before). This hatred caused many vigorous and violent anti-Chinese protests. Therefore, throughout his reign, Emperor Norton frequently brought an end to many of these protests, as he did on 1875, when he stopped one of the biggest anti-Chinese protests in San Francisco. He did this by going out in front of the protesters and reciting the Lord’s prayer. But, to the people of San Francisco’s dismay, Emperor Norton I unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack on California Street at Grant Avenue. He was on his way to a lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Norton’s funeral cortege was two miles long, with 10,000 Californians having attended the funeral.

     Emperor Norton may not have been the most influential of the world leaders at the time, but he was one of the most insightful. He had issued decrees that a “League of Nations” be formed, and that a “Suspension bridge” be built in San Francisco bay as soon as convenient. Both of these were eventually realized; the former in 1920, and the latter in 1933. He was loved and adored by the citizens of San Francisco. Joshua Abraham Norton I, Emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico, died on January 8, 1880.