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Monarchy, its long history and recent decline

  1. Dec 9, 2011 #1
    Monarchy I will define as a system of government where the leaders are succeeded by their children or other family members and/or where the leaders pick their successors. By contrast, the leader of a republic is chosen by some set of unrelated people, anything from the citizens to a council of aristocrats to a ruling committee.

    There's something odd that I've come to recognize recently. Until recently, nearly all societies much larger than a city-state have been ruled by monarchs. But over the last few centuries, many monarchies have either become weakened to de facto republics or abolished outright, with their successors establishing de jure republics. Has anyone ever considered why this odd trajectory has happened? It's been hard for me to find out very much on this question.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 9, 2011 #2
    Er... You might like to start with the French and American revolutions. You might find that those two events were quite influential.
  4. Dec 9, 2011 #3
    I personally think it happened because of the advance of science and trade. Societies became more complex with simply more well-fed wealthy individuals acquiring positions demanding more equal rights.

    I mean, there are of course the specific individuals and specific groups who performed the historic actions. But, to me, the above explains it the most.

    In the Netherlands we still have a monarchy. As a cultural relic from the past which binds the people it is actually a very nice thing to have. We dress up in orange for football matches and stuff, it's just a fun thing to do.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 9, 2011
  5. Dec 9, 2011 #4


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    Er, yeah, probably every political scientist and historian since!
  6. Dec 9, 2011 #5
    I think that it's fair to say that over the last few centuries in most of the surviving European monarchies, elected officials have taken over more and more of the business of governing until the monarchs are left with figurehead positions. They and their families are essentially professional socialites and sometimes professional celebrities.

    I like the term "crowned republic" for such nations, since that term describes how they act in practice.
  7. Dec 9, 2011 #6
    Going into more detail, I first note that many of the more large-scale societies have entered written history as monarchies, including the first literate ones, Sumeria and Egypt. This raises the interesting question of how far back monarchy can be extrapolated in the absence of written records.

    Monarchies have sometimes lasted a very long time, even if they have often been less-than-continuous. Some European royal families, like the Habsburgs and the Hohenzollerns and the Capetians, had lasted nearly a millennium. The Roman Empire's monarchy lasted for almost 1500 years, from Augustus Caesar in 27 BCE to Constantine XI Palaeologus; it was ended by the Ottoman Turks' conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The Chinese monarchy lasted for over 2500 years, from whenever its early history becomes reliable to the abdication of Emperor Puyi in 1911. The Pharaonic Egyptian monarchy lasted for over 3000 years, from Egypt becoming literate to Cleopatra VII Philopator (yes, the famous one); it was ended by the Romans' conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE.

    But there were a few notable premodern societies that were republics. Greece emerged from its Dark Ages and became literate again around 730, a set of city-states united by a shared culture. Several of them had rather tumultuous politics, with the old kings being pushed aside or overthrown and going through various combinations of oligarchy, democracy, and strongman rule. Philip of Macedon's conquest of Greece around 350 - 340 BCE was the beginning of the end of this political experimentation. Rome became a republic in 509 BCE with the overthrow of its king, and the Roman Republic grew from a city-state to most of the Mediterranean Basin. But in its last century, it was afflicted by civil war, ending with it becoming the Roman Empire.

    Advancing to medieval and early modern Europe, there have been several city-state republics, some of them long-lived. San Marino has been a republic for 700 years, and the Republic of Venice had lasted even longer. The record for a nation larger than a city-state is held by Switzerland, founded 700 years ago.

    Switzerland never got many imitators, however, except possibly the Dutch Republic of early modern times. However, the stadholders (leaders) made their position hereditary, making the republic a de facto monarchy. After the defeat of Napoleon, the son of the last stadholder became king.

    But the American Revolution was indeed a watershed event in the history of monarchy. The thirteen rebellious colonies of Britain had gotten some practice in republican self-government, and when they broke free, they decided to unite themselves in an overall republic. This republic dwarfed Switzerland, and was about the size of the Roman Republic in its last century. Its first leader, George Washington, refused to crown himself King George I, and he served as President for only two terms, retiring afterward. He refused any titles fancier than "Mister President".

    So we can credit George Washington with helping to push monarchy downhill.

    Those rebellious colonists had been helped by the French government, on the premise that the enemy of one's enemy is one's friend. But that help proved fatal for the ancien regime, because it gave ideas to revolutionaries. When they took over in the French Revolution, they not only deposed the king, but also guillotined him, along with a lot of other people. France then alternated between monarchy and republicanism a few times before settling on republicanism in the late 19th cy.

