Joshua Abraham Norton began his reign as Emperor out of necessity to cure problems that had plagued the young nation during its republic. Norton himself was English, born in London and spending most of his life in South Africa before coming to San Francisco as a businessman. In a deal gone wrong where a dealer had misled him on the quality of his rice and the justice system denied his rights during his lawsuit to void his contract, leaving Norton financially destroyed in 1858 at age 39. He left the city in self-imposed exile, returning with his political dream in 1859.
The United States surely had its troubles if a hard working man such as Norton could be destroyed, and the system had to be fixed. He delivered a notice to the newspapers stating, “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton... declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.” On February 1, representatives of each state were to meet him at the Music Hall in San Francisco “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.”
Several editors published the notice as humorous, and a few newspapers back East picked it up as well. On October 12, he released another notice, dissolving the United States Congress in stating that the “universal suffrage, as now existing through the Union, is abused; that 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 to by paying his pro rata of the expense of Government.” While Congress did not immediately disband, the notion of reform was picked up by several Midwesterners who had also been overtaxed and under-supported by the government. Though voted as a lark, the state legislature of Indiana decided to send James Herriman, a businessman who was going to San Francisco anyway, as representative. Upon word that Norton had been taken semi-seriously, South Carolina sent a delegation of representatives, hoping that their political maneuver would show the Union that they could do as they pleased under states' rights.
More states for various reasons began plans to send representatives to San Francisco. Proposals of every kind were put on the ballot for elections, and, by November, eighteen states planned to attend. The idea spread that it would be a kind of convention, perhaps even ground to discuss an end to the slavery question as well as trade and tariff disputes. In January, Norton released an edict to “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.” Winfield Scott did not move the Army, nor did he make action to arrest the Emperor on grounds of treason.
At the 1860 February San Francisco Convention, Mayor Henry F. Teschemacher gave Norton permission to use the Music Hall, impressed with the publicity and income San Francisco was having with the arrival of politics and journalists. Presiding over the convention, Norton addressed each issue tirelessly, repeatedly overturning calls for recess. Economic, judicial, domestic, and international policies were closely examined, appropriated into committee, and then voted upon under the emperor's direction. By the end of the month, newspapers began to address Norton as “emperor” not out of humor but genuine honor from his efforts to support the common man. The convention ended with the writing of a Constitution, which, like the previous US Constitution, required ratification by two-thirds of the states.
The Constitution was largely ignored by the political powers that were, holding their own elections in later 1860 with Abraham Lincoln winning the office of presidency. The South went up in arms over the North's perceived aggression, and talk of secession began. Norton sent another edict, saying that there was no need for a War Between the States over matters of a derelict Congress. States simply needed to appoint representatives to his National Parliament as described in his Constitution. He ended with a reminder General Scott that he was overdue in his elimination of Congress. This time, Scott gave the notice more thought, finally approaching Lincoln, who refused to give up Republicanism to a tyrant.
The South began to send delegates, as did California, formally turning away from the government in Washington. More states followed, and, in April, South Carolina fired upon Union troops at Fort Sumter. Upon hearing the news, Norton immediately called for the arrest of the men who had tried to begin a war. Forgiveness was begged, and Norton called Lincoln and his increasingly illegal government to meet with him in San Francisco before things grew worse. Lincoln, willing to try anything to avoid a bloody war and the separation of the states, agreed to go. After a month-long conference, Norton persuaded Lincoln to surrender Washington and join the National Parliament.
Although there would be uprisings in various parts of the country, Norton would be swift in controlling issues and meeting with rebel commanders, usually persuading them to join him in the new empire. With a civil war avoided, the problems of slavery were solved by Norton's program of freeing skilled slaves with financial compensation to their former masters and installing mandated education programs to free yet more. Education, as well as simple steadfastness in what was right, cured many of the racial ills of the US. During the anti-Chinese riots of the 1870s, Norton stepped around his bodyguards and placed himself between the rioters and their intended victims, bowing his head and reciting the Lord's Prayer until the embarrassed rioters fled or formally apologized. Rumors stated that he planned to marry Queen Victoria of Britain, but Norton never seemed to find the time with such activities as personal inspections of the city's cable car system.
Much of Norton's reign was spent on improvements, such as the suspension bridge between Oakland and San Francisco as well as the long-term project of a tunnel under the bay. While San Francisco was given special consideration as the new capital, numerous projects were carried out throughout the country, like the transcontinental railroad completed in 1864. Late in his reign, Norton turned to international diplomacy, as he had when he had become Protector of Mexico in using the US Army to fight imperialistic advances on Mexico from France. In 1871, Norton called for an Assembly of Nations to meet and discuss issues in a convention he would preside. By 1877, the Assembly of Nations was a continuous facility that would soon outlaw the use of war in diplomacy.
Emperor Norton died in 1880 on his way to give a charity lecture at the California Academy of Sciences. Norton had not appointed a successor, instead leaving a detailed will for power to return to the hands of the Parliament, but forever banning political parties and an unbalanced budget (except in the case of military emergency). Thirty thousand San Franciscans attended his funeral, and the country remained in mourning for a month, though many can say that we are still in mourning of the lost Emperor. His legacy has even continued internationally, such as the Assembly of Nations' diffusing of the Sarajevo Affair in which the assassination of the Archduke may well have led to war.
In reality, Norton was one of many of San Francisco's eccentrics, perhaps the most loved. He was given a uniform by troops at the Presidio and later the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and he used self-issued notes as repayment for debts that were stable enough that many businesses accepted them as currency. Thirty thousand people really did attend his funeral.