Joshua Norton was born in England in 1818 and then raised in South Africa. When he was 28, he emigrated to the U.S., eventually ending up in San Francisco, where he became a respected figure in business circles.
Joshua was an entrepreneur who was engaged in commodities trading and real estate speculation. He lost a fortune in making a risky investment in rice and his legal attempts to avoid the full extent of those losses were unsuccessful.
After his failed business ventures, Joshua decided to take a different path. He declared himself “Emperor of the United States.” He was upset with the governance structure of the U.S. and issued a manifesto entitled Citizens of the Union. The manifesto ran as a paid advertisement in a San Francisco paper, which treated it as comic entertainment.
Emperor Norton followed his original manifesto with additional calls for change. He wanted to abolish the Congress. He called on churches to ordain him as emperor and he warned against sectarian strife. To remedy partisan divisions, he called on the elimination of political parties. He took stands for the fair treatment of immigrants and ethnic minorities and for the political rights of women.
When officials tried to have him committed, the public was outraged. While he had no authority, he was able to sustain himself based on his fame. He even had money printed in his name, which some merchants accepted, and was prone to attaching his name to objects for sale. The U.S. Census went so far as to list his occupation as emperor.
At the age of 61, Emperor Norton collapsed on the street and died before he could be transportated to a hospital. Thousands lined the streets for his funeral procession.
Just imagine if a person were to declare themselves emperor of the U.S. today. In his day, Emperor Norton struck a whimsical note for most people. Overall, his message was a benevolent one, seeking greater harmony in society. But in our day, those who lean toward autocracy, toward being a modern-day emperor, seek to stoke divisions, not heal them. How might such people become a genuine threat to our democracy? How might misinformation foster the acceptance of an autocrat in our own time? How might the current technological landscape, including the prevalence of social media and the emergence of artificial intelligence, facilitate the shift to an authoritarian government and a self-proclaimed emperor? Would an aspiring emperor be viewed as a kook or as a savior? It’s hard to imagine that we have come to a point where the above questions have even a remote flavor of being serious.
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“I’m the President of the United States. I’m not the emperor of the United States.” – Barack Obama
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.