    In the 19th and early 20th cy. most European nation builders still wanted monarchs for their nations. Holland, Belgium, Norway, Italy, Serbia, Albania, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria. Finland almost got one, but the Great War, as it was called back then, got in the way.

    But after independence around 1820, Latin America was mostly republics, courtesy of the US with its Monroe Doctrine of keeping Europeans out. Brazil had a monarchy, but it also became a republic late in the 19th cy.

    The Great War (WWI) was another watershed event. That war resulted in the end of the rule of the Hohenzollerns in Germany, the Habsburgs in Austria, the Romanovs in Russia, and the Osmanlis in Ottoman Turkey; monarchies which had existed for some centuries. President Woodrow Wilson demanded, and got, the abdication of the German Kaiser. The Austrian monarch fled, but his position was abolished by the people he left behind. The Romanovs were forced out by civil strife, and then winners eventually executed them. The last Osmanli was forced to abdicate by Turkish nationalists.

    These monarchs' successors created republics, which have stayed republics to the present day. The new European nations of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were all republics. Hungary got a regent, because Hungarians could not agree on which monarch to have -- a Habsburg or a native Hungarian. The new nation of Yugoslavia inherited Serbia's monarchy, however. Portugal had become a republic a bit earlier.

    Around the end of WWII, the monarchies of Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, and Bulgaria were all overthrown by various Communists. Shortly after, the Italian monarchy was voted out of existence, and in 1973, the Greek one shared that fate. The only restored European monarchy has been Spain's, after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975.
  8. Dec 10, 2011 #7
    Monarchs were usually individuals who seized power through force of arms. They then passed said power down to their offspring, or at least tried to do so. There were many disadvantages to this form of government. Often the monarch exploited the people to his own benefit, taxing them heavily, forcing them to fight in wars, forcing them to practice certain religions, banning all opposition, enforcing laws via torture. Often the monarch was incompetent and/or hated by the people. Some monarchs were insane. It often was terribly unpleasant to the ruled, to the point that they were willing to risk death to get rid of the monarch. An armed rebellion once took over the city of London, but collapsed due to internal disorganization. The French rebelled successfully and demonstrated their displeasure with this form of rule by decapitating the ruling class.

    Monarchs were often imposed by conquest. Most of Europe was ruled by one family. They imposed their rule on Greece and even Iraq, where the foreign king was overthrown in about 1950.

    All and all it was a horrible form of government, so I don't understand why anyone would be puzzled at its passing from the world. The first modern republic was the United States, which proved that a republic could work. Throughout the 19th century there was a trend in favor of republics in Europe, with failed revolutions in what is now Germany. World War One was such a pointless snafu that it greatly discredited the royal class. The Czar was deposed and killed and the Kaiser forced to abdicate for fear of a Communist revolution such as occurred in Russia. That was the end of serious royalty in Europe.

    In Asia, Africa, and South America royalty had largely been done away with earlier and replaced by colonial military dictatorships. The colonial system collapsed. Sometimes military dictatorships sprung up, sometimes republics. In China there was a communist revolution, and in Japan and South Korea a republic was imposed by the United States.
    The remaining monarchs -- Thailand, England, Sweden -- are mostly rich figureheads. The only serious monarchies remaining are Saudi Arabia and its neighboring countries, and possibly some in Africa.


    So why didn't this all happen earlier? I'd say the industrial revolution had a lot to do with it. In royal days weaponry was expensive, both in cost and the time to acquire the skill to use it. Industry produced cheap and powerful weaponry that required much less skill, so the people could fight back, and did so successfully.
  9. Dec 10, 2011 #8
    My understanding is that historians generally trace the origins of the political changes of the last 300 years or so to a philosophical movement known as ‘The Enlightenment’. It is interesting that The Enlightenment is sometimes seen as something that happened to the arts, though analysts might suggest that it is more the case that the arts reflected the philosophical and political changes that were happening in society. But in this case there is a case to suggest that the arts did lead rather than follow events. The Enlightenment itself might trace its origins to The Renaissance.

    But this is another one of those cases when which events lead and which followed is fairly unresolvable. Certainly some of the direct philosophical and political writings of the time such as Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and Adam Smith’s An Enquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations were very influential, but they were not written in a vacuum, they were written in a context of shifting beliefs and attitudes.

    The current population explosion is usually traced to about 1750, as is the growing urbanisation and industrialisation of the population. In the end, rather than trying to figure out which events were cause and which were effect it is perhaps more telling to see it as one big, complex, interdependent change that has brought us to where we are today.

