These days, when aspiring politicians want to become the chief executive of the United States, they take up the arduous task of running for president. Joshua Abraham Norton had a better idea. He cut through all of the primaries, caucuses, conventions, and even elections to become America’s one and only emperor.
No, I am not making this up.
A native Londoner, Norton spent much of his youth in South Africa. In 1849, after inheriting a tidy sum from his father, he became entranced by the allure of California’s Gold Rush and made his way to San Francisco. At first, he was a profitable businessman, but eventually lost his savings due to bad investments and an even worse lawsuit. By 1859 he was bankrupt and searching for a new venture.
Norton found it, sure enough, though what he managed to pull off might be better described as an adventure. Declaring himself not only emperor of the United States but protector of Mexico, he dressed as a nobleman of the highest order, creating an air of royalty which immediately caught on with San Franciscans. He printed his own currency, and routinely issued proclamations about hot button political topics of the day. Though he never held any real governmental power, his views were greatly valued by not only commoners, but recognized heads of state as well.
After ordering that the United States become an absolute monarchy, both the Democratic and Republican parties dissolve and Congress be abolished, Norton settled down to the life of a cultured aristocrat. Treated without question as an imperial figure, he participated in intellectual forums, chess matches, and the theatre. He turned a tidy sum selling souvenirs and other trappings of regality, all of which featured his image.
Upon his death in early 1880, Norton’s funeral received full court press. As many as 30,000 mourners lined the streets to pay their respects. Writers, including Mark Twain, went on to include variations of him in their stories. More than fifty years after Norton’s demise, his legacy was immortalized in the construction of the San Francisco Bay bridge, the building of which he had originally ordered in a decree. For this, a plaque was dedicated in his honor.
Norton was a quirky fellow, no doubt. Nonetheless, he lived his life the way he saw fit and brought immense pride and happiness not only to himself but to those around him. Described as an eminently kind and affable person, he exemplified the best qualities that could be expected of a truly proper royal. In addition, he secured a laudable place in Jewish American history, as he has been the only Jewish head of state known to these United States. One can argue the legalities of his reign, and most definitely win, but really now, why spoil the fun?
As far as I can tell, Emperor Norton I, as his full title goes, would not have wanted it any other way.