The First Emperor Of The United States

“Well, that’s what I’m a-saying; all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out.” —Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn

In A Nutshell

After losing his fortune, mentally unstable Englishman Joshua Norton declared himself emperor of the US on the streets of San Francisco. Seizing the opportunity to have some fun, residents played along until Norton’s death. His funeral was attended by 30,000.

The Whole Bushel

From 1859 to 1880, the United States of America had an emperor.

Joshua Norton and his family immigrated to South Africa shortly after his birth in 1819 in England. In 1849, with a sizable amount of money, Norton moved to San Francisco, California, where he dabbled in the real estate business.

He did fairly well for himself. He reportedly had a small fortune by 1853, but he made a costly mistake when he decided to invest in rice, hoping to monopolize immigrant demand for it in the city. He bought all he could, but two large shipments of foreign rice made his purchases essentially worthless, and he was financially ruined.

Likely mentally unstable, and certainly desperate, Norton declared himself “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico” in 1859. Dressing in an old military uniform, Norton I strolled the streets of San Fran like he owned the place.

And he didn’t just consider his role ceremonial—he issued political decrees. During his first few years as emperor, Norton dismissed a governor, demanded a meeting to address evil, barred Congress from meeting, and dissolved the United States. (All of his decrees were, of course, ignored.) In 1872, he even ordered the arrest of a politician for continuing to ignore him.

Other orders included a demand for San Franciscans to clean the streets, furnish his hotel room, and build a bridge from Oakland Point to Goat Island to San Fran (though after the lack of action, he later decided to order a survey seeing if citizens would prefer a tunnel).

Norton was well-liked by the residents of San Francisco, who enjoyed humoring him. They mailed Norton’s decrees to local newspapers for printing, addressed him as emperor, and honored his currency at local bars. Author Mark Twain was fascinated by the man, writing obituaries for Norton’s pets and even using him as inspiration for a character in Huckleberry Finn.

In 1880, on his way to attend a science lecture, Norton dropped dead in the street. He was 61. Norton is still remembered in San Francisco. In 1980, the city ceremoniously honored the 100-year anniversary of his death.

Show Me The Proof

PBS: The West — Joshua Abraham Norton
City of San Francisco Museum: Norton I, Emperor of the United States
Emperor Norton I

  • Ivan V.

    That must have been the first massive role-playing ever

  • Eoghan-Tony Dwyer

    I thought it was going to be George Washington

    • inconspicuous detective

      realistically he was probably as close as you could get. possibly FDR (who more or less threw out term limit rules). but yea i agree.

      • Happyspanners

        Though it was probably more beneficial for FDR to stay as president throughout the war.

        • inconspicuous detective

          agreed.

      • Limesy

        Realistically, George Washington was the FARTHEST from being an authoritarian ruler, especially when compared to every other President. Also, saying that FDR essentially threw out term limits is ignoring the political and social landscape of the time and forgetting the law (or lack thereof) in regards to term limits. Prior to FDR’s 4 terms as president, there was no law restricting the president to any sort of term limit. It was not until after he had passed away that President Truman decreed a limit of only two terms. The only reason that any presidents prior to FDR abided by a two term limit was because of George Washington’s belief that the president’s time in office should be restricted, so as to keep the fluidity and change in policies to a routine. This was merely a standard that was up held by the next 30 Presidents, in respect to not only Washington, but to the respect that Washington himself had for the position.

        • Eoghan-Tony Dwyer

          I know George Washington was far from authoritarian. I’m trying to lampoon the fact that America is basically the modern equivalent of an empire, ergo George Washington was the first emperor. Also, FDR was arguably the greatest president and I dont think that anyone could say that his 4 term rule was undeserved

          • Limesy

            My comment wasn’t directed to you. Take notice to the little arrow in between the names of the contributers.

        • inconspicuous detective

          i know. i’m saying GW as the first leader was akin to the “emperor” of the new world. FDR violated unwritten and respected rules, and while it was beneficial it still wasn’t absolutely necessary. to sum it up, yea you’re right and i’m wrong.

          • Limesy

            I wasn’t saying you were wrong, I was just engaging in discussion. I’m just a history nerd with a degree in politics, I simply can’t help myself on Listverse when I read half truths and exaggerations. A lot of the time people confuse my comments for arrogance and that is not my intent. I didn’t spend 100k and all that time in the library for nothing, just want to spread some knowledge. Don’t back down so easily 🙂

          • inconspicuous detective

            you must understand mate, i’ve been getting alot of backlash for not recognizing when i’m wrong and i admit that i don’t often see it. i mean i don’t mind being wrong but when it’s pointed out to me i’m stubborn enough to need to have it proven more than once. either way, i would think someone who kinda took control and remained in office the way FDR did would be more like an emperor than many other leaders we’ve had. though i could probably find a better example…..andrew jackson (a personal favorite historical figure of mine) would be better i think.

  • Arjan Hut

    Emperor Norton Records, now I get it!

  • Spartacross

    The Emperor of the United States is not fictional. He is real.

    His treasurers run the Federal reserve.

  • Jesse M.

    Obama: N.D.A.A., Benghazi, Operation Fast and Furious, IRS political targeting, Wall St. Mega Bank bailouts, Monsanto Protection Act, Drone Strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, just to name a few. You Americans can proudly say you have your 2nd Emperor! It’s a shame my Grandfather lives in Maryland and I love the USA, but i don’t go as often anymore because I don’t like Obama’s TSA Legion grabbing my balls and groping old ladies.

    • Limesy

      …what?

    • MissKingdomVII

      You need your meds.