As an example, changing the US Constitution is extremely difficult as it requires the consent of 3/4 of all States according to the text of the existing Constitution. But in practice any law including the constitution is just a piece of paper and has no enforcement power of its own. Therefore it's theoretically possible for the US to just ignore its former constitution and drastically change how the country is run without following the previous rules.

Are there examples of such a change happening in a democratic state at a time of peace?

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    Do you count the US constitution? There was no real provision in the Articles of Confederation for abandoning or wholly rewriting them (though there were votes in the legislative chamber at the time to approve them), and the constitution was adopted about 5 years after the war for independence concluded. Dec 9, 2019 at 7:44
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    If you can't get 3/4 of the states to agree to said change, what makes you think they would go along with an extra-legal change peacefully? - For example, let's say that half the states agree with the change and the other half don't; so the powers that be decide to change it anyway. That's a set up for civil war and/or secession. Dec 9, 2019 at 12:37
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    @SurpriseDog if they're the 1/4 least populated states, they might not have a lot of options... Dec 9, 2019 at 12:38
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    Depends a bit on the definition of “peacefully” and “democratically” but the French referendum on direct presidential election might qualify.
    – Relaxed
    Dec 9, 2019 at 13:13
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    That was a different era. Even 70 years ago was a different era. If the government military was brought to bear, sure, they would lose. But that's why California isn't allowed to dictate policy to the rest of the nation. 10 million people in one city are not qualified to dictate policy to 5 million people spread over thousands of square miles on the other side of the country.
    – Bardicer
    Dec 10, 2019 at 18:03

3 Answers 3


The adoption of the US Constitution itself, in 1788, might meet your requirements. After the Declaration of Independence the colonies organized themselves into a nation under the Articles of Confederation. This was good enough to see them through the War of Independence, which ended in 1783. The next war they were involved in was the Franco-American naval war of 1798-1800. There were various tensions and conflicts with Native American Tribes throughout the early history, however, but few of them rose to the level of being officially recognized as "wars". Depending on how you view those issues and conflicts, you might treat the period of 1783-1798 as one of "peace".

Soon after the war of independence, it became apparent that the articles were ineffective and that a stronger centralized government was needed to maintain unity and deal with the issues the states and nation as a whole faced. So the states assembled a constitutional convention, via the procedures of the Articles of Confederation, whose original intent was to amend the articles so as to solve these problems. However, it soon became apparent to the convention that amendments simply weren't going to do, and the entire constitution had to be rewritten and replaced.

So the US Constitution as we would come to know it started to be developed. The notable thing here, which may make it meet your requirements, is that while the proposed constitution only required ratification by 9 of the 13 states to adopt, the Articles of Confederation themselves declared themselves perpetual, inviolable, and that any changes to them required unanimous approval in its Article XIII:

[T]he Articles of this Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the Union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.

So while the process started out following the terms of their existing constitution, the procedure for adoption of the new one violated it. There was some slight debate and contention on the matter of the legitimacy of the new constitution as a result, but it was not terribly significant. In Federalist #40 Madison even dismissed it out of hand as moot. Some contemperaneous justifications (and still repeated by some modern historians, though it's long since ceased to be a legal issue: by 1790 all states at the time had ratified the new constitution) were that states were already regularly violating the articles, rendering them essentially invalid; that the constitution was a "side deal between states" before ratification that was permitted by the articles; or arguing on a technicality that a complete replacement was not the same thing as an alteration, and so was not covered by the unanimity clause.

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    One can also argue about whether the US at the time was a democracy, rather than an oligarchy ruled by a small, wealthy portion of the population. Dec 9, 2019 at 9:23
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    @PatriciaShanahan At the time those were basically the same thing, as the "people" were the free, white, male, property owners. It wasn't until later that all of those adjectives started being removed ("free" in the sense that not-free ceased to be possible). Dec 9, 2019 at 9:26
  • "afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State" I'd say ratifying the new Constitution would count as confirming a state's abandonment of the Articles of Confederation. And every state did ratify the Constitution.
    – Just Me
    Dec 9, 2019 at 11:23
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    @JustMe Eventually. It took a few years, and had already been ratified and functionally operational before the last hold out, Rhode Island, did the ratification in 1790. George Washington was already serving as President when that happened. Dec 9, 2019 at 11:28
  • @PatriciaShanahan : Has anyone ever said the U.S. at that time was a democracy? Did any American statesman in the 1780s and '90s consider the U.S. a democracy? Benjamin Franklin said that under the Constitution it would be a republic. Did he think that meant a democracy? However, I thought oligarchy, on the other hand, meant a well defined group of identifiable persons. I don't think that's what it was. In most states only fairly affluent men could vote, but those were not a well defined group of identifiable persons. (Vermont was only state where men who owned no property could vote.) Dec 11, 2019 at 5:03

