Arts & Culture

Jews You Should Know: Emperor Norton

The Emperor of what? Oh, only THE UNITED STATES. Read More

By / May 16, 2016

Norton-10

With all the think-pieces about the idea of America having its first Jewish president, everyone forgets that the United States had already had a Jewish supreme leader: Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Joshua A. Norton is one of the coolest figures from American History. Basically, he declared himself emperor of the country, and the city of San Francisco responded, “Sure, why not?”

Emperor Norton (to refer to him by his proper title) was an immigrant; he was born in England to a Jewish family, and grew up in South Africa. He came to the United States at about age 30, in 1849, with his parents’ large inheritance, and dreams of growing his fortune. He lost the money on a bad investment and wound up destitute.

So what’s a broke, Jewish immigrant to the United States to do? Languish a few years, and then, in 1859, issue a proclamation:

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.

A major newspaper dutifully printed the words of their new, wise ruler, and his subjects quickly fell in line. For example, the emperor issued his own money, which was honored by many merchants and residents.

Locals yielded to him for his many regular duties, including inspecting buildings, promenading (often on horseback provided by an admirer), and making sure his uniform was impeccable; his subjects gave donations to help him maintain his signature look of a military uniform with epaulets, a beaver hat, a cane, and a sword. He was also frequently honored by gifts from those he ruled, such as free meals at restaurants, and his own box at the opera.

Emperor Norton also issued many proclamations during his two-decade reign, including ones that abolished Congress, both the Democrat and Republican parties, and referring to his home city as “Frisco.”

Alas, traitorous powers undermined many of these decrees, and HaShem knows that had they been fully obeyed and carried out we could avoid a lot of anguish in our political system today.

Other decrees were fulfilled, some after his death, including one that a league be formed between the countries of the world (in fact, the United Nations met for the first time in San Francisco), and that a suspension bridge be built over the San Francisco bay to Oakland (the Emperor regularly visited Oakland by ferry, though he never had to pay fare.

Even though history has generally treated Emperor Norton as an assimilated Jew, he was actually an active member of the Jewish community, and would attend Shabbat services every week at Congregation Emanu-El.

Plus, comic-book-writing-superstar Neil Gaiman once featured Emperor Norton in an issue of Sandman, where he posited that the monarch was a “Lamed Vavnik,” one of the 36 hidden righteous who keep the world from coming to an end.

When Emperor Norton died, thousands attended his funeral (not a Jewish one), and it had all the fanfare befitting a man of his station.

So huzzah to you, Joshua Norton.  Long did you reign, and as a San Francisco newspaper wrote about you:

“The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line.”

Image credit: Wikimedia

See also: Your Guide to ‘Jewish Slang’ in Victorian England