So far in its history, the United States of America has had forty three different men serve as the President. (See the note at the bottom of this write up for further clarification).
Up to now, it has had only one emperor.
His name was Joshua Abraham Norton and even though he was self proclaimed as Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico he amassed quite the following in San Francisco in the mid 1800’s.
It didn’t start out that way though. Norton was born in England
in 1819 and later migrated to South Africa
. He came to the United States in 1849 and was, for a time, quite the successful business man. He made his considerable fortune in real estate
and the import/export business but soon found himself on the wrong end of a risky deal that had something to do with the price of rice
and found himself flat broke.
He took his case to the courts alleging that he had been swindled but they found against him and he seemed to have vanished into thin air. But then, in 1857 he magically reappeared as a much different person.
He decided to write a letter to the San Francisco Bulletin which graciously published his thoughts which reads as follows:
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 S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; 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 Feb. 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.
Of course his request was ignored but that didn’t stop the Emperor from parading around the streets of San Francisco in a military type uniform and brandishing a sword and a walking stick. He topped off his appearance with a beaver hat that was adorned with brightly colored feathers. Legend has it that at his side were two stray dogs named Bummer and Lazarus who were also local celebrities due their uncanny ability to catch and kill rats that were prevalent throughout the streets of San Francisco at the time. While the dogs did exist, those claims are likely inflated due to the press adding certain embellishments to their stories in order to make the Emperor more colorful than he already was and to sell more newspapers.
True to form and its love of eccentrics, San Francisco adopted him as one of their own and gave him free passage on transportation and free meals in restaurants. He was allowed to attend plays and concerts as well as speak at public events. He was even allowed to issue his own currency and scrip.
In 1859 he issued another edict, this calling for the dissolution of the Congress in which he claimed the following :
”…fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled.
I’m speculating that same letter could be written today.
Since Congress paid him no heed Emperor Norton had little choice but to call in the Army. His next edict appeared a mere month later and reads as follows:
”WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;
WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;
NOW, THEREFORE, we do hereby Order and Direct Major-General Scott, the Command-in-Chief of our Armies, immediately upon receipt of this, our Decree, to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress.
Emperor Norton also had important local matters to deal with. Upon hearing the citizens of San Francisco shortening the name to just “Frisco” he declared the following:
”Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco”, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor and fined $25.00.
Emperor Norton was also quite prescient. He was the first to come up with the idea connecting Oakland and San Francisco. It’s a shame he wasn’t alive to see it come to fruition sixty years later when the first Oakland – San Francisco Bay Bridge was built and bore a plaque in his honor bearing an inscription that reads – “Pause traveler, and be grateful to Norton I…whose prophetic wisdom conceived and decreed the bridging of San Francisco.”
Norton I wasn’t done issuing edicts and proclamations though. He most famous one came in 1869 when he grew tired of all of the political squabbling between the Democrats and Republicans and had this to say:
”Being desirous of allaying the dissension’s of party strife now existing within our realm, I hereby dissolve and abolish the Democratic and Republican parties, and also hereby degree the disenfranchisement and imprisonment, for not more than ten, nor less than five years, to all persons leading to any violation of this our imperial decree.”
On as purely personal note and given the present state of affairs in the country today, I echo those sentiments.
Sadly, the reign of Emperor Norton I ended on January 8th, 1880 when he collapsed and died while making his routine rounds of the city. Even though he died broke the whole city mourned his loss and an estimated 30,000 people attended his funeral. The tab for his funeral was paid for by the city and he was laid to rest in the Masonic Cemetery.
That wasn’t the last time the Emperor would be heard from. In 1934, in order to make room for additional housing the Masonic Cemetery was razed and his remains were removed to Woodlawn Cemetery. A grateful city, recognizing his accomplishments ordered that flags be flown at half mast. Many businesses closed for the day and approximately 60,000 people showed to to pay their last respects.
Note: For you sticklers out there, you might mention that Barack Obama is the 44th President but bear in mind that Grover Cleveland served twice in non-consecutive terms and is thereby counted separately