It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “Nearly all men can withstand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Few exemplified this more than a strange contemporary of Lincoln who was, in a way, a living embodiment of Honest Abe’s wisdom. I am referring, of course, to Norton I, Emperor of America and Protector of Mexico.
That you probably haven’t heard of Norton I is something for which the Emperor would most likely have forgiven you. Born in London in 1819, Joshua Abraham Norton came to San Francisco in 1849 as a businessman looking to cash in on the California Gold Rush. Within a few years, he had amassed a real estate and import brokering fortune that today would be worth about $6 million. But by 1856, a bad deal on a shipload of worthless rice and extensive lawsuits that followed left Norton a broken and embittered pauper.
He disappeared for a time, but when he resurfaced in 1859, he claimed to be the secret heir of the remnants of French nobility. He referred to himself as Emperor Norton I, which he announced through a public letter to the San Francisco Bulletin. The newspaper, in a fit of Californian frivolity, put his proclamation on the front page. It was the first of many times when local papers would run the Emperor’s proclamations as real news, much to the public’s delight.
Over time, Norton I abolished Congress, the California Supreme Court and fired President Lincoln. He was the first to propose building a bridge across the bay and he supported aviators years before the Wright Brothers ever flew. He also championed civil rights for immigrant Chinese, and once single-handedly stifled an anti-Chinese riot simply by standing before the mob, reciting the Lord’s Prayer until they dispersed.
Much of Norton I’s imperial career, however, only underscored his madness. When a local riverboat refused to let him board for free, he called for an imperial blockade of the Sacramento river. He outlawed the city’s nickname of “Frisco” and threatened a $25 fine against anyone who used it. And when Napoleon III established a French-backed monarchy in Mexico, Norton I added “Protector of Mexico” to his title, though he had never stepped foot south of the border.
As Norton I ruled America over the next 21 years, he became one of San Francisco’s top tourist attractions, and nearly every business in town gave the Emperor freebies just for the publicity. When he wasn’t issuing proclamations, he held court on city benches, having intellectual discussions with anyone who wished to chat. He could also be found inspecting the city’s cable cars (and riding them for free), reading in the public library, playing chess and going to debating societies, lectures and plays. All the while, he wore threadbare military regalia as clothing and lived in a filthy flophouse. When he needed cash, he simply created imperial bonds worth up to $10 and cashed them in with willing merchants.
When an overeager constable arrested the Emperor on the charge of lunacy, the public outcry was so great that Norton I was not only released, but the chief of police personally wrote a public apology for it. And when a Los Angeles newspaper ridiculed Norton I as a mere panhandler, the entire city rose to their beloved Emperor’s defense, including local reporter Samuel Langhorne Clemens (who would later reinvent himself as Mark Twain).
When Norton I died on January 8, 1880, his passing made national headlines. More than 10,000 people came to his wake, and his funeral cortege was over two miles long. He died as poor as ever, but the city’s elite financed a dignified funeral. He was remembered by one paper as “an emperor without enemies, a king without a kingdom, supported in life by the willing tribute of a free people.” Or as another paper put it more bluntly: “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.”
Norton honestly thought he had the power to enforce his will on anyone. But he governed modestly, unwilling to abuse the authority he afforded himself. That he had none is besides the point, for he knew that it was better not to rule at all than to rule poorly. And in so doing, he set a weird example that many of us might consider as we ascend to higher positions in our careers and in our communities. In assuming responsibility for others, we take a risk most grave. For if we fail to leave those lives better than how we found them, we find that the trust placed in us can be impossible to repair once broken. Norton I may have been a fool and a lunatic, but to the people of San Francisco, he was something that too few of our chiefs in politics, society and business can claim to be: a leader worthy of the title.
Bill Coffin is RM's publisher and editorial director.