Brow Beat

America Has Been an Empire for 157 Years. Just Ask the Emperor.

Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Bradley & Rulofson/Wikimedia Commons

For years, the extent (and even the existence) of American imperialism has been the subject of vigorous national debate—a debate that so far, has ignored the most salient evidence: the Emperor of the United States, Joshua Abraham Norton of San Francisco. It’s hard to deny a nation-state is an empire when it has an honest-to-god emperor, even if his reign was somewhat disputed. Norton, born in England, came to the country he would ultimately rule in 1849 with a small fortune, which he quickly lost in a foolhardy investment in Peruvian rice. Unable to succeed as a merchant, Norton decided he was destined for greater things, and on Sept. 17, 1859—157 years ago Saturday—he took up the nation’s heavy, albeit nonexistent, imperial crown.

Norton ascended to the emperorship via a proclamation printed by the San Francisco Bulletin under the headline “Have We an Emperor Among Us?” According to the Bulletin, Norton, a “well-dressed and serious man,” appeared in their offices the afternoon prior, offering no further explanation beyond a statement he requested they print:

At the peremptory request and desire 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 last 9 years and 10 months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; 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 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.

Norton I.,
Emperor of the United States
17th September, 1859.

Regardless of Norton’s legitimacy as a ruler, his proclamation sold a lot of newspapers, and so the Bulletin and other San Francisco papers covered the emperor’s attempts to unify his fractious nation as the Civil War approached. On October 12, Norton issued another proclamation abolishing Congress because of “fraud and corruption,” and reiterated his plans for a national convention in February. On learning that Congress had ignored his imperial edict and was still meeting in Washington, Norton ordered Winfield Scott to lead a military expedition to “clear the halls of Congress.” (Scott failed to undertake this mission.) Emperor Norton dabbled in state politics as well: When Virginia governor Henry A. Wise had John Brown executed after Harpers Ferry, Emperor Norton decreed that Wise was to be immediately removed from office and replaced by John C. Breckenridge. As it happened, Wise stepped down a month later, but this likely had more to do with the fact that Virginia had elected a new governor shortly before Norton’s proclamation.

Despite gleeful (if not entirely sincere) press coverage, Norton’s national convention was a bust: First the music hall burned down, then no one showed up at the replacement venue, even after the papers ran the emperor’s barnburner proclamation announcing the futility of trying to preserve the Union under a republican system of government. Norton boldly declared:

…nothing will save the nation from utter ruin and falling to pieces, except an absolute Monarchy, under the supervision and authority of an Independent Emperor and Supreme Council, assimilating to the Russian form of Government, with such alteration as may be adapted to the American Nation.

He may have been right. In the summer of 1860, no doubt alarmed by the so-called “presidential” nominations, Norton took the dramatic step of dissolving the Republic entirely, a move he proclaimed “necessary for our Peace, Prosperity, and Happiness.” To stabilize the situation, Norton ordered state governors to enforce the existing laws until he could make “the necessary alterations” to the government. Once more, the emperor’s command was ignored, and the dominoes began tumbling. Before a year had passed, shells were streaming through the air at Fort Sumter: Emperor Norton’s desperate gambit had failed.

In the ensuing years, the emperor became a beloved public figure in San Francisco, spending a great deal of time on inspection tours of the city, dressed in ragged military regalia, as he believed his office demanded. Sensing a promotional opportunity, local restaurants would occasionally let him eat for free, then advertised his patronage with plaques reading “By Appointment to his Majesty, Norton I.” Although later legends would claim he was accompanied by Bummer and Lazarus, two legendary stray dogs of the period—Mark Twain eulogized Bummer upon his death—he reportedly smashed the window of a shop displaying a cartoon depicting him with the dogs. (Granted, the cartoon was captioned “The Three Bummers” and showed the emperor scrounging for food, so his feelings about the dogs may not have entered into the matter.)

The Three Bummers.

Edward Jump/Wikimedia Commons

The Imperial Residence was a 6 foot by 9 foot, fifty-cents-a-night room at the Eureka Lodging House on Commercial Street. Even at 50 cents a night, the American Empire needed funds, which Norton obtained, in the tradition of all sovereign nations, by issuing government bonds. Promising between five and seven percent interest upon maturity in 1880, Norton’s bonds were snapped up by tourists and natives alike.

An Imperial Bond.

Wikimedia Commons

Arrested and charged with lunacy by the police, the emperor was released after a public outcry and received the personal apology of the Chief of Police. He never ceased in his efforts to heal the wounded nation: in 1869 he abolished, by Imperial Decree, both the Republican and Democratic parties. In 1870, he was finally recognized by the Federal Government; the census lists his occupation as “Emperor.” It also noted he was insane, so it was kind of a mixed blessing.

Norton’s entry and column headings in the 1870 Census.

National Archives and Records Administration

In his last decade, Emperor Norton became convinced that his city’s future depended upon the construction of a suspension bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco by way of Yerba Buena Island, issuing three proclamations demanding the city build it (the last of these ordered them to investigate whether a tunnel might be more efficient). When the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was finally opened in 1936, more or less along the route Norton had outlined, the Washington Post noted the emperor’s foresight in an article headlined “Pseudo Ruler’s ‘Dream Bridge’ To Be Opened.”

Emperor Norton’s reign ended on Jan. 8, 1880, when he collapsed at a street corner and died. The Chronicle reported his death on the paper’s back page—the first column of A1 went to a story calling the architect for the new City Hall “insane”—but they were kind enough to recognize Norton’s full title, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. The Bulletin, which had been the first paper to recognize his rule, gave him a slightly-less-embarrasing slot on page 2, but reserved the front page for a oleomargarine vs. butter fracas at the New York Dairy Fair, which kind of undercut the obituary’s placement. Joseph G. Eastland, a prominent citizen who’d known Norton before his business reversals made him seek the emperorship, collected money for his funeral from members of the Pacific Club, as he died nearly penniless. He left no plans for succession. We hope this resolves any lingering questions Slate readers may have about American imperialism, 157 years old Saturday and still going strong.