Although few history books mention his name, in the mid-1800's Joshua Abraham Norton proclaimed himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. And for almost a quarter of a century he ruled his vast domain with exemplary benevolence and kindly common sense.
Unlike all of our Presidents, Joshua Norton was not a natural-born citizens of the United States. Born in England in 1819, he migrated with his parents to south Africa where he spent his youth. It was not until 1849, as a young man of 30, that he immigrated to his future capital-San Francisco.
Norton was different from the majority of forty-niners. He did not come with the typical empty pockets to mine California's newly discovered gold. Instead he is reported to have entered the port with $40,000.
With this working capital he set himself up in the real estate and import brokerage business and before long had parlayed this sizable amount into a respectable fortune. By apply shrewd business practices to a variety of ventures, Norton is said to have accumulated about a quarter of a million dollars by 1853.
Unfortunately, Joshua Norton's financial ruin came just as rapidly as his success. Foreseeing a large rice demand from the many Oriental workers in the city, he bought up as much rice as he could in an attempt to corner the local market. As he expected, the price of rice soared. But before he could take advantage of the inflated prices, two ships laden with more rice entered the port. His vast holdings became virtually worthless, and he went bankrupt. During the following litigation, Norton lost all he had. He disappeared for a time, leaving many to wonder about his fate. When he finally reappeared in 1857, it was apparent that in addition to losing his fortune, he had also lost his mental balance and his identity.
Joshua A. Norton returned to San Francisco not as a bankrupt merchant, but as none other than the emperor of the United States, and announced his rule by issuing an official proclamation. With the indulgence of the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, Norton's edict was made known to his subjects on September 17, 1859.
"At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States." "Representatives of the different states," Norton ordered, were to meet in San Francisco's Musical Hall the following February "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."
Apparently such a meeting never took place; nevertheless Norton assumed his exalted position. Dressed in baggy, faded blue, military-type uniform, complete with gilt epaulets and shiny brass buttons, Norton began to strut about the streets of San Francisco as if he did indeed rule the city. Although he wore other hats during his reign, it was a beaver hat that Norton seemed to prefer. Gaily colored feathers topping the already tall hat added inches for his somewhat stocky frame. But it was the emperor's regal bearing and attitude itself that made him the impressive figure hat he was. Norton looked and acted every inch a king, even if at times his royal outfit was ill fitting and a little worse for wear.
With a ceremonial sword at his side and an umbrella or walking stick as his scepter, the bearded monarch strolled about his domain. During his daily patrol of the streets of San Francisco Norton made certain that all sidewalks were unobstructed. He reviewed the police to see that they were on duty. He checked on the progress of needed street repairs, inspected buildings under construction, and in general saw to it that all office city's ordinances were enforced.
Norton was pestered at times with a few teasing hecklers, but on the whole the citizens of San Francisco adopted the eccentric ex-merchant and actually afforded him the royal treatment he commanded. He was allowed to eat in restaurants as the guest of the owners. As his fame spread, the restaurateurs actually vied for his royal patronage and approval. Transportation was provided free of charge. At one point the city provided an annual sum for the emperor's trappings. To take care of any other physical needs of his royal person, Norton was even allowed to issue bonds, collect taxes from his subjects, or cash his own scrip (payable "by the agents of our Private Estate, in case the Government of Norton the First does not hold firm"), printed free of charge by local printers. As a wise dictator Norton was careful not to impose undue burdens on his subjects. His needs were modest, so his periodic demands on his subjects for financial assistance were kept to a minimum.
Norton enjoyed the powers and privileges befitting an emperor, but he did more than simply accept the tribute of his subjects. Norton I was a working monarch. While much of his time was spent inspecting his domain, he never neglected his paperwork. During his reign Norton issued a wide variety of royal documents, and, as loyal subjects, newspaper editors followed his command and printed them.
On the local scene, Norton once issued a proclamation to ensure that proper respect was paid to his beloved capital city. "Whoever after due and proper warning," he proclaimed, "shall be heard to utter the abdominal word 'Frisco,' which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor." Penalty for noncompliance was $25. The proclamation obviously proved difficult to enforce, but many native San Franciscans to his day abide by it.
Outwardly, Norton I may have lost touch with reality, but his altruistic goals and aspirations for his adopted country - and his insight into what his country needed - were remarkable.
As early as July of 1860 Emperor Norton saw trouble brewing between the North and the South and declared that the Union be dissolved for the duration of the emergency. He wanted to artrate the Civil War, but no one seemed included to take him up on his generous offer. In 1869 he showed uncanny foresight when he ordered a bridge built across the San Francisco Bay. People laughed at his ridiculous proposal, but about sixty years later the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge became a reality. Today a plaque honors the emperor's wisdom: "Pause traveler, and be grateful to Norton I... whose prophetic wisdom conceived and decreed the bridging of San Francisco Bay..."
Emperor Norton's love and concern for San Francisco did not prevent him from directing his attention to the national scene. His Royal Majesty soon tired of all the political mudslinging going on in the country, and he decided to put an end to it by issuing another office famous proclamations in the San Francisco Herald on August 4, 1869:
Being desirous of allaying the dissension's of party strife now existing within our realm, [I] do hereby dissolve and abolish the Democratic and Republican parties, and also do hereby degree the disfranchisement and imprisonment, for not more than ten, nor less than five years, to all persons leading to any violation of this our imperial decree.
Norton ruled much of his kingdom by proclamations, but he was not above dealing directly with the problems and issues requiring his attention. During one of the typical anti-Chinese demonstrations so common at the time, the emperor gave the local populace a lesson in the practical application of civics - and prayer. Sensing the dangerously heated tone of one particular meeting, Norton is reported to have stood up before the group, bowed his head and begun reciting the Lord's Prayer. within a few minutes the agitators retreated in shame without putting any of their threats into cruel action.
The emperor's position on equal rights for women, however, seemed to fluctuate. An October 1878 petition to the California Constitutional Convention calling for an amendment "that no citizens of the State shall be disfranchised on account of sex" had among its signers "Norton I emperor." While not a typical 19th century male chauvinist, however, Norton drew a thin line around a woman's role. When the emperor came to hear a noted leader of the movement lecture on women's rights, for example, it seemed in order for the master of ceremonies to introduce Norton and suggest that he step up on the stage before the guest speaker and receive the greetings of his subjects. But bedlam must have broken out when he decided to lecture on the subject himself, telling those women present to "go home and mind their children."
Although Norton was obviously busy with his local and national duties, he also found time to dabble in foreign affairs. At one time he let it be known that Mexico had "beseeched him to rule over her." As a result, he added "Protector of Mexico" to his already ponderous title. But his protectorate did no last long' he shortly dropped his new title with the explanation that it was "impossible to protect such an unsettled nation."
Although Norton died suddenly of apoplexy in 1880 while making his daily rounds, he remained emperor. The San Franciscans who had honored him in life continued to be loyal subjects after his death. The whole city mourned their loss. "San Francisco without Emperor Norton," a newspaper announced, "will be like a throne without a king," and the city knew it. San Franciscans had grown to love Norton, eccentric or not, and they let it be known. Flags hung at half mast. Businesses closed out of respect. Funeral and burial arrangements for the emperor were the most elaborate the city had seen, with an impressive 20,000 people paying their last respects. With wealthier citizens bearing the expenses, Norton was laid to rest in the Masonic Cemetery with all the ceremony that a real emperor would have received.
Note: This article was retyped by the now defunct American History magazine. We appreciate the article.
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