On the overthrow or endurance of kings


Monarchy has two elements, autocratic government and hereditary succession to office. After surveying arguments for and against hereditary access to public office, the paper illustrates that theoretical explanations of the rise of representative government do not account for the abolition or preservation of hereditary monarchy in contemporary democratic states. The paper then distinguishes between proximate and fundamental causes of the fall of monarchy. The former are military defeat, dissolution of the state as a result of war defeat and decolonization, and revolution. Fundamental causes are those that explain how proximate causes led to the overthrow of the monarchy and focus on the failures of monarchs to preserve national unity and to withdraw from a politically active role.

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  1. 1.

    See Congleton (2011) for an analysis of the “king-and-council” template further discussed in Sect. 3. Finer (1999) offers an authoritative historical account of the monarchy from ancient to modern times and the evolution of government from autocratic to democratic.

  2. 2.

    For example, the medieval Byzantine Empire lacked a fixed rule for succession and experienced a large turnover of imperial families. In England the monarchy became hereditary on the basis of primogeniture after the 1066 Norman Conquest. In France it became so in the 12th century with Philip–Augustus (1139–1223). On the other hand, in the Holy Roman Empire of Germany the king was elected by a seven-man electoral college of local princes.

  3. 3.

    For an economic analysis of the dictator–autocrat as a utility maximizing “state proprietor”, see Tullock (1987) and (2002), Grossman (2002), Grossman and Noh (1994), and McGuire and Olson (1996). In his influential work on dictatorship, Wintrobe (1998) distinguishes between different types of dictators–autocrats depending on their objectives (personal consumption and power) and the instruments used (repression and loyalty).

  4. 4.

    This was first articulated by the fourth century BCE Athenian orator Isocrates who wrote “…men permanently in charge are much better than others by experience even if less well-endowed by nature. Men who hold office for a year ignore many matters and pass the buck to others, while monarchs neglect nothing because they know that the responsibility for everything lies with them… But the greatest difference is this: men under other governments give attention to the affairs of state as if they were the concern of others; monarchs, as if they were their own concern. And … monarchies excel … in war.” Isocrates, Nicocles of Cyprus, 3.21–3.22. Available at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/collection?collection=Perseus:collection:Greco-Roman.

  5. 5.

    This echoes earlier arguments of von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1956) that “If the regime of the tyrant becomes consolidated, restrictive measures can be relaxed in proportion as his rule gains security and even a semblance of legitimacy" (emphasis in the original).

  6. 6.

    There are a few contemporary examples of dynastic succession in dictatorships: North Korea since 1953 is a case of a three-generation dictatorship by the Kim family. Examples of two-generation dictatorships are the Somoza family in Nicaragua, 1937–1979 (father and then two sons); the Duvalier family in Haiti, 1956–1986; the current dictatorships of the Assad family in Syria (since 1970) and the Aliyev family in Azerbaijan (since 1993), while in Cuba Fidel Castro, dictator since 1959, transferred power to his brother Raul in 2008.

  7. 7.

    See Zhang (2011) for a recent discussion and an application to communist China.

  8. 8.

    Walter Bagehot (1873), the English constitutionalist and essayist, aptly captures the problem: “It is idle to expect an ordinary man born in the purple to have greater genius than an extraordinary man born out of the purple; to expect a man whose place has always been fixed to have a better judgment than one who has lived by his judgment; to expect a man whose career will be the same whether he is discreet or whether he is indiscreet to have the nice discretion of one who has risen by his wisdom, who will fall if he ceases to be wise. The characteristic advantage of a constitutional king is the permanence of his place. This gives him the opportunity of acquiring a consecutive knowledge of complex transactions, but it gives only an opportunity. The king must use it… Yet a constitutional prince is the man who is most tempted to pleasure, and the least forced to business… Why should he work?” (p.91).

  9. 9.

