Constitutional dictatorship

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A constitutional dictatorship is a form of government in which dictatorial powers are exercised during an emergency. The dictator is not absolute and the dictator's authority remains limited by the constitution.

The Roman Republic made provision for a dictator who could govern unchecked for a stipulated period of time. Unlike other magistrates, a dictator was not subject to review of his actions at the conclusion of his term.[1]

The United States Constitution has a similar dictator clause stating that the President "may adjourn [congress] to such Time as he shall think proper". However, this can only be done when the two houses are on disagreement over when to adjourn.[2] Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States during the American Civil War, exercised extraordinary powers to preserve the Union. Lincoln's dictatorial actions included directly ordering the arrest and detention of dissenters and the suspension of the right to writs of Habeas Corpus. Yet Lincoln remained subject to Congressional oversight, judicial review and periodic elections.

The German Republic that succeeded the Imperial German government at the close of the First World War, otherwise known as the Weimar Republic, adopted a constitutional provision expressly enabling the President to rule by decree and without consultation with the legislative branch. This provision was used by Adolf Hitler to consolidate his powers upon his selection as Chancellor by President Hindenburg.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States during the Great Depression and the Second World War, also exercised extraordinary powers in response to both emergencies. Roosevelt's actions included the temporary suspension of the right of contract, in violation of the United States Constitution, as well as the closing of banks and a moratorium on foreclosures. Later, meeting a perceived threat by Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans, Roosevelt ordered their relocation to internment camps.

In the 21st century, John Yoo, attorney and legal theorist, has offered a theory of the unitary executive supporting virtually unconstrained authority to be wielded by the United States President in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces. The Yoo theory provided the intellectual foundation for many of the actions undertaken by the administration of George W. Bush in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.




  • Rossiter, Clinton, Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in Modern Democracies (Princeton University Press 1948; Reprinted by Rossiter Press 2007)
  • Yoo, John, The Powers of War and Peace: The Constitution and Foreign Affairs After 9/11 (University of Chicago Press 2005)