By 1859, Norton had become completely disgruntled with what he considered the inadequacies of the legal and political structures of the United States. On September 17, 1859, he took matters into his own hands and distributed letters to the various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself “Emperor of these United States”:
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.[18][27]

The announcement was first reprinted for humorous effect by the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin.[28] Norton would later add “Protector of Mexico” to this title. Thus commenced his unprecedented and whimsical 21-year reign over America.

One of Norton’s undated proclamations

In his self-appointed role of emperor, Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of the state. After assuming absolute control over the country, he saw no further need for a legislature, and on October 12, 1859, he issued a decree formally abolishing the United States Congress. In it, Norton observed:
…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.[29]
Norton ordered all interested parties to assemble at Platt’s Music Hall in San Francisco in February 1860 to “remedy the evil complained of”.[29]
In an imperial decree the following month, Norton summoned the Army to depose the elected officials of the U.S. Congress:
WHEREAS, a body of men calling themselves the National Congress are now in session in Washington City, in violation of our Imperial edict of the 12th of October last, declaring the said Congress abolished;
WHEREAS, it is necessary for the repose of our Empire that the said decree should be strictly complied with;
NOW, THEREFORE, we do 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.[29]
Norton’s orders were ignored by the Army, and Congress likewise continued without any formal acknowledgement of the decree. Further decrees in 1860 dissolved the republic and forbade the assembly of any members of the former Congress.[29] Norton’s battle against the elected leaders of America persisted throughout his reign, though it appears he eventually, if grudgingly, allowed Congress to exist without his permission. Hoping to resolve the many disputes that had resulted in the Civil War, in 1862 Norton issued a mandate ordering both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches to publicly ordain him as “Emperor”.[18]
His attempts to overthrow the elected government having been ignored, Norton turned his attention to other matters, both political and social. On August 12, 1869, “being desirous of allaying the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm”, he abolished the Democratic and Republican parties.[4] The failure to treat Norton’s adopted home city with appropriate respect was the subject of a particularly stern edict in 1872:
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.[29]
Norton was occasionally a visionary, and some of his Imperial Decrees exhibited profound foresight. He issued instructions to form a League of Nations,[30] and he explicitly forbade any form of conflict between religions or their sects. Norton saw fit to decree the construction of a suspension bridge or tunnel connecting Oakland and San Francisco, his later decrees becoming increasingly irritated at the lack of prompt obedience by the authorities:
WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project; and whereas the said citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and whereas we are determined our authority shall be fully respected; now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both the Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees.
Given under our royal hand and seal at San Francisco, this 17th day of September, 1872.[9]
The intent of this decree, unlike many others, actually came to fruition; construction of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge began on July 9, 1933 and was completed on November 12, 1936.[31] The construction of Bay Area Rapid Transit’s Transbay Tube was completed in 1969, with Transbay rail service commencing in 1974.[32]

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