    The gains from division of labour were first pointed out by Bagehot (1873), who saw the constitution as having “… two parts … first, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population—the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts—those by which it, in fact, works and rules” (p.44)…The Queen is only at the head of the dignified part of the constitution. The prime minister is at the head of the efficient part.” (p. 48). He famously identified three rights in the British monarchy: “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn. And a king of great sense and sagacity would want no others. He would find that his having no others would enable him to use these with singular effect.” (p. 85).

  10. 10.

    When a single person combines both the positions of the head of state and head of government (as in the USA) he may no longer be able to represent all of the people, but only the section who support him politically. Other means, like the national flag, may then serve as symbols of the nation.

  11. 11.

    Contemporary advocates of monarchy, like von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1956), Hoppe (1995) and Yeager (2011), also claim that a monarch is insulated from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day politics, adopts a longer time horizon than elected politicians, can successfully resist demands by special interests, safeguards against abuses and protects minorities against majorities by retaining certain constitutional powers or denying them to others, and represents continuity. These authors argue that constitutional monarchy can better preserve people’s freedom and opportunities than democracy which has led to the increase in state power. However, such claims connote a monarch with political power instead of a neutral constitutional actor.

  12. 12.

    See Coll (2008) for an overview and synthesis.

  13. 13.

    For recent extensions and refinements of the thesis that democracy results from the conflict between the rich elite and disenfranchised groups of middle and poorer classes see Ansell and Samuels (2014) and Boix (2015).

  14. 14.

    North and Weingast (1989) provide a most-often quoted example of how after the 1688 Glorious Revolution, the British state made itself a perpetual organization when it provided secure credible commitments to repay debts by locating the liability for the debts in the “king-in-parliament.” The “king-in-parliament” is a perpetually lived organization that lives beyond the physical lives of the members of the royal dynasty.

  15. 15.

    In accordance with the logic of the gains from division of labour, Congleton (2013) shows that division of authority over policy between different government bodies (where more than one actor has influence over policy) is inevitable, because no single actor can carry out successfully the responsibilities of initiating, passing, enacting and enforcing legislation.

  16. 16.

    Demands for suffrage reform were pursued by interest groups engaging in franchise reform, by political groups expecting to gain the support of newly enfranchised voters, and industrialists and workers who were under-represented in the earlier parliaments.

  17. 17.

    As noted by an anonymous referee, a number of the monarchical states listed on the Table emerged as the result of “fusion” and further conquest of territories ruled by royal houses established as far back as the medieval times. The Habsburgs ruled over large swathes of territory covering modern Austria, Hungary, Czech, Slovak, and Polish and Balkan lands. Italy emerged in 1861 under the House of Savoy by including amongst others the kingdom of Piedmont–Sardinia (ruled by the Savoy dynasty), the kingdom of Naples and Sicily and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Imperial Germany–Prussia is even more complicated as in addition to Prussia it included the sovereign kingdoms of Bavaria, Saxony and Wurttemberg, a number of duchies, principalities and free cities. Nor was this pattern of state formation a purely European phenomenon; for example Saudi Arabia was formed after successful conquests by the long-standing ruling dynasty. On the other hand, Poland is excluded from the list because, although it was a kingdom until the third partition in 1795, it was a republic in the post-1918 settlement on independence. So is Ireland, which was a part of the United Kingdom ruled from London until 1922 and became a fully independent republic in 1949. The analysis also excludes other medieval and early modern kingdoms, indigenous tribal kingdoms outside Europe pre-existing European colonial conquests and states that were founded as republics.

  18. 18.

    For an analysis of the economic forces behind the 1848 Revolutions and the nexus between revolution and the then political institutions in various countries, see Berger and Spoerer (2001)

  19. 19.

    See Grossman (1991) for a rational choice model of revolutions and Mueller (2003) for a review. Olsson-Yaouzis (2012) shows that revolutions are more likely to break out when a ruler has lost the opportunity to intervene against the revolutionaries at an early stage of the uprising before a critical mass of citizens has turned against him and/or when the ruler has failed to punish the revolutionaries severely.

  20. 20.

