Direct Democracy In Switzerland Ch. 1-5

By Gregory Fossedal

1. Pilgrimage

Most visitors to Schwyz ride down from Zürich on the train. The 
approach is pleasant, as is practically all of Switzerland. For 
Switzerland, however, it is an ordinary beauty - a picture postcard on 
the rack, but not the one of the four or five you would buy. The 
small-town buildings are tired, a bit faded; not the crisp whites and 
criss-crossing browns that you expect, and usually find. There are no 
spectacular castles or mountain passes, or if there are, they have 
eluded me on more than one trip as grey mist slumps around the train.

About halfway through the one-hour trip it hits you that just because 
a place is historic doesn't mean it's going to be inspiring. Maybe it 
is better to keep expectations low.

But to anyone making a pilgrimage to the Schwyz archives, there's also 
a sense of anticipation. Each stop brings you closer to a piece of 
history. The geography reinforces this, the train winding along a 
river surrounded by mountains. One cannot see far horizontally; the 
view is mainly upward. So you never know; on rounding the next curve, 
you might arrive at your stop.

When we do arrive at the Schwyz station, though, the scene, despite 
the gloomy weather, is anything but Death in Venice. The first thing 
to catch my eye is a medium-sized news stand. Medium-sized for O'Hare 
airport or Penn Station, that is: For a small rural town, this one, 
like many in the country, is huge. (An article in the paper several 
days later boasted, accurately by my experience, that the Swiss 
consume more newspapers per capita than the people of any other 
country - twice the European average.)

My thoughts are broken by the hiss of bus brakes. Like taxi cabs at La 
Guardia airport, they have rushed up to meet the train. There is added 
hurry; the drivers seem to know (and it concerns them) that they are 
about ninety seconds late. Swiss punctuality may be a stereotype, but 
it is an accurate one.

Climbing onto the bus are five or six others: A pair of teenagers; a 
woman of about forty-five years, her hair dyed an extreme brassy red-
orange color of the type normally seen only on teenagers in America, 
but which is surprisingly popular among older women in Switzerland; 
and a man with muddy boots and blue jeans and a red plaid shirt. The 
man is talking with his son in a dialect that's hard to make out, but 
he uses the German word for "fertilizer." The bus pulls back, bumping 
and hissing me into the real, tangible world.

A short ride, mostly uphill, brings me to my destination: The Schwyz 
information center, near the post office. Actually, the information 
center has closed. Luckily, a travel agency next to where the old 
center was helps me out with directions to the archives. The young 
woman there, who is fluent in English and Japanese, has obviously 
given these directions before, and has a map of the town to point out 
the simple turns one needs to make. But there is no fanfare about it - 
no official transfer of duties, and, one senses, no great hue or cry 
in the town or among the occasional tourists about the loss of the 
center. With characteristic low-key efficiency, the travel agency 
appears to have stepped in, seamlessly, for the old center.

The archives are closed until 2 p.m. anyway, and something urges me to 
soak in a little bit of the town. It is more inspiring than either the 
train ride or the literature about Schwyz have led me to believe. A 
tour book describes a somewhat dingy village "cowering under the peaks 
of the Mythen." In fact, the buildings - though none is more than a 
few stories tall - seem to tower above the mountains. This is only an 
illusion resulting from the structure of the town, but it feels no 
less real. Though the streets are newly paved, they are narrow, some 
dating to Medieval times. This makes it difficult to stand back and 
get a perspective accurately contrasting the buildings with the 
mountain's far greater height.

Whatever the cause of this effect, an unpretentious nobility whispers 
from the old white homes and inns, the granite town hall at the end of 
the street, and even the old wooden storehouse and stone tower that 
both predate the Bundesbrief itself. And far from cowering, they seem 
- partly due to the layout of the streets, partly due to a natural 
romanticization - to gently rival the mountain and the sky. There is a 
quiet greatness.

August 1, 1291 - that is the date that brings me to a small mountain 
town in central Switzerland.

The year isn't as famous as 1776. And the document that was signed - 
now called the Bundesbrief, or what might be translated as a "letter/
contract/ charter of allegiance/confederation/bond" - isn't as well 
known as the Magna Carta. On that date, though, human freedom made an 
important advance. It is the oldest written record of a confederation 
that gradually became Switzerland. It led directly to extended 
charters of freedom for the tiny states near here, for a period of two 
decades and, ultimately, to an historic military victory that 
confirmed their freedom in 1315: the battle of Morgarten.

