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Renunciation of the privileges and prerogatives of an office. The act of a sovereign in renouncing and relinquishing his or her government or throne, so that either the throne is left entirely vacant, or is filled by a successor appointed or elected before-hand. Also, where a magistrate or person in office voluntarily renounces or gives it up before the time of service has expired. It differs from resignation, in that resignation is made by one who has received an office from another and restores it into that person's hands, as an inferior into the hands of a superior; abdication is the relinquishment of an office which has devolved by act of law. It is said to be a renunciation, quitting, and relinquishing, so as to have nothing further to do with a thing, or the doing of such actions as are inconsistent with the holding of it. Voluntary and permanent withdrawal from power by a public official or monarch.

The difference between abdicating a position and resigning one lies primarily in the irrevocability of abdication. Once an office or throne is abdicated, a return is not legally possible. Unlike resignation, abdication is not a matter of the relinquishment of a position to an employer or a superior. Instead, it is the absolute and final renunciation of an office created specifically by an act of law. After an abdication, the office remains vacant until a successor is named by appointment or election.

An early example of royal abdication occurred in 305 a.d., when the Roman emperor Diocletian withdrew from power after suffering a serious illness. Another sovereign, King Louis Philippe of France (the Citizen King), abdicated on February 24, 1848, because of public hostility toward the monarchy.

Perhaps the most famous abdication of power occurred on December 11, 1936, when England's King Edward VIII (1894–1972) renounced his throne in order to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson (1896–1986). Simpson was a twice-divorced socialite whose rocky marital history and American citizenship made her an unacceptable choice as wife of the British monarch. The affair between Edward and Simpson created an international scandal because it began well before her second Divorce was finalized. Edward's ministers pleaded with him to sever his relationship with the woman, whom his mother, Queen Mary, dismissed as "the American adventuress." Edward could not remain king and head of the Church of England if he married Simpson, because of the church's opposition to divorce. Unhappy with many of his royal duties and transfixed by Simpson, Edward chose to renounce the monarchy and marry her. On December 11, 1936, Edward announced his decision at Fort Belvidere, his private estate six miles from Windsor Castle. There he signed an instrument of abdication and conducted a farewell radio broadcast in which he told his subjects that he relinquished the throne for "the woman I love." The 42-year-old royal, who had ascended the throne on January 20, 1936, upon the death of his father, King George V, was succeeded by his younger brother, the duke of York, who became King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II.

Edward and Simpson were married in Paris on June 3, 1937. Afterward, the former sovereign and his wife were addressed as the duke and duchess of Windsor. Except for a period during World War II spent in colonial Bahamas, the couple resided in royal exile in Paris for most of their nearly 35-year marriage.

Further readings

Thornton, Michael. 1985. Royal Feud: The Dark Side of the Love Story of the Century. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Warwick, Christopher. 1986. Abdication. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Williams, Douglas R. 2000." Congressional Abdication, Legal Theory, and Deliberative Democracy." Saint Louis University Public Law Review 19 (summer): 75-105.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the giving up of a position that is not held from another; in the CONSTITUTIONAL LAW of the UK, a process of voluntary surrender of the throne by a reigning monarch. It has happened only once, in the 1930s, and that was itself without precedent. Edward VIII abdicated by virtue of the His Majesty's Declaration of Abdication Act 1936. If it were to occur again, however, the procedure might be similar, involving consultation with the Commonwealth, culminating in an Abdication Act and, if appropriate, alteration of the succession.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

ABDICATION, government. 1. A simple renunciation of an office, generally understood of a supreme office. James II. of England; Charles V. of Germany; and Christiana, Queen of Sweden, are said to have abdicated. When James III of England left the kingdom, the Commons voted that he had abdicated the government, and that thereby the throne had become vacant. The House of Lords preferred the word deserted, but the Commons thought it not comprehensive enough, for then, the king might have the liberty of returning. 2. When inferior magistrates decline or surrender their offices, they are said to make a resignation. (q.v.)

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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