    See Wintrobe (1998) for a discussion of the “Dictator's Dilemma” facing any ruler, that is, to know how much support he has among the general population, and smaller groups with the ability to overthrow him.

  21. 21.

    For similar arguments that the crown may provide a degree of social stability, easing tensions, and offering a role model to the society see Bjørnskov (2006) and Bjørnskov and Kurrild-Klitgaard (2014).

  22. 22.

    Congleton (2015) examines the emergence of a new equilibrium where, instead of the king it was the elected chamber of parliament that controlled ministerial appointments, a change that took place gradually without formal constitutional reforms but built on earlier constitutional provisions.


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I am indebted to the Torino International Centre of Economic Research for financial support during the early stages of this research in January 2104. I wish to thank participants in the Staff Seminar of King’s College London and the 2015 European Public Choice Conference in Groningen and especially to Jean–Michel Josselin, Penny Tridimas and two anonymous referees for various comments on earlier drafts. I am also grateful to Roger Congleton for his guidance in preparing this work. The usual disclaimer applies.

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Correspondence to George Tridimas.

Appendix: The fall of monarchy in selected states

Appendix: The fall of monarchy in selected states

The Afghan monarchy, a constitutional monarchy since 1964, was overthrown in 1973 by a coup, whose leader declared a republic. He was in turn overthrown in 1979 pro-Soviet coup, which was followed by USSR invasion (1979) and then civil war
In Albania, independent since 1919, the dominant politician Zogu dissolved the parliament and declared himself king in 1928. He and his family fled after Italy invaded in 1939
In 1822, the regent, son of the king of Portugal, declared independence from Portugal and crowned himself Emperor of Brazil. After he inherited the Portuguese throne in 1826, his son became emperor of Brazil. The monarchy was overthrown in 1889 by a military coup and a republic was proclaimed
Bulgaria was defeated in WWI. As a result of the territorial losses suffered, King Ferdinand abdicated in favour of his son Boris. King Boris opposed the rise of the radical agrarian party and after a turbulent period of unstable parliamentary governments and nationalist coups in 1935 he established a dictatorial government. In WWII Bulgaria allied with the Axis. In September 1944, the Red Army entered Bulgaria, enabling the Bulgarian Communists to seize power and the monarchy was abolished in 1946
Burundi, previously occupied by Belgium, became an independent kingdom in 1962. The monarchy was abolished after a military coup in 1966, but interethnic violence has been endemic
In 1911 military revolts by reform—minded officers ousted the Qing emperor and established the Republic of China in 1912. The latter failed to consolidate its rule because of wars between “warlords”, provincial military leaders. In 1925 Chiang Kai-shek leader of the nationalist party broke off with the communists (his allies since 1923) in an attempt to control the entire country. The communists under the leadership of Mao–Zedong embarked in the “Long March” to evade and regroup. Civil war between the two sides resumed after Japan’s defeat in WWII. It ended in 1949 with the victory of the communists and Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, while the nationalists set up a government in the island of Taiwan
In Egypt, an independent kingdom since 1924, a coup by the “Free Officers’ Movement” deposed King Farouk in 1952 and proclaimed the country a republic in 1953
England and Wales
Following his defeat by the Parliament in the Civil War of 1642–49, King Charles I was executed and England was declared a commonwealth. Oliver Cromwell, the commander of the army that defeated Charles, dismissed the rump (purged) parliament in 1653 and governed as Lord Protector until his death in 1658. He was succeeded by his son, Richard whose authority soon collapsed and a newly elected parliament called for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty in 1660. Charles II (son of Charles I) returned to the throne and bequeathed the throne to his brother James II in 1685. James ruled without parliament and followed pro-catholic religion policies that intensified tensions with Anglicans. In 1688 several peers invited the Protestant William of Orange, member of a noble Dutch family, and his wife Mary, Protestant daughter of James II from his first wife, to invade England and oust James. After his army disintegrated without fighting James left the country. Early in 1689, the English Parliament formally offered William and Mary the throne as joint monarchs on condition of agreeing to the Bill of Rights which in addition to arrangements for royal succession to Protestants only, included a number of rights and liberties, the prohibition of taxation without the consent of the parliament and the call for regular parliaments. These events are known as the “Glorious Revolution”