What happened, in the words of one historian, not only explains the 
birth of Switzerland, it "is the birth of Switzerland." As well, like 
America's own declaration of independence, this is a story of more or 
less "people's diplomacy," in this case between the rugged communities 
of the central Alps.

There is probably no exact historical enactment of the signing of a 
social contract. As Rousseau suggested, the "social contract" is more 
an abstraction from events than an event itself. But the Swiss 
Bundesbrief has some of its characteristics. It comes close.

Does any of this matter? That is to say, Why study Switzerland?

One obvious reason is Switzerland's material and, one might say, 
cultural or social greatness. It is perhaps the richest country in the 
world in terms of per capita income, which is about $40,000 per year. 
The Swiss economy is one of those - Taiwan, Japan - that seem blessed 
by a poverty of physical resources. The country mines neither precious 
metals nor fossil fuels, and is even, despite its dairy industry, 
significantly dependent on imports of certain foods. Yet by thrift and 
invention, the Swiss people have made pioneering advances in 
manufacturing, Pharmaceuticals, and other industries. When the 
country's jobless rate nosed above 1 percent late in the twentieth 
century, Swiss politicians, straight-faced, talked about the nation's 
"employment crisis."

Culturally, the Swiss have managed to accommodate language, religious, 
and ethnic diversity with unusual harmony. The country has three 
official languages in wide use and a variety of ethnic groups. 
Switzerland has been a nation of immigrants and refugees in Europe for 
centuries, and continues today: close to 20 percent of the resident 
population is foreign. Yet crime and social tension are low, cohesion 
high. Even prosperous countries with a degree of Switzerland's 
language "divisions," as they are called in other countries, seem 
nagged by the complexity: Canada and Belgium, to name just two. Poor 
countries in these conditions are simply overwhelmed. Yet the Swiss 
navigate between French, German, and Italian in their market places, 
their civic institutions, and in everyday life, with an easy grace. 
Many university presidents and mayors in the United States, and heads 
of state in Asia or Central and Eastern Europe, have cause to envy and 
perhaps emulate Switzerland.

An interesting statistic is that when asked an open-ended question as 
to what makes them proud about their country, more than 60 percent of 
Swiss give as their first answer something having to do with their 
political system. In many countries, rich and poor, neither politics 
nor the system is so esteemed.

These very achievements, however, have generated a certain bias in 
recent thought about Switzerland. The country is regarded as somewhat 
narrow and calculating by some, merely fortunate by others; at best, 
as a kind of bucolic land of women with puffy white sleeves and 
yodeling - a lovely cheese and chocolate store, but no more. The 
notion is that Switzerland has enjoyed centuries of what one American 
writer called "uninterrupted peace and prosperity."

These notions of Switzerland, however, are a myth. What is worse - for 
myths can do great good - they are a debilitating myth. They make it 
hard to think seriously about Switzerland - and therefore, hard to 
take advantage of the lessons it may have to offer.

In fact, parts of Switzerland were occupied by French troops for a 
generation (1792-1813). The Swiss fought a civil war at about the time 
America and Europe fought theirs (1847), and were surrounded and land-
locked by Nazi Germany (1940-1944). The country suffered bitter 
religious divisions for centuries, and in recent years (1970s) had to 
combat - albeit successfully - a "secession" movement that featured 
domestic terrorism, in what is now the independent canton of Jura. 
Despite the liberal attitudes of the Swiss, women were not empowered 
to vote until 1971. And some Roman Catholic orders were outlawed until 
very recently. In short, Switzerland has not been immune to the 
plagues of history, and if it is healthier now, it is because its 
people seem to have found cures for at least some of the more fatal 

Therefore, in an age when many countries have not yet been able to 
surmount some of these difficulties, there is much to be learned from 
the Swiss. One might say there is a certain urgency. It is doubtful 
whether the solutions of a country like Switzerland can be directly 
transplanted to Bosnia, Poland, Vietnam, Korea, or South Africa. It is 
also doubtful, however, that these countries will be able to solve 
their religious and ethnic divisions, natural partitions, or the 
tensions of federalism without applying measures based upon certain 
general principles. As the Swiss have worked on many of these 
successfully, it is only by a perverse insularity, or a stubborn 
ignorance, that one would want to ignore the Swiss experience.

