Joshua A Norton, by the grace of God Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, began his life in London, England in 1819. His family made their fortune after moving to the Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and in around 1849 he emigrated to the United States and became a wealthy San Francisco businessman who worked from his headquarters in a beached ship called the Genesse. He made a lot of money selling rice to Chinese immigrants in San Francisco.
At the peak of his business career Norton was worth a quarter of a million dollars and in 1854 he had a monopoly on the San Francisco rice market. However, the Japanese started sending rice in bulk to the city and Norton went out of business.
No more was heard from Joshua Norton until September 1859, when he walked into the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin and handed the first of his declarations in to the paper, officially declaring himself the Emperor of the United States of America. Although his command was never recognised by the American people, the inhabitants of San Francisco began to treat him in many ways like a real-life emperor although they never took him seriously as the head of state.
Norton's reign was marked by the American Civil War (1861 - 1865) during which he alternated between wearing a blue US uniform and a butternut grey CS uniform. He did this to show that he supported both the United States of America and the Confederacy of States.
During his reign, Emperor Norton became a very influential person in his capital of San Francisco. He was given a seat of honour in every theatre and ate at the finest restaurants in the city in exchange for allowing them to put up signs saying that they were by royal appointment. He also sent a marriage proposal to Queen Victoria.
Emperor Norton had a great effect on the culture of San Francisco, and two plays were made about him. The first was made in September 1861 and was called An Emperor for a Day. The second one was made in 1873 and was called The Golden Demon. The poet Mark Twain wrote the epitaph for Emperor Norton's dog, Lazarus, in October 1863.
Emperor Norton became so powerful within his capital that on 21 January, 1867, when he was arrested by policeman Armand Barbier on the grounds of insanity, the public were shocked. The chief of police apologised and members of the police began to salute Norton when they saw him.
He influenced the people of San Francisco in very real ways. He printed his own bills that most shops accepted from him. These can now be worth a lot more than their face value in auctions. One story about him tells us that during a pogrom against the Chinese, he went into the middle of the street and prayed, and the crowd dispersed.
Joshua A Norton died on 8 January, 1880, and was buried two days later in the Masonic cemetery. His funeral cortege was two miles long; 10,000 - 30,000 people attended his funeral, and the day was marked by a total eclipse of the Sun, viewable from San Francisco at just after 4pm. He left nothing of value behind but has never been forgotten. In 1934, he was reburied in the Woodlawn cemetery and a century after his death ceremonies of remembrance were held in his honour by the people of San Francisco.
He owned next to nothing, and yet his life can never be forgotten. He has been described as a symbol of democratic freedom because in any other system he would have been killed as a threat to the leaders' authority or as an insult to monarchy. From Norton we can learn that you don't need money, influence or sanity to become a valuable member of society. We also learn that the public will respect those who make them laugh.
One of the best resources for information on Emperor Norton's opinions on different issues is his declarations. He created these throughout his life to tell the people his new laws. His first was published in September 1859 and through it he gained power in the US. It reads:
At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these US, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in the Musical Hall of this city on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.
By 1860 he had gone one step further and set up an absolute monarchy:
WHEREAS, it is necessary for our Peace, Prosperity and Happiness, as also to the National Advancement of the people of the United States, that they should dissolve the Republican form of government and establish in its stead an Absolute Monarchy;
NOW, THEREFORE, WE, Norton I, by the Grace of God Emperor of the Thirty-three states and the multitude of Territories of the United States of America, do hereby dissolve the Republic of the United States, and it is hereby dissolved;
And all laws made from and after this date, either by the National Congress or any State Legislature, shall be null and of no effect. All Governors, and all other persons in authority, shall maintain order by enforcing the heretofore existing laws and regulations until the necessary alterations can be effected.
Given under our hand and seal, at Headquarters, San Francisco, this 26th day of July, 1860.
Although Emperor Norton was happy to correspond with Abraham Lincoln during the civil war (he even offered to negotiate a cease fire), when Lincoln got into power Emperor Norton is thought to have written this declaration to get rid of him:
We, Norton I, do hereby decree that the offices of President, Vice President, and Speaker of the House of Representatives are, from and after this date, abolished.
We further decree that the Senate of the United States elect a prominent Democrat as their presiding officer, to act as President until the next election, and to reconstruct the Cabinet according to our wishes hereafter to be declared.
Emperor Norton had an interest in technology as a way of making his country famous and he ordered San Francisco to support an airship designer in 1869:
Whereas, we, Norton I, 'Dei Gratia' Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, being anxious for the future fame and honour of the residents of San Francisco, do hereby command all our good and loyal subjects to furnish the means and exert their best skill and advance money to make Mr Marriot's aerial machine a success.
Probably Norton's wisest proposal was his order to build a suspension bridge in San Francisco at the place where the Golden Gate Bridge was built in 1937. However, this decree is thought to be a forgery by some people:
WHEREAS, it is our pleasure to acquiesce in all means of civilization and population:
NOW, THEREFORE, we, Norton I, Dei Gratia Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, do order and direct first, that Oakland shall be the coast termination of the Central Pacific Railroad; secondly, that a suspension bridge be constructed from the improvements lately ordered by our royal decree at Oakland Point to Yerba Buena, from thence to the mountain range of Sacilleto, and from thence to the Farallones, to be of sufficient strength and size for a railroad; and thirdly, the Central Pacific Railroad Company are charged with the carrying out of this work, for purposes that will hereafter appear. Whereof fail not under pain of death.
Given under our hand this 18th day of August, AD 1869.