In 1974 the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was overthrown in a military coup. Thousands of government opponents died during the “Red Terror” under the Marxist dictatorship that followed
The French Revolution broke out in 1789. The General Estates proclaimed constitutional monarchy in 1791 and republic in 1792, while King Louis XVI and his family were executed in 1793. An administration of Great Terror descended in 1794, a new constitution establishing the Directory came in 1795, which is in turn was overthrown by Napoleon’s coup of 1799, who introduced authoritarian personal rule and had himself crowned as hereditary emperor in 1804. His reign ended in 1815 after defeat at Waterloo and the Bourbon dynasty was restored, but Charles X trying to rule by “the grace of God” instead of the consent of the people was forced to abdicate after an uprising in 1830. His successor, Louis–Philippe was overthrown by the 1848 Revolution which eventually set up the Second Republic; the latter lasted until 1851 when the elected president Louis–Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I, launched a coup and in 1852 established himself as emperor Napoleon III. The Second Empire fell in 1870 after the defeat of France by the Prussians and the Third Republic was set up in a dramatic sequence of events: Peace with Prussia was followed by a brutal containment of the Parisian Commune costing more bloodshed than the 1789 Revolution, a monarchist parliamentary majority, disarray and divisions inside the latter, and slow progress of republicanism, so that in 1875 the Assembly passed with a single vote the constitutional acts of the new republic that made the president electable by the Assembly and provided for a two-chamber legislature
Military defeat in WWI led to the formation of a new government which broke the hold of power by the aristocratic elite and initiated transition to parliamentary democracy. As the new government sued for peace, mutiny by the navy, demonstrations and revolutionary actions against the old leaders broke out. The Kaiser, Wilhelm II, abdicated on 9 November 1918, (2 days before the armistice was signed) and a republic for Germany was proclaimed in Berlin. Fierce fighting then went on in various places in Germany amid deep divisions between extreme left organizations and the moderate majority of the socialist. The situation was brought under control by the alliance of the socialists and the military, agreed to preserve national unity, which defeated the revolutionaries. The government then called elections for a constituent assembly which in 1919 launched the (eventually doomed) Weimar Republic
After defeat against a resurgent nationalist Turkey in 1922, which was blamed on the royalist government, King George II was expelled, and a republic was proclaimed. The latter beset by economic crisis and political instability lasted only until 1935 when following a failed putsch by anti-royalist officers, the elected pro-royalist government restored the monarchy and George II returned. A year later, and with the agreement of the king dictatorship was imposed. George II fled during the Nazi occupation of the country to return in the midst of a vicious civil war between the nationalist and the communists. The civil war was won by the nationalists in 1949 and an authoritarian constitution came into effect in 1952. The constitutional order was broken by a military coup in 1967, when the king was seen as offering his tacit approval. After the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1974 a referendum was held where 69 % of the voters supported a republic. The monarchy ended peacefully without war defeat or revolution
Habsburg dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary
After defeat and loss of territory at the end of WWI, the Habsburg emperor Charles IV recognized the right of the peoples of Austria and Hungary to determine their constitutional order, although he did not officially abdicate. The Provisional National Assembly of Austria consisting of members of the imperial council from German speaking territories proclaimed a republic. In Hungary, after a successful uprising 2 weeks before the end of WWI, the new Hungarian government set up a republic, but as war defeat resulted in extensive territorial losses of Hungarian lands, the government collapsed and a communist controlled government took over in 1919. Popular support for the latter was short-lived. After failing to preserve the territorial integrity it lost power; the old ruling elite retook control. In March 1920 the newly elected assembly restored the monarchy under Admiral Miklos Horthy as regent. Following an unsuccessful military attempt of the Habsburgs to retake the throne in 1921, the dynasty was dethroned, although Hungary remained a monarchy until 1946 when under Soviet occupation the post-WWII communist dominated government declared a republic
