In recent years, we’ve been seeing the words “constitutional crisis” thrown around on the news and social media a lot more often than we used to. Which has probably left many of us wondering, “Just what is a constitutional crisis?”
It’s one of those phrases that doesn’t have a precise, legal definition. FiveThirtyEight breaks it down into four categories: the Constitution doesn’t say what to do; the Constitution’s meaning is in question; the Constitution tells us what to do, but it’s not politically feasible; and/or institutions themselves fail. In essence, a constitutional crisis is a political situation that the law simply doesn’t cover—or one in which disparate elements of the law are in direct conflict.
While the phrase is frequently floated as an existential threat to the government being described—such as when Donald Trump refused to acknowledge the results of the 2020 presidential elections—there have actually been numerous constitutional crises throughout history, in countries all over the world. Some have challenged the foundations of the government, while others have led to the passage of new laws, or to amendments or revisions of governing constitutions. Many remain unresolved.
One of the earliest and most famous constitutional crises began in 50 BCE, when Julius Caesar brought his army across the Rubicon and into Roman territory, against the orders of the Roman Senate. This act precipitated the crumbling of the republic and Caesar’s eventual authoritarian rule. Perhaps the most striking constitutional crisis in the United States came when the southern states seceded from the Union in 1860, kicking off the American Civil War.
Not all constitutional crises had such dramatic consequences, but all were significant and fascinating inflection points for the countries in which they took place. Here are a few interesting ones from across the ages and around the world…
The Glorious Revolution, 1688
In June of 1688, religious and political schisms within England led Parliament to depose King James II. He subsequently fled to France when his army deserted ahead of the arrival of William of Orange, the husband of James’ daughter Mary. While political leaders within England and Scotland intended to install Mary and William as joint rulers, the king’s flight had left no legally recognized way to convene a Parliament. This conundrum eventually led to the Crown and Parliament Recognition Act of 1689, which ultimately established that it was Parliament, rather than succession, which conferred legitimate sovereignty—a major blow against the so-called “divine right of kings.”
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The Death of William Henry Harrison, 1841
Ninth president William Henry Harrison had the shortest presidency in US history. He died of pneumonia just 31 days after his inauguration. As the first sitting president to die in office, his passing kicked off a constitutional crisis, as the rules governing presidential succession had not yet been fully laid out. While Vice President John Tyler took on presidential duties, it was unclear whether he was now president, or merely acting in that capacity.
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For his part, Tyler insisted that he be recognized as president, going so far as to return, unopened, any mail that addressed him in any other way. Eventually, both houses of Congress confirmed Tyler as the new president, a precedent that would eventually become codified in the 25th Amendment, which was ratified in 1965.
The Collapse of the Weimar Republic, 1933
From the earliest days of what became known as the Weimar Republic, which was founded following the devastation of World War I, Germany faced major challenges, including rapidly rising inflation and political extremism. Despite a brief “golden period” in the ‘20s, these challenges were exacerbated by the Great Depression, which began in 1929.
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A variety of emergency acts helped prop the government up, but these were also the levers that Adolf Hitler ultimately used to seize power in Germany, installing himself as a dictator whose “word is above all written law.” Though the Nazi party never actually abolished the Weimar Constitution—which declared Germany to be a democratic parliamentary republic with a legislature elected under proportional representation—Hitler’s use of extraordinary political powers functionally weakened it into nonexistence.
Rhodesian Independence, 1965
In the 1960s, Rhodesia was still a colony of the United Kingdom, and British politicians were pressuring the region to enfranchise the majority Black population before the colony’s independence would be recognized. The region’s minority white government, led by Prime Minister Ian Smith, was having none of it, however, and unilaterally declared independence in 1965—a claim which the United Kingdom refused to acknowledge, calling Smith’s government “the illegal regime.” After years of disputes and negotiations, the crisis was resolved by the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979, and the nation of Rhodesia became modern-day Zimbabwe.
The Canadian Parliamentary Dispute of 2008
Not all constitutional crises resolve in a way that answers the questions that sparked the crisis in the first place. Such is the case with the Canadian crisis of 2008, in which members of Parliament from three ostensibly opposing parties—the Liberal, New Democratic, and Bloc Quebecois Parties—all agreed to cooperate on a vote of no confidence against the Conservative government.
Their unprecedented alliance granted them an effective majority, and the situation was such that Prime Minister Stephen Harper sought to put an early end to the parliamentary session, in order to delay a no-confidence vote. By the time Parliament reconvened, leadership within the parties had changed and the coalition had begun to falter, with Liberal members withdrawing their support. Thus, the attempt at a vote of no-confidence fell apart, leaving the constitutional questions that it had raised unanswered.
The Venezuelan Constitutional Crisis of 2017
In a crisis that, at the time of this writing, remains ongoing, the highest court in Venezuela ruled that members of the country’s National Assembly had been improperly elected. As a result, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice attempted to seize legislative power for itself in support of sitting President Nicolás Maduro, in an act that has been described as a coup. Eventually, this deepening divide within the nation led to the creation of two parallel governments vying for legitimacy, with Maduro and his supporters on one side and the opposition government led by President Juan Guaido and the National Assembly on the other.