In some ways all French constitutions are a bit like that. Just think of Napoleon…

The Fourth French Republic had a 1946 constitution that in article 90f regulated how to change it. They found that that didn't work out as thought. But during the crisis of 1958 the national assembly just passed a law on June,3 1958 – that de Gaulle requested as condition for taking power – in a venerable coup on radically changing that procedure. Emergency powers to the rescue? Thus, the Fifth Republic would have had a severe problem of legitimacy but it was then subjected to a plebiscite to rectify that. With some, but not total success:

Although most politicians supported de Gaulle, Mitterrand, who opposed the new Constitution, famously denounced "a permanent coup d'état" in 1964. (fr.wp)

The only problem from how the question is framed: How much the crisis solved peacefully or whether it "was a time of peace". Technically the internal turmoil in France would disqualify it outright. But even more so the Algerian war from 1954–1962 or the Ifni-war from 1957–58. Or France being part of NATO fighting the Cold War?

In our apparent understanding, the West was largely at peace after 1945. But like Revolutionary France, it is really better described as constant war. Regardless of these considerations, at least within France not that many people were shot dead over adopting this newer constitution.

Like any important institutional change, the new French constitution owes its parentage to an established doctrinal tradition, the particular ideas and experiences of its authors, and the combination of immediate political circumstances. The complexity of this process in the summer of 1958 and the failure of the French government to publish the records of the drafting, make it difficult even a year later to describe the birth of the document. Yet the fact that the drafting closely followed a short though dangerous 'crise du rigime', and that it was primarily the work of the new Ministry rather than a constituent assembly, presents a meager advantage to the student of the new constitution. For the haste with which General de Gaulle's government prepared the initial draft—while at the same time preoccupied with many other pressing matters – strongly suggests that the drafters simply cast into legal text the program of the familiar opposition movement, formed by the General over a decade before, specifically to accomplish constitutional reform.
–– Nicholas Wahl: "The French Constitution Of 1958: II. The Initial Draft And Its Origins", The American Political Science Review, Vol. 53, No. 2, 1959. (pp358–382)

And the French weren't finished in doctoring the constitution in a 'we can do it' way, like just 4 years later 1962 French presidential election referendum, nor do they seem to stop anytime soon.

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    I would say France works perfectly Dec 9, 2019 at 18:44
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    @Jonathan: "works perfectly" as an example, or "works perfectly" as a government? ;-) Dec 10, 2019 at 9:21

Colombia changed its constitution peacefully and democratically. Its former constitution was valid from 1886 to 1991.

Before the elections carried out in 1990, a group of students proposed what would become known as "séptima papeleta" (seventh vote, the other 6 were for congress and some other corporations). Although that seventh vote wasn't really accepted and deemed "legal" by the government, the massive numbers it made showed the government that the idea of a new constitution really had popular support.

A constituent's assembly was formed and by 1991 the new constitution was ready and replaced the previous one, all under democracy and legality.

You can read more (in Spanish) at septimapapeleta.com

  • This doesn't answer the original question : was that process legal under the former constitution, or wasn't it ? Feb 13, 2023 at 14:48
  • Reading into the background of this (of which I wasn't previously aware) I think this is an example, but the OP should edit to clarify. The old constitution only allowed modification by Congress, under article 218. The President used emergency powers to convene a constitutional assembly. There is nothing about such an assembly having this authority in the old constitution. But it was accepted by the supreme court, apparently because it would avoid war, rather than following prescribed procedures of the 1886 constitution.
    – James K
    Feb 14, 2023 at 7:07
  • @Gouvernathor the OP asked about changes happening peacefully and "without abiding by the rules of the forner constitution". I explained that it was peaceful and that, although not legal, both the executive and the legislative powers had to accept and actually help the process go on.
    – PavoDive
    Feb 14, 2023 at 17:09
  • @PavoDive You only said the "seventh vote" was illegal, not the constituent's assembly and the new constitution getting adopted without Congress. It should be included in the answer, I think. Feb 14, 2023 at 22:27

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