Haiti, a French colony, became independent in 1804 with a former slave declaring himself emperor. Two years later he was assassinated from within his administration and a republic was proclaimed
In 1874 Iceland under the Danish crown was given autonomy over her internal affairs and full self-government in 1918, while Denmark retained control over foreign affairs. The Treaty of Union with Denmark ran out in 1943. In a 1944 referendum with a majority of 98 % Iceland voted to become a republic
In January 1979 the Shah of Iran fled the country following months of increasingly violent protests against his regime and his modernization policies. Ayatollah Khomeini, a religious leader coordinating religion-inspired opposition, returned to Iran from exile. The army was unable to defend the old regime, and after a referendum Iran was declared an Islamic Republic
In Iraq, created as a kingdom in 1920 in the post WWI settlement and independent since 1932, the monarchy was overthrown in 1958 after a military coup amid a wave of Arab nationalism
In 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini, the leader of the fascists, as prime minister who had few hesitations to stay in power using undemocratic means. Although a united opposition expected the king to dismiss Mussolini the king failed to act. Mussolini was then entrenched in power establishing a dictatorial and brutal government using censorship and terror as an instrument of control. During WWII Mussolini committed Italy to the Axis. After the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 Mussolini was overthrown, but with German protection he established a fascist government in Northern Italy. Following the surrender of the German Army in 1945 Mussolini was caught and shot by the resistance. In a bid to save the dynasty Victor Emmanuel abdicated in May 1946 in favour of his son Umberto II (who had assumed some head of state responsibilities from 1944). However, the June 1946 referendum returned a 54 % vote in favour of republic
In 1954 the kingdom of Laos gained independence from France, but civil war broke out between the royalists and the communist party. The latter emerged victorious in 1975 and the king abdicated
In Libya, first part of the Ottoman Empire, seized by Italy in 1911–12 and an independent kingdom since 1951, King Idris was deposed in a 1969 coup by Colonel Gaddafi
Maldives gained independence from Britain in 1965 as a sultanate. The sultan was deposed in 1968 after a referendum organized by the government
After gaining independence from Spain (1821), a military commander Agustin de Iturbide declared himself emperor (1822). He was ousted in 1823. In 1864 Archduke Maximilian Habsburg of Austria was installed as Mexican emperor with the support of Napoleon III of France. He was toppled by republican rebels in 1867
Montenegro was recognized as an independent principality in 1878 and as kingdom in 1910. In 1918 at the end of WWI Montenegro became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929.
Since 1995 Maoist insurgents had been fighting a violent campaign against the Nepalese monarchy, which in the past had been interfering in the affairs of government suspending parliament and imposing a state of emergency. A period of political instability followed with frequent changes of prime ministers, direct control by the king and violent protest against royal rule. The parliament abolished the monarchy as part of a peace deal with the Maoist party to join the government in 2007, although internal peace and political stability remained elusive
Although a constitutional monarchy since 1822, Portugal entered the twentieth century with a political system dominated by an oligarchy set against any changes that threatened their privileges. In 1908 the unpopular King Carlos I, who had sought to reassert royal executive power by backing a dictatorial government, amid a prolonged economic crisis, social unrest and a wave of republicanism, and his heir were assassinated. He was succeeded by his second son, Manuel II. Two years later, organized by a secret republican society, a military revolt erupted in Lisbon supported by urban lower classes, which prevailed over loyalist army units and deposed the monarchy. Beset by political instability the republican constitution was brought down in 1926 after a coup which introduced dictatorial rule
The king of Romania, Carol II, established dictatorship in 1938. Romania entered WWII on the side of the Axis. She was occupied in 1944 by the soviet Red Army as the latter was advancing against Germany. With the USSR helping local communists to establish friendly governments in order to consolidate the security of her borders, King Michael I was forced to abdicate in 1947 and the communist government declared the country a people’s republic
