Emperor of the United States?

Have you heard the odd tale of the "Emperor of the United States"? Hear the full story in Giles Milton's Unknown History Podcast.

Giles Milton
2-minute read
Episode #19

He reigned for more than two decades, an autocratic monarch with absolute powers over one of the most powerful countries on earth. Emperor Joshua Norton I declared himself supreme ruler of the United States in 1859: his avowed intention was to restore stability and integrity to a country he felt was falling into ruin.

Emperor Norton might easily have been dismissed as a harmless eccentric, were it not for the fact that he had a large number of supporters. Promoted by the newspapers of San Francisco, his decrees and proclamations soon became known across the entire nation.

His reign began on 17 September 1859, when he issued a proclamation to the Californian papers: ‘I declare and proclaim myself emperor of these United States.’ He immediately called for a public meeting of representatives of all the different states in America, signing his declaration: Norton I, Emperor of the United States. (He soon added Protector of Mexico to his title.)

The proclamation was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the people of California. They loved his conviction, his authority and his bluntly worded decrees. Norton’s clever manipulation of the media rapidly turned him into a nationwide celebrity.

He achieved even greater publicity when he awarded himself autocratic powers. With a theatrical flourish, he formally abolished the House of Congress in the second week of October 1859.

‘Open violation of the laws are constantly occurring,’ he declared, ‘caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects. The citizen has not that protection of person and property to which he is entitled.’

The following year, Emperor Norton called upon the army to forcibly depose the elected members of Congress, in order that he might consolidate his tenuous grip on power.

The army and congress chose to ignore Norton, but he was not disheartened. In 1862, he ordered the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches to ordain him emperor. (They also ignored him.) Seven years later, he abolished the Democratic and Republican parties. Shortly afterwards, he issued a decree forbidding religious warfare.

Whatever happened to Norton? 

To find out the answer, listen to the full episode of our podcast, Unknown History, in the top right hand player of this page or on iTunesStitcher, and Spotify. Plus, connect with Giles on Twitter and Facebook

This post is roughly excerpted from When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain. You can purchase the book on AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieboundBooks-a-Million, and Apple.


About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.