The Emperor of America

Joshua Abraham Norton was the first and longest reigning Emperor of America, and a millennial anti-hero story I'm obsessed with.

In the 1850's China experienced extreme famine, forcing a halt on the export of rice and causing a sudden rice inflation in the United States. Rice went from 4 cents per pound to 36 cents per pound. Any person with even a slight weakness for entrepreneurial tendencies will notice the business opportunity surrounding a sudden decrease in supply and increase in demand. Especially if you already owned a city's-worth of rice.

Joshua Abraham Norton, a citizen of San Francisco who lived most of his early life in South Africa, took a gamble and purchased a ship full of rice on its way to California from Peru. He probably hoped to own a monopoly on all rice available in San Francisco. Buy all of San Francisco's rice before it even hits the San Francisco market. He bought the ship of rice at 12.5 cents per pound. Soon after his purchase, other ships from Peru arrived in the bay, re-saturating the market and dropping the price of rice immediately to 3 cents per pound. For some reason Joshua didn't forsee this happening. And he lost a considerable amount of money. For the next four years, from 1853 to 1857, he tried suing the rice dealers to get out of his contract. The courts eventually ruled against Joshua and he filed for bankruptcy in 1858.


“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then 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, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.”
— NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.

Joshua Abraham Norton reigned as Emperor for 21 years. I think that makes him the longest reigning Emperor of the United States of America... ever.

What did Norton do as Emperor for 21 years? He made a lot of public announcements in the form of decrees. In a 1860 decree he dissolved the republic, prohibited members of Congress from meeting ever again. In 1862 he ordered both the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches to acknowledge him as Emperor. In 1869 he did away with the Republican and Democratic parties. (Where's Emperor Norton when you really need him?)

Its hard to separate the myth of the Emperor from the facts of his reign. 1 He is said to have toured the city in military dress inspecting…everything. Supposedly he once broke up a riot by reciting the Our Father. The people in San Francisco began accepting him like an eccentric family member - tolerated and enjoyed. Theaters reserved balcony seating for the Emperor. With little to no money to his name, he wandered the city and enjoyed fine restaurants. 

He was particulary defensive of his city, and tried to outlaw the word "Frisco" from people's vocabulary.

"Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word "Frisco," which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars." [^Gazis-Sax, Joel (1998). "The Proclamations of Norton I". Retrieved April 25, 2007.]

In 1867 Norton was arrested and committed to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. The citizens of San Francisco were so outraged, and the newspapers criticized the police force so much, that the Police Chief eventually ordered Norton be released and issued a formal apology.

Norton granted an Imperial Pardon to the policeman who arrested him.

Norton died in 1880, after a long and busy reign as Emperor of the United States of America (and Protector of Mexico). Some people say there were more than 10,000 people at his funeral and in the streets. His grave rests in Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California.

When I first heard about Joshua Abraham Norton, Emperor of the United States of American and Protector of Mexico, I immediately fell in love with him and his story. In some ways he's the millennial anti-hero: failed entreprenuer, self-proclaimed "expert", local meme, monetarily poor, celebrated by newspapers, locally famous, breaker of social norms, and hopeless activist.

I wonder why people like this are so intriguing. It's like I can't look away. Sure, I do find myself having a little too much in common with Joshua. But its not just that we both have little respect for social norms. And I don't think the Emperor is interesting because he's possibly mad. I really think it could be the fact that he is a self-proclaimed man. Maybe this too is just a millennial weakness. We've been given the insane technological advancements of this thing called the internet, and for now most of us are interested in using it to create a significant voice, or position myself as an expert, or, dear Lord... a guru... 

Merriam-Webster defines the phrase "self-proclaimed" as giving yourself a particular name, title, etc., usually without any reason or proof that would cause other people to agree with you.

The origins of the phrase "self-proclaimed" are connected to other phrases we use like "self-stylized" or "so-called". These all find there origin in the French phrase "soi-disant" which means literally "saying-oneself". 2

Is it just a coincidence that the use of the phrase
soi-disant" began to drastically increase around 1818, the year Joshua Norton was born, peaked during his reign, and fell with his death around 1880?


Social media appears to give us an opportunity to present ourselves, or even recreate ourselves. I find that more and more I share things not because I want people to see them, but because I want to be perceived as the type of person who this thing represents. Increasingly the important thing is not what the content says, but what it says about the person sharing it. 

