America doesn’t have kings. But we have had an emperor.
In 1859, a homeless man sent a letter to the San Francisco Bulletin. Bemused and amused, the editor decided to run it.
From History. com:
In grandiloquent fashion, the message stated, “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens…I, Joshua Norton…declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” It went on to command representatives from all the states to convene in the Bay Area, “to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.” The edict was signed, “NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.”
Joshua Norton had been a successful businessman who had attempted to corner the rice market during a 1853 shortage. His failure had been catastrophic, rendering him destitute and homeless. The years had apparently preyed on his mind, and in 1859 he decided to make things right with the preceding proclamation.
Surprisingly, San Francisco went along with it and Norton became a tourist attraction. Local restaurants allowed him to eat for free. People routinely addressed him as “Your Majesty”. He issued his own currency in 1871, which was accepted by city merchants and exchanged by tourists for American money. Theater owners kept prime seats available for him. Train companies let him ride around the city without charging. His presence was enough to guarantee others would come to see him, giving him a value greater than that of the seats and meals.
Because he remained penniless, some locals helped him raise occasional clothing money and flophouse rent by paying him “taxes”… possibly the first and last time Americans voluntarily paid extra taxes.
When his dog died, Mark Twain wrote the epitaph.
SF Museum, the online San Francisco history site, explains:
January 21, 1867 – An overzealous Patrol Special Officer, Armand Barbier, arrested His Majesty Norton I for involuntary treatment of a mental disorder and thereby created a major civic uproar. Police Chief Patrick Crowley apologized to His Majesty and ordered him released. Several scathing newspaper editorials followed the arrest. All police officers began to salute His Majesty when he passed them on the street.
Among Norton’s first decrees was from October 1859, where he declared, “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice…in consequence of which, we do hereby abolish Congress.”
Some would say he was a man ahead of his time.
Question of the night: If you could issue one order that would be followed, what would it be?