Europeans, meanwhile, are now engaged in a great process of economic 
integration. They are learning that this implies a degree of political 
and even spiritual integration as well - quite a task given the state 
of the polyglot that is Europe. What nation has more to teach on these 
matters than Switzerland? In the narrow sense, Swiss education and 
cultural systems have achieved a remarkable degree of integration of 
three great European cultures. In a broader sense, as the Swiss 
parliamentarian Andreas Gross has observed, it may just be that to 
deal with the politics of European Union as a kind of unpleasant 
afterthought may be a backward approach. It is possible, if the Swiss 
are any guide, that Europe can gain much by considering such matters 
as a truly federal assembly, and a right of approval of laws by 
referendum, first rather than last. Indeed the Swiss, in a sense, have 
already accomplished on a small scale what Europe hopes to do on a 
larger scale. The measurements are different, but not necessarily the 
operating forces. Thus there may be lessons for Europe in the 
experience of what might be called the first European nation.

Some Swiss wonder whether they should join the European Union. But 
there is another question: Should Europe, in some ways, join 
Switzerland? For America (yes, even for America), it is possible to 
learn as well. This is especially true given the concerns about the 
state of our politics, our institutions, and our mores.

In recent years, one hears words such as "responsibility" and 
"citizenship" more and more often - surely a healthy sign. But the 
mere fact that these are raised in the manner of a plea, or as a 
proposed counter-culture, suggests how far out of practice we have 
fallen. Switzerland, since the time of Machiavelli, has been 
characterized by a tenacious and somewhat mystical patriotism and 
civic dynamism. In Switzerland, even today, one feels somewhat 
transplanted into the American democracy observed by Alexis de 
Tocqueville: a regime characterized by bustling activity, a "constant 
generation" of community activities, private initiatives, and civic 
improvements and associations.

In his classic, Modern Democracies, James Bryce outlines some of the 
reasons why students of history and politics should take a special 
interest in Switzerland.(1) One justification, of course, is its 
longevity. "It contains communities in which popular government dates 
farther back than anywhere else in the world." There are practical 
reasons as well. The Swiss reliance on, and affection for, local 
government has generated "a greater variety of institutions based on 
democratic principles than any other country, greater even than the 
Federations of America and Australia can show."

Most important, however, is the extent to which Switzerland has placed 
a unique degree of faith in the people. Through its use of initiative 
and referendum at the national level, its citizen-based legislature, 
and similar devices, the Swiss have established a very different kind 
of democracy than is seen anywhere else. As Bryce writes:

  Among the modern democracies, Switzerland has the highest claim to 
be studied.... Switzerland has pushed democratic doctrines farther, 
and worked them out more consistently, than any other European state.

In short, it is an important laboratory not just for a collection of 
ideas, plural, but for an idea, singular, that unifies these 
innovations: the most populist (in the objective sense of the term) 
democracy in the world.

Switzerland answers the potential question of the political scientist 
or citizen: What happens if we place so much faith in the people that 
we make them lawmakers? The much earlier experiences with this far-
reaching democracy, as in the city-states of Greece, took place 
without the benefit of the advances in communication that make it 
possible to have popular government without having government by 
physical assembly.

Switzerland has taken democracy down a path not taken by others. Does 
this path, like the "road less traveled by," to paraphrase Robert 
Frost,(2) differ only sentimentally from the other? Or is the Swiss 
path meaningfully different, perhaps even advantageous?

The great dynasties of Europe and Asia, in other words, have much 
experience. But the Swiss have much experience with democracy. America 
is great in space; a majestic continent of vast powers. But 
Switzerland is great in time; a bold experiment sweeping back almost a 

To understand democracy in Switzerland, then, we must survey not 
merely the country's topographical features, or even its present 
institutions, but its origins. We must travel not merely to Schwyz, 
but to 1291 and earlier - to the Bundesbrief, and the still more 
ancient heritage of democratic practices implied by history and the 
language of the Bundesbrief and the earlier Freibriefe themselves. The 
roots of democracy in Switzerland are deep indeed.


