There have been 45 Presidents of the United States (Joe Biden may be numbered 46 by the two non-consecutive terms by Grover Cleveland count as different presidencies). But, once upon a time, the country also had a president, the head of the state and an emperor at one time.
This extraordinary man went by the name of Joshua Norton, and in the mid-1800s he proclaimed himself as Norton I, protector of Mexico and Emperor of the United States.
It has been said that he ruled the country with kindly common sense and exemplary benevolence for almost a quarter of a century. Who was this man, to hold such an exalted title? And did he deserve it?
Who was Joshua Norton?
Joshua Norton was called Emperor Norton, but did not earn that title through birthright. He was not a United States natural-born citizen, and instead in 1819 he was born in England to Jewish parents Sarah and John Norton.
He migrated to South Africa with his parents in February 1820, where his father established a successful chandlery business. Here, he spent most of his youth.
In 1848, his father, John Norton, died. Joshua was the only surviving son, so he had to take responsibility for his father’s estate. It has been identified that Joshua and his father’s relationship was strained at the time, and Joshua had left Cape Town in 1845 before his father’s death. He landed in Boston in early February 1846, and by 1851, he was at the height of his influence and wealth.
When he turned 30-years-old in 1849, he had money in his pocket and a view to adventure. He set sail for San Francisco, arriving on November 23, 1849 with a fortune of $40,000. He was very different from forty-niners who came to California with nothing.
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Using this money, he set up the import brokerage business and real estate business in California. He generated a quarter of a million dollars for different ventures by applying shrewd business practices in 1853. The research is unclear about the 3½-plus years of Joshua between his arrival in Boston in 1846 and his arrival in San Francisco in 1849, but it seems the money came from his father: he saw his start as a successful entrepreneur in California.
Why did he proclaim himself Norton I?
In the 1850s, Joshua Norton was an important man in San Francisco, but had become entirely disillusioned by his adopted country. He felt that the legal and political structure of the United States had many failings and the system did not function correctly.
He thought of taking all the responsibilities into his own hands. Hence, Joshua Norton sent letters to various San Francisco newspapers On September 17, 1859, and proclaimed himself as the United States’ first Emperor: Norton I.
After this proclamation, Joshua Norton started roaming San Francisco’s streets wearing an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulettes. He also wore a hat on his head with a peacock feather and rosette, a suitable uniform for an emperor.
With this outfit, he would examine all public property, sidewalks, and cable cars to assess whether they required repair. At that time, he also provided a long philosophical lecture on various topics to those who showed interest in listening. He also added another title in his name, making himself the official protector of Mexico.
Obviously, the United States’s self-appointed emperor did not have any formal political power. Thus, the self-proclamation did not make any big difference to San Francisco’s people. He was humored however, and even honored with currency issued in his name and image at his frequented business place.
He enjoyed and celebrated his position wherever he went. History says that people would love to greet Joshua Norton with bows and smiles when he would wear his uniform and walk around San Francisco.
The occupation of Norton as Emperor was even officially listed by the San Francisco city directory. In fact, his behavior was encouraged by the local newspapers, and they eagerly printed all the imperial proclamations of Norton.
Joshua Norton’s Proclamations
These were no minor proclamations, either. Emperor Norton ordered the dissolution of the United States Congress by force. He also ordered that San Francisco and Oakland be connected through a bridge. After the completion of this, he had a plan to establish further connections beneath San Francisco Bay with a tunnel.
Joshua Norton gave an order to the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches to publicly ordain him as Emperor in 1862, insisting that they recognize him officially. He thought such kind of step could be helpful in resolving different disputes and potentially avoid a civil war. He also ordered the abolition of the Democrat and Republican parties On August 12, 1869.
Emperor Norton I had gained celebrity status over time in San Francisco. His picture wearing his uniform had become a valuable souvenir for tourists visiting the city. In fact, many stores across the city had started selling the dolls of Emperor Norton I.
Moreover, local theatres always saved a seat for Norton on the opening night play. He also was given free rides from the local train and ferry companies. Even he paid for his meals in some restaurants by giving his approval seal to the owner.
He did not have cash at the beginning, but later people started paying taxes for his royal treasury by admiring him. Later, a special currency with the image of Emperor Norton I and the imperial seal was printed by a San Francisco printing company in 1871.
The Death of Norton
On January 8, 1880, on his way to the California Academy of Sciences to give a lecture, Joshua Norton collapsed at the corner of Grant and California in San Francisco. Before any medical treatment could reached him, he passed away. Before his death, he started his journey .
After his death, it was found that Norton was living in poverty. In his room, a single gold sovereign was located, and a few dollars were found in his pocket. Later, a simple coffin was arranged for this initial funeral of Norton.
At that time, a funeral fund was established for Norton by San Francisco’s businesses and a more handsome redwood casket was purchased for the emperor. On January 10, 1880, Norton’s funeral was attended by an estimated more than 10,000 people.
Over two miles long, the funeral procession stretched across much of San Francisco. His burial at the Masonic Cemetery was paid for by the City of San Francisco. He may have died in poverty, his fortune squandered, but he died with the love of the people.
Top Image: Emperor Joshua Norton I in uniform. Source: Notwist / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri
Museum of the City of San Francisco, 2022. Joshua A. Norton. Available at: https://sfmuseum.org/hist1/norton.html
Carr, P, 2022. EMPEROR NORTON I. Available at: https://www.molossia.org/norton.html