An American Emperor

Joshua Norton was born in England in 1818. He was raised in South Africa. When he was 28, he emigrated to the U.S. eventually ending up in San Francisco.

He was an entrepreneur who was engaged in commodities trading and real estate speculating. He lost his fortune in making a risky investment in rice. He tried to get out of the bad rice contract but was unsuccessful in a lawsuit.

After his failed business ventures, he decided to take a different path. He declared himself to be an 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 the San Francisco paper. The paper treated his manifesto as comic entertainment.

Emperor Norton continued his original manifesto with additional calls for change. He wanted to abolish the Congress. He called on churches to ordain him as emperor. To remedy party strife, he called on the elimination of political parties. The U.S. Census went so far as to list his occupation as emperor.

When officials tried to have him committed, citizens became 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. He was prone to attaching his name to objects for sale.

He collapsed on the street and died before transportation to a hospital could be provided. When his body was being transported for burial, thousands lined the street.

Just imagine if a person could declare themselves as the emperor of the U.S. today. Could that person have enough support to develop a threat to our democracy? How might misinformation foster the acceptance of an emperor? How might the emergence of artificial intelligence support 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

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