1. James Bryce, Modern Democracies, MacMillan Company, 1921, Volume I 
of II.

2. From Collected Works of Robert Frost, New York, Viking, 1977.

 2. 1291

"Switzerland is a product of both creation, in its constitution of 
1848, and evolution, in hundreds of years of people in sovereign 
states, learning to get along. You must understand both elements to 
understand Switzerland today."  - Edgar Brunner

If you look at a relief map - which is almost essential to understand 
Switzerland - you can see the logic of Switzerland's development in a 
series of quasi-independent villages, towns, and cities. If you were 
to place a group of marbles at the center of the map, among some of 
the highest peaks of the Alps, they would eventually meander to the 
long, Norway-shaped plain of the northwest, and the lakes of Como and 
Maggiore to the southeast. But the route the marbles would travel 
would bounce down around the Lake of Luzern, and of course the Saint 
Bernard and Gotthard Passes routes.

This imaginary route of the marbles more or less defines the outer 
border of the three original cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, 
as well as those that soon became part of the Swiss confederation: 
Luzern, Zürich, Bern, Zug, Appenzell, and the lands of what was later 
Aargau. The main grooves, some six or seven, are chopped up into 
dozens of smaller rivulets. They form semi-isolated units suitable for 
similarly independent human communities. A town planner setting up 
Switzerland from scratch today would probably follow this design, 
toward which the country was evolving naturally from the twelfth to 
the fourteenth centuries.

To extend on our analogy above, if you were to sprinkle small ball 
bearings on our relief map, they would bump and nudge their way down 
to settle into these nooks and crannies very much where the actual 
towns are today. Even the "great plain" of Switzerland, stretching 
from Geneva in the southwest across Lausanne, Bern, Basel, and Zürich 
up to the Bodensee in the northeast, is diced into a hundred or more 
natural towns - of which there are more than 3,000 in Switzerland 
today, for an average population per unit of only some 2,000 people, 
and a median of perhaps 1,500 or less.

These relatively low-lying areas have the climate to support high-
altitude farming, and the river transport to export its products. By 
the late thirteenth century, they had even developed some reputation 
for producing quality woven textiles and other products that could 
benefit from their access to large and wealthy markets all around the 
region, including France, Germany, Italy, and Austria.

As the calendar pushed on toward the year 1300, outside forces began 
to attack the independence of these communities. This happened for 
several reasons. First, the nations around Switzerland - the kingdoms 
of Lombardy, Burgundy, and Savoy; the emerging empires of France, 
Germany, and Austria - were expanding. By tradition, most of the 
cantons that formed the original Swiss confederation, located in what 
is now central-northern and eastern Switzerland, were possessions or 
protectorates of Austria or of the Hapsburg family, which later ruled 
Austria, but originated in the present-day Swiss canton of Aargau. The 
Habsburgs, however, were never popular in their own place of origin, 
and grew less popular as some of the Habsburg nobles became more 
arrogant over the years 1200 to 1350. The Swiss, for their part, 
complained of high tax rates and arbitrary judgments from the local 
courts run by Habsburg nobles.

With Austrian and Habsburg influence waning, and popular affiliation 
with Austria weak at best, France, Burgundy, Germany, and the lords of 
Lombardy looked to fill the void. Switzerland, situated in the middle 
of these competing states, became a battleground as the borders of 
these emerging empires crept toward one another.

A second factor, stronger in the centuries that followed but present 
even in 1291, was the mild rebuke to top-down rule posed by the very 
existence of Swiss communities with their mixed democratic practices 
and traditions. We cannot document the exact shape of the politics of 
those local villages, which in any case varied widely, because most of 
what we know about them either comes from less reliable oral history 
or must be inferred from the small number of documents. But it is 
generally accepted that even in the thirteenth century, the Swiss - 
particularly in such fiercely independent cantons as Uri and Schwyz - 
made use of local, popular assemblies to decide many broader and 
nearly all local questions of policy. These certainly were more 
democratic than any of the nearby empires. Naturally, not everyone 
"voted," but in some communities, landowners and even burgers probably 

The Swiss, even in the midst of the Middle Ages, also offered 
something of a demographic haven. Uri, one of the three original 
cantons, had its origins, as historian J. Murray Luck has written, as 
"a kind of Siberia" to which mountain farmers, too rough for the 
tribes of Germany and Alsace, were banished. If there were few or no 
formal individual rights, there was an ethos of independence and 
political equality, and the right to speak your piece. "From even 
these early times," as former Senator Franz Muheim impressed on me 
during long discussions of Switzerland's animating principles, "there 
has been a code of, 'I mind my own business, you mind yours.' It is 
easiest to understand if you start by trying to