I make decisions to become, online, anything I want. I can decide to be witty, or conservative, or pious, or edgy. I can decide to be serious and composed. I can decide to be the Emperor of America. I become a self-proclaimed [fill in the blank] .

To "say-oneself", or proclaim oneself without any reason or proof, is a recurring theme in our culture. In a way it is the bedrock. It is the first premise. Social media is just a way to say-oneself to the world in a currated way without much need for proof. 

Self-proclaimed artists say it in their twitter bio. Self-proclaimed authors say it on their facebook. Self-proclaimed Catholic speakers say it on their website. Self-proclaimed musicians say it on youtube. Politicians proclaim the "reality" of who they are ad-nauseum. I feel tempted by the need to proclaim who I am to the world through soical media. The way I dress. The way I act and speak. The way I raise my family. Every moment and action is interpreted through the lens of "what does this tell the world about who I am?"

Say-yourself long enough, and it becomes reality.

This feels bad. Certianly self-proclaimed experts and phoneys aren't a unique problem of our time. Just look at the long list of self-proclaimed messiahs. 3 But it does feel intensified.

Which makes me wonder - who am I, really? Am I just the identity that I self-proclaim? Am I what other people proclaim my self to be? I agree with some of their proclamations, but not all of them. People might call me a good youth minister, or a good father, or funny, or lazy, or obsessive, or impatient, or disorganized. The good proclamations are quickly robbed of their power by self-criticism, "they don't really know me." The bad proclamations are given too much weight, carried around like a ball and chain, never allowing me to act in complete isolation without their condemning eyes. "This is exactly who they say you are. This is how a disorganized person behaves."

But when I try to proclaim who I think I am to the world, I also fall into error. I come up short. I fail. I waiver. 

This is backed by science. Research proves that people who consider themselves experts in a certain field, are more likely and vulnerable to fall for misinformation. 4

Who's right?

I believe the boxer, Roberto Duran, when he said "I am not God, but I am something similar." The need to proclaim our identity to the world seems so a part of human existence, I've been wondering if it is because we are like God, or because we are fallen. My son, Ignatius, is 4 and often I'll say things like "You are so funny." or "You are very smart." and he'll immediately reply "No! I'm Ignatius!"

Jesus, to a lot of the world, was just as guilty of being a so-called expert, a self proclaimed messiah. He called Himself God. But if you really read the Gospels, you may have been just as frustrated as the Jews. When I was in high school I used to get so frustrated with Jesus. Why didn't he just say "I AM GOD." He always said all this "The Father and I are one" crap. Or "you say I am". Or whatever. 

I remember the first time I read John 10:24-28 I was just as frustrated as the Jews. 

"So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me. But you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep." John 10-24-28


And the one man in the history of men who ever really had all the reason and credibility in the world to be a self-proclaimed man, a self-proclaimed messiah, for the most part resisted doing so.

But the deeper mystery is what makes my hair stand on end: Jesus is God's self-proclamation. Jesus is the logos, the WORD. God is, and always was, and he has said one word: Jesus. God the Father is a communion of persons, a perfect relationship of love and self-proclamation. What God proclaims, is. It doesn't "become". It is. God the Father "proclaims" Jesus and Jesus is and always was. When I think of who I am, and try to proclaim myself as good or honest, my conception of myself doesn't exist. Only I exist. But when God the Father thinks of Himself, it is God the Son who is.

And Jesus does not, at least not often, rob the Father of His function of proclaiming who the Son is. Jesus is truly "self-proclaimed" in the realest sense. Jesus is self-proclaimed, and he isn't. Jesus, "though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped." Phillippians 2:6

He only proclaims Himself through the Father. And He is the Father. "The Father and I are one." 

We desire to be self-proclaimed because we are like God. We want someone so intimately close to us to proclaim who we are and speak it as an act of creation into our very existence. When we don't allow God to do it, we rob Him of His function of proclamation. We give away His right to speak who we are when we either do it ourselves, or allow others to do it.

I think the only rememdy the Gospel presents us with is to reject being self-proclaimed. It is impossible to be self-proclaimed. Our proclamations do nothing. And at the same time we must reject other's proclamations of us. They do nothing. Their words and mine do not accomplish anything. But God's Word, what He proclaims about me, His Word is EFFECTIVE. We want to BE the Son.

What does God proclaim about me? What does He call me? Who does He call me? 

And in that dark place of this mystery of the Divine Persons, the son's words have become my word. And my prayer. And my question to the Father.

"I am Son of the Father."