A Brief History
On December 10, 1936, King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom (Britain, et al), signed the Instrument of Abdication, basically his resignation letter. King George VI followed him onto the throne and life went on for all involved, especially for Edward who allegedly never really wanted to be King and was free to marry “the woman I love” now that he was not constrained by Royal obligations. Today we list some national leaders that resigned, either in defeat, in protest, or in disgrace. As hard as it must be to quit a top tier corporate job (such as Papa John’s pizza boss John Schnatter), quitting on running an entire country (or even empire) must be even harder.
Richard Nixon, 1974, President of the United States.
Caught up in the aftermath of the infamous Watergate Scandal, and especially the subsequent cover up, Nixon was going to be impeached and most probably (certainly?) convicted by the Senate, meaning his days were numbered anyway. Nixon, formerly known as “Tricky Dick” for his political slipperiness, quit before he could get fired by the American people. Lucky for him his hand picked replacement Vice President, Gerald Ford (who replaced Spiro Agnew who had previously resigned due to corruption scandal) issued a blanket pardon for Nixon so that the outgoing President would not be prosecuted criminally. Nixon remains the only US President to resign from office prior to the end of a term. In late 2019, we await the results of the current impeachment process directed toward President Donald Trump to see if Trump will be ejected from office or choose to resign to avoid the humiliation of being convicted in the Senate. (Or, if President Trump will not be convicted in the Senate and serve out his term.)
King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom, 1936.
The precipitating event that caused Edward VIII to voluntarily resign the throne of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the British Empire and Emperor of India, was his desire to marry an American divorcee, something that Royal propriety would not allow. Edward did quit and marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, who was not only divorced, but remarried and in the process of seeking a second divorce. The couple remained married until the death of Edward in 1972, at the age of 77. (Simpson died in 1986 at the age of 89.) Edward became “Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor” upon his abdication.
Akihito, Emperor of Japan, 2019.
After ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne upon the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito, in 1989, Akihito fulfilled his royal obligations as Emperor of Japan until April of 2019, abdicating the throne in favor of his son, Naruhito. Akihito is considered “Emperor Emeritus,” or “Retired Emperor.” The reason given for the abdication is old age (85 years) and declining health. The reason Japan still has a throne and Emperor at all is because at the end of World War II after the American nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese were willing to surrender, but not unless the Emperor remained on the throne. The American negotiators did the practical thing and allowed the Emperor to continue to reign, though he was stripped of his status as a god. Japanese Emperors since Hirohito do not have divine status.
Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, 1814 and 1815.
On April 4, 1814, after catastrophic defeats by the Allies of the Sixth Coalition, Napoleon was faced with Generals that told him they would no longer fight for him. Despite knowing the lower ranking officers and men were still loyal, Napoleon abdicated in favor of his son (with his son’s mother, Marie-Louise as regent) but the Allies would not accept such an arrangement. Napoleon was forced to abdicate unconditionally 2 days later and was sent into exile at the island of Elba. Mindful of the loyalty and reverence many of the French still had for Napoleon, Bonaparte was allowed to retain the title of Emperor, though his only sovereignty extended over Elba. After less than a year of exile on Elba, Napoleon was being treated less than completely in accordance with agreed upon terms (such as money allowance) and he feared being shipped off to a more desolate and remote location. Napoleon escaped Elba and returned to France on February 28, 1815 and began a second reign as Emperor of the French, this time only lasting 100 days until he was once again defeated by Allied armies, notably at Waterloo. Bonaparte was once again forced to abdicate, again in favor of his son, this time for good, and was sent into exile at the remote island of St. Helena in the Southern Atlantic, far from France and any sympathizers. (The Allies and the Provisional Government of France did not accept the notion of Napoleon’s son as the new leader of France. Although Napoleon II, the only son of Napoleon Bonaparte, was technically Emperor for a brief period, he never actually ruled or was recognized as such.)
Czar Nicholas II of Russia, 1917.