    And monarchy, as it exists today, is just an anachronistic relic, like a delicate porcelain figurine in seventeenth century dress complete with powdered face and wig. It has little to do with monarchy as a real political force. Neither does a modern dictatorship have much connection with the old feudal system. Politics today, it seems to me, is more or less a straight dichotomy between some system of representation of the will of the people on the one hand and the imposition of the will of a narrow group or even an individual on the majority on the other.
  10. Dec 10, 2011 #9


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    You might also want to read up on the English civil war. Essentially it was a revolution to get rid of the monarchy, it partially worked but later a king was reinstated as a figurehead.
  11. Dec 10, 2011 #10
    As I'd pointed out, some monarchies have had very long histories, with several dynasties in them. France has had 18 kings named Louis, for instance. Also, 19th-cy. and early 20th cy. nation builders wanted monarchs for their nations because republics seemed too unstable.

    As to Europe being ruled by one family, that's absurd. Europe has had several royal families and lots of noble ones. Families like Hanover and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Hohenzollern and Habsburg and Romanov and ... They did a lot of crossbreeding, however, and Queen Victoria's hemophilia allele (gene variant) got spread rather far.

    The revolutions of 1848 were uncoordinated and not very successful. The Russians helped the Germans and the Austrians suppress their revolutions -- Russia was sometimes called the "Gendarme of Europe".

    It's currently correct that WWI discredited several governments. But unlike the losers, the winners did not have big upheavals, and monarchs in them continued to rule.

    Latin America became independent in the early 19th century, and most of south-of-Sahara Africa in the 1950's -- and both areas have had only a few monarchies.

    As to China, the Republic of China was founded in 1911, and it still rules Taiwan. It was defeated in the mainland by Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949. Both Taiwan and Communist China continue to be republics, one democratic and one very oligarchic.

    Korea was conquered by Japan in 1905, and it became independent at the end of WWII. It got split in two, with South Korea being a now-democratic republic and North Korea the world's only Communist monarchy. Kim Jong Il succeeded his father Kim Il Sung, and he wants to be succeeded by one of his sons, likely Kim Yong Un.

    Since WWII, Japan has been a crowned republic, much like several European nations.

    The main exceptions to this republican trend have been in the Middle East and North Africa, where Britain had local kings take over its territories, except for Israel with its republicanism. Even there, the monarchs of Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya were overthrown by Arab nationalists. Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia have stayed monarchies, ranging from traditional absolute monarchies to constitutional ones who coexist with parliaments.

    Curiously, Hafez Assad of Syria was succeeded by his son Bashar, making Syria a de facto monarchy like North Korea. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khadafy both wanted some of their sons to succeed them, but their children are either dead or imprisoned or in exile. I mention "children" because Muammar's daughter Aisha's zeal.
  12. Dec 10, 2011 #11
    At least on the surface, it was a power struggle between Parliament and the King. Parliament wanted to be more than the King's tax collectors, and King Charles I refused to convene it for 11 years. Charles I lost the struggle, and also his head.

    Oliver Cromwell became Britain's leader, and he wanted to be succeeded by his son Richard. Monarchy sneaking in again? But Richard could not get much support, and he was deposed. Charles II offered to return as king, in exchange for an amnesty for most opponents of his father. Which he did.

    After he died, James II became king, and he pissed off a lot of people with his pro-Catholic policies and the like. They invited in William of Orange from Holland to depose him in the Glorious Revolution. Parliament then passed a Bill of Rights further restricting British monarchs' powers and not allowing them to be Catholics, because "it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom to be governed by a papist prince".

    So why did Parliament win? Was it easier for many people to get represented in Parliament than to get the king on their side? Did that end up giving Parliament a stronger economic base than the king? This representation issue became a big one in certain British colonies, whose inhabitants made a big issue out of "no taxation without representation".

    So could the rise of republicanism be a result of increased ease of long-distance communication? That could explain why most premodern republics were very small, city-states or not much bigger.
  13. Dec 11, 2011 #12
    The early US had primitive long-distance communication, no better than in ancient history.

    Large states in the past were aggressive military regimes. Big fish ate small fish. Republics seem to be less aggressive.
  14. Dec 11, 2011 #13


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    Yep! The primary reason for our system of representative system of government (IMO) is that transportation could be so costly, time-consuming, and so physically taxing on older people (whom you might have entrusted to represent you) that it seemed a better idea to send people to the seat of government instead of keeping them "home".
  15. Dec 12, 2011 #14
    On land, certainly. The horse was the fastest "vehicle" in both times.

