Between 1859 and 1880 four presidents served the United States, but as they came and went, one emperor reigned in the United States . Lincoln, Jackson, Grant, and Hayes were all president of the United States during that time, but Emperor Norton I was Emperor of the whole United States and Protector of Mexico.
“Back East” there were significant events that were shaping the growing nation, such as the Pony Express sending mail from coast to coast. The Homestead Act opened the fly-over states resulting in a population surge (including many Covenanters) along the prairies and fields of grain. The Emancipation Proclamation freed Southern slaves and eventually the United States would work on healing herself following a war of ideologies. And who could forget the fact that the National League was founded as a cradle for Dodger’s baseball (go Blue!).
Many things were changing in the United States between 1859 and 1880, but one thing remained a constant. Emperor Norton was the self-proclaimed rightful heir of the United States and Mexico. You laugh? You scoff?
It really happened. Here’s his declaration from 1859:
“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; 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 February 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”
Norton the First’s official reign began with this declaration. In the years that followed, the City of San Francisco fell in love with Emperor Norton. Although officially homeless and without more than a few dollars to his name, Emperor Norton dined in the finest establishments in San Francisco. His own currency was accepted in most establishments. His proclamations, declarations, and philosophical musings were listened to by his subjects.
Norton declared that a bridge should be built to connect San Francisco and Oakland. Norton dissolved the US Congress. When the City of Portland offered to relocate and house the famed Emperor, the City of San Francisco responded with purchasing him a new Imperial Uniform and making sure that he was comfortable in his beloved California city. Norton declared that there should be an established religion. He spoke against the maltreatment of the Chinese in the West. Emperor Norton’s declarations and speeches were recorded in newspapers across his United States.
In January of 1880, Emperor Norton was walking on California Street in front of Old Saint Mary’s Church in San Francisco when he suddenly dropped dead. When Emperor Norton’s reign ended, the front page of the morning newspaper read Le Roi Est Mort (The King is Dead). Over 10,000 people attended the funeral of the king following his body being displayed with full civil honors.
So who was the rightful ruler of the United States? Lincoln or Norton? Jackson or Norton? Grant or Norton? Hayes or Norton?
Most sane people knew the answer to that question, but the fame of Norton the First spread throughout the United States and even into Mexico and parts of Europe. People loved to tell the story of the king who reigned from San Francisco. It was told over and over and historians still spill ink over whether he was a madman, a genius, or a little of both.
What does Emperor Norton I have to do with the Lord Jesus Christ? Many in the first century saw Jesus as the Emperor Norton of the Roman Empire. The Apostolic Church was proclaiming the Christ, a king who, like Emperor Norton, had no recognized earthly authority. He was a self-proclaimed king. Unlike Emperor Norton, however, Christ was the true King of kings, with true authority that reached beyond mere earthly recognition. All authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him by his Father.
The Apostle Paul suffered in prison for preaching the gospel, a political term relating to the good-news-proclamation of a ruler. The good news included the declaration that a man from the backwoods of Judah who had claimed to be the rightful heir of the Roman Empire was now reigning on high. And Jesus of Nazareth was not just the king of the Empire–he claimed to be the King of the World. The Apostle Paul traveled around the Roman Empire calling men and women everywhere to submit and pay homage to this king who was reigning. This is why the gospel was a threat to Caesar, and the reason why the Apostle was imprisoned- he preached a gospel of treason against Caesar’s reign.
When asked where this king had his throne, the Roman citizens were told that his kingdom was not of this world and that he reigned from the right hand of God Most High. The Apostle Paul, who himself was a Roman citizen, proclaimed that Caesar was not the rightful lord, a god in the flesh. Jesus was Lord. Caesar was not “king of kings and lord of lords” as he claimed. Jesus Christ was the God-Man. Jesus was—and still is king. For the kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul was placed in chains. The book of Philippians tells us that people “preached” Christ as a way to afflict Paul. The story of Jesus, the Christ, travelled through the Roman Empire by gospel preachers who called men and women to respond with their lives. Other citizens, unbelievers, told the story because they wanted a good laugh.
A carpenter’s son from the backwoods claimed Caesar’s throne!
Emperor Norton made unfounded claims upon the kingdom of the United States. Jesus Christ has made rightful claims upon all the kingdoms of this world… and he has made claims upon your soul. To many in this world, the claims of Christ are as foolish as the claims of Emperor Norton. To those who are being saved—those claims are life eternal!
“He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:8b-11)
For those who looked to Emperor Norton: Le Roi Est Mort. But in reality, Christ lives and his reign will continue until he has placed all enemies under his feet. The King Lives!