Russia’s military failure in 1916 against the Central Powers of Prussia and Austria led to calls for installing a more politically inclusive government that would include leaders from various political parties and would command the confidence of the parliament, rather than just the approval of the Tsar, Nicholas II. Such calls were unsuccessfully resisted by the Tsar who abdicated in March 1917, after riots and rebellion in St Petersburg. The parliament then established a provisional government of conservatives and moderate socialists that wished to continue the war, but was not prepared to meet demands for land redistribution and socialism sought by councils (soviets) of peasants and factory workers. In April 1917 Lenin, who declared that the aim was a proletarian socialist revolution assumed the leadership of the Bolshevik—Communist party which seized power by a coup in October 1917. In March 1918 the new revolutionary government accepted a humiliating peace treaty that lost her large territories. Opposition to the peace by moderate socialists and conservative elements led to civil war that ended in 1921 with the victory of the communist Red Army, while the Tsar and his family had already been executed (July 1918)
The Bourbon Queen Isabella II abdicated after an uprising in 1868 and the Cortes appointed Amadeo of Savoy as king. Amadeo abdicated in 1873 after another revolt and the Cortes proclaimed the First Spanish Republic. It lasted until 1874 when a coup restored Isabella’s son Alfonso as monarch. In 1931 the king, Alfonso XIII, who had supported a dictatorial government, fled the country following an antimonarchical landslide in municipal elections and the Second Republic was proclaimed. During the period 1936–39, a civil war was fought between the nationalists and the republican socialists, which was won by the former. Their leader, General Franco, established a dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975. He had designated Juan Carlos, grandson of Alfonso XIII, as his successor. As king, Juan Carlos was instrumental in establishing constitutional monarchy and the transition of Spain to democracy
Tunisia, a French protectorate, became an independent kingdom in 1956 and the monarchy was abolished a year later by the prime minister, who had led the movement for independence
TurkeyOttoman Empire
Contrary to the settlements in Europe, the victors of WWI did not apply the principle of national self–determination to the peoples and lands of the Ottoman Empire. Instead, its non European territories were partitioned into areas of control. The settlement was resisted by a strong nationalist movement based in Ankara that after further fighting against Greece (who had been awarded territories in Asia Minor) undid the terms of the peace. As the incumbent sultan had accepted the post-WWI settlement, the nationalist government abolished the sultanate monarchy in 1922 and set up modern Turkey. Other states born out of the Asian and African lands of the Ottoman Empire, including Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, were set up as monarchies. Following national uprisings and domestic coups, today the monarchy survives only in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Neither the successor republics nor the monarchies are democratic
King Alexander banned national political parties in 1929 and assumed executive power alienating non-Serb groups of the kingdom. In 1941 the Axis powers invaded and dismantled the kingdom, while King Peter II fled. The occupying forces met strong resistance from communist partisans and royalists. The two resistance groups also fought each other. By 1943 the partisans succeeded in driving out the Germans without the military assistance of the Red Army, and defeated the royalist. The communist constituent assembly deposed the monarchy in 1945 and proclaimed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
North Yemen
In 1948 North Yemen gained independence from the Ottoman Empire and was a hereditary kingdom until 1962 when army officers seized power, a move that led to civil war between royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia, and republicans, backed by Egypt
Gilbert and Clay Large (2002); Jones (1994); Rohac (2009); Rose and Kavanagh (1976); Tridimas (2010)
BBC, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world country profile—timeline
Encyclopedia Britannica, at http://www.britannica.com
CIA: The World Factbook available at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/
World Atlas, at http://www.worldatlas.com/

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Tridimas, G. On the overthrow or endurance of kings. Const Polit Econ 27, 41–65 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10602-015-9199-x

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  • Constitutional monarchy
  • Autocracy
  • Republic
  • Democracy
  • Hereditary succession
  • Revolution
  • Constitutional exchange

JEL Classification

  • H11
  • D72
  • N40