The last Czar (or Tsar, or Emperor) of Imperial Russia, Nicholas presided over a tumultuous time in Russian history, with revolt simmering even without the catastrophe of World War I (1914-1918). When the tides of war turned against Russia, the people of Russia turned against the Czar and his family, Nicholas was faced with revolt. The last Czar abdicated not only his throne, but also the rights of his male heir, the Czarevitch (Crown Prince) Alexei Nikolaevich. The Bolsheviks that seized power in Russia imprisoned the Czar and his family, eventually murdering the entire clan in July of 1918, ending the Romanov line. If Nicholas II had been a bit more observant, he would have realized how bad things were going and escaped with his family before the inevitable violent overthrow took place. Overestimating oneself seems to be a common hubris of monarchs. (Just ask King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette of France!)
Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, 1918.
Another victim of the misfortunes of war, World War I to be specific, was the Emperor of Imperial Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, a cousin of Czar Nicholas and also of King George V of Britain. (The similar personal appearance of these 3 contemporaneous monarchs is striking!) As Germany starved under the pressures of denuding their manpower across the country to man the military and prop up unreliable allies (notably Austria-Hungary) and the blockade of German ports by the British Royal Navy, the influx of fresh American troops into the conflict could not be overcome by the defeat of the Russians in the East. Military defeat was now inevitable in 1918, and only 2 days before the Armistice that ended (supposedly) the fighting in Europe Wilhelm II abdicated his throne and fled to The Netherlands to avoid a possible fate similar to that of Czar Nicholas and his family. Wilhelm remained in The Netherlands and died in 1941 at the age of 82, with that country a part of the German Nazi empire having been overrun and conquered by Germany in 1940. (The Netherlands had remained neutral during World War I, and was a neutral country when Germany invaded in 1940.) Along with the abdication of Wilhelm II, the German monarchy was abolished. With the rise of German nationalism in the 1930’s, Wilhelm had a glimmer of hope that the monarchy would be restored, but Adolf Hitler and his henchmen had no such ideas, and the old Kaiser was not invited for any German national festivities. When Wilhelm II reportedly gushed over early German success in World War II, Hitler is reported to have blurted, “What an idiot!” When the Germans invaded The Netherlands in 1940, British leader Winston Churchill offered Wilhelm II asylum in Britain, but Wilhelm declined the offer.
Bonus! Sultan Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan, 2006.
This national leader had to be included, if for no other reason than his nifty name! He abdicated on December 17, 2006, in favor of his eldest son. Although in decent health and not elderly by any means (born in 1955, he is currently 64 years old), things were going fine politically, but after a 34 year reign he though the country would be better served by his eldest son. Wangchuck is also notable for advocating a different measure than Gross Domestic Product to measure the wealth and success of a country. He proposed a “Gross National Happiness” index instead! He also has 4 wives and 11 children.
Question for students (and subscribers): What current national leader can you believe will quit sometime soon? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Clark, Christopher. Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Life in Power. Penguin UK, 2009.
Drew, Elizabeth. Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall. Harry N. Abrams, 2015.
Markham, JD and Matthew Zarzeczny. Simply Napoleon. Simply Charly, 2017.
Radzinsky, Edvard. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. Anchor, 1993.
Vining, Elizabeth. Windows for the Crown Prince Akihito of Japan. Curtis Brown Unlimited, 2016.
Zeigler, Phillip. King Edward VIII: The definitive portrait of the Duke of Windsor. Ballantine Books, 1992.
- A photograph, which has never previously been made available to the public (e.g. by publication or display at an exhibition) and which was taken more than 70 years ago (before 1 January 1949); or
- A photograph, which was made available to the public (e.g. by publication or display at an exhibition) more than 70 years ago (before 1 January 1949); or
- An artistic work other than a photograph (e.g. a painting), which was made available to the public (e.g. by publication or display at an exhibition) more than 70 years ago (before 1 January 1949).