Based upon an actual person, Emperor Norton I was born Joshua Abraham Norton (c.1818 – January 8, 1880). He was a well known character in 19th century San Francisco, he issued his own currency which he sold to tourists, and published decrees. Over 30,000 people attended his funeral.In reality and in Sandman, Norton was a failed businessman on the verge of ruin and despair. For the purposes of the story, his delusion that he was, in fact, Emperor of the United States was instilled by Dream in the course of a wager with Desire and Despair.
Norton lived a "waking dream" for the remainder of his life. Morpheus did not give Norton a dream to live out of altruism; he did so to prove to his younger siblings that without dreams there could not be despair, desire, or delirium.
When his sister asked, "What are Dreams? Dreams are nothing, my brother." Dream replied, "Dreams are 'nothing', sister? Without dreams there could be no Despair."
Delirium added, "His madness...his madness keeps him sane." Morpheus acknowledged that, "And do you think he is the only one, my sister?" (Sandman #31: "Three Septembers and a January")