Today marks the 76th anniversary of King Edward VIII’s abdication in England in the 1930s, which highlights the constitutional differences in two nations between replacing a head of state.
The future of the British monarchy is the buzz of Europe, as the royal family is expecting at least one new heir to the throne, to succeed Prince William when he eventually becomes king.
But as Edward’s shocking abdication in the years just before World War II showed, the British secession system has some serious flaws.
King Edward VIII had little direct political power, but the symbolic importance of the monarchy in the United Kingdom can’t be underestimated—especially when the king quits as the war drums are sounding.
Back in America, the Founding Fathers flirted with the idea of bestowing a grand title on George Washington, but most were opposed to having a monarchy in any form in the United States.
Instead, the U.S. Constitution allows for a chief executive who functions as a head of state, and also as the leader of one of the three branches of government.
For example, Alexander Hamilton proposed the idea of an “elective monarch” at the 1787 Constitutional convention, but it was rejected. The elective monarch would have served much like a Supreme Court justice, based on good behavior.
But the original Constitution didn’t have any limit on the number of terms a president could serve (that came after President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four terms). President Washington considered, and then rejected, a run for a third term in 1796, setting a custom that was followed until 1940.
While there can be a considerable debate if the British or American system for selecting a head of state is better, the succession systems themselves are considerably different and problematic.
For example, when President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, Vice President Gerald Ford took his place. However, Ford was not directly elected as vice president (he was appointed to replace the originally elected vice president, who resigned). But Ford was part of a very detailed succession system that guaranteed someone would serve as president, without dispute, until the next election.
That plan is outlined in the 20th Amendment and 25th Amendment, and a federal law, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. The law states a list, starting with 17 people who can act as president under various conditions.
Currently, House Speaker John Boehner is second in line to the presidency, while Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is 17th in line. But at the very most, a new president can only serve until the next general election.
The British system has no term limits for a monarch. Queen Elizabeth II has ruled since 1952. Her son, Prince Charles, will assume the crown when the queen has passed away or voluntarily retires. Charles is 64 and could rule for several decades.
Charles’ son, Prince William, is the Prince of Wales’ heir, and he is currently 30 years of age. Assuming Prince William becomes king in his early 50s, he could easily rule for three decades.
With the news that Princess Catherine, William’s wife, is pregnant, an heir (or heirs) for Prince William should soon be in place.
If William serves as king until the age of 85, his daughter or son would assume the throne around the year 2066 or later. That heir could serve until the year 2100, depending on the longevity of her or his predecessors.
That guarantees a line of succession for the British throne for approximately the next 90 years.
So while Americans don’t know who the head of state will be in 2017, the British know their monarch for the next century—unless someone dies or resigns.
Given the legacy of King Edward VIII’s abdication, it’s unlikely a British monarch would resign unless there was a health issue involved—or there was an unforeseen issue that could force a British constitutional crisis.
King Edward VIII resigned because he was advised by his prime minister that the public wouldn’t accept his marriage to an American citizen, Wallis Simpson, because it wasn’t in line with his role as head of the Church of England.
There have been two proposed recent constitutional revisions in the Commonwealth and the United Kingdom that will change part of the succession rules, when they are officially approved.
The Act of Succession may be changed to allow the first-born child of a monarch, regardless of gender, to become the heir. The other is that the monarch can marry a Catholic.
But the king or queen can’t be Catholic or belong to any other religion than the Church of England, which would pose a conflict if a monarch decides to convert to another religion, or their offspring decide to follow another religion—and need to change their faith or lose their claim to the throne.
That would lead to another speech to a nation, as it was in 1936, when King Edward VIII had to choose the woman he loved over the crown.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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