    I tried to find out about colonial American roads, and I discovered the King's Highway / the Boston Post Road between New York City and Boston. I could not find out whether it was paved at the time of the Revolutionary War, but if it was, it would likely have been paved with logs or planks. Ancient Rome was already ahead of that, with some major roads elaborately paved.

    But it was easier to travel long distances by water, both in ancient times and in the 18th cy. Ship design and navigation were much improved in the 18th cy. over ancient times.
  16. Dec 22, 2011 #15
    If I still remember correctly, Plato did discuss in his Republic some sort of a cycle of political systems of which states may go through -- which was drawn from his observations of Greek politics and predictions of how it will develop. He predicted that after people end up preferring democratic systems, after elites of other systems are overthrown, these systems will be eventually controlled by "demagogues", and then cumulative mistrust of these systems reforms will be made and the society may experience a return to monarchy for stability -- and Plato's most preferrable system of monarchy is the "philosophical King".
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2011
  17. Dec 22, 2011 #16


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    Please link to the mainstream source this is taken from. Have you read the guidelines?
  18. Dec 23, 2011 #17
    I'm sorry if it seemed that I violated the guidelines. (I did read them once before, and did read them again now).

    My point was along the lines of Plato's hypothesis in the "republic of plato": that many democracies can eventually become a de-facto dictatorships of demagogues who are very skillful in winning the public vote. (and Plato points out that democracies can emerge in response against tyrant monarchs and/or oligarchy political systems). In other words: monarchy many decline "on paper" but in reality there is almost always will be monarch-ic tendencies in democracies, which may lead to de-facto monarchies within republics (as the original poster mentioned in a later post about North Korea or Syria dictatorships) or the potential return of actual monarchies.

    It is possible to say that his assumption can be fairly accurate in many historical progressions that has happened long years after Plato: the French revolution did throw the French King, but eventually the republic itself returned to the ways of monarchy --Napoleon was an Emperor! Or the Roman Kings were replaced by the Roman Republic -- then you had the emergence of Roman Emperors and dynasties again in their history after Julius Caesar. Perhaps the emergence of political dynasties within democratic systems can be seen as part of the monarchy cycle over many long years in society, rather than a true historical decline of Monarchy.
  19. Dec 23, 2011 #18


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    Countries where rule has in relatively recent history become to be by members of one or very few family dynasties that come to mid are Libya, but that has been interrupted, Syria, but there it may not have a future, North Korea where we do not know its future, and the USA where the future of this tradition may be more assured.
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  20. Dec 23, 2011 #19
    Spirit, I don't know about Plato, but Polybius, who lived 2 centuries later, had a similar theory. He explains in detail in Book VI of his Histories (Polybius and the Founding Fathers: the separation of powers, LacusCurtius • Polybius' Histories).

    Here is Polybius's theory of political cycles.

    The cycle starts with rule of a single good person ("monarchy"), and it degenerates into the rule of a single bad person ("tyranny"). The overthrowers of that person set up rule by a good elite ("aristocracy"), and it degenerates into the rule of a bad elite ("oligarchy"). Their overthrowers set up rule by the common people ("democracy"), but it degenerates into mob rule ("ochlocracy"). Someone comes along and promises to fix the system, completing the cycle.
  21. Dec 23, 2011 #20
    Political dynasties do emerge in democracies, but they usually don't last very long or rule uninterrupted. Dynasties like the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, and the Bushes in the US.

    As to those de facto monarchies, here are some abortive ones:

    Saddam Hussein wanted to be succeeded by one of his sons Qusay or Uday: BBC NEWS | Middle East | Saddam's rival sons, BBC NEWS | Middle East | Saddam's hated sons

    Hosni Mubarak could have been succeeded by his son Gamal: https://webspace.utexas.edu/jmb334/www/documents/article.ASJ.2008.pdf [Broken], Gamal Mubarak, President of Egypt? :: Middle East Quarterly

    The author of that article on Gamal's her apparency, Jason Brownlee, had some interesting discussion of autocratic-ruler succession. Since WWII, many such leaders have been deposed, by coups or invasions or their parties or foreign pressure. But of those who escaped being deposed, he notes two categories of succession systems.

    The first is where ruling elites have an orderly procedure for choosing successors. That is typical of Communist countries and other one-party states. You become a leader by moving up in the party and getting the favor of party bosses. But if they dislike you enough, they may remove you, like Nikita Khrushchev. A sort of oligarchic republicanism.

    The second is where they don't. Such regimes have a "crown prince problem", where the chosen successors may try to get into power early. The safest choice then is often a leader's son. Thus, monarchy. So could we have a hint as to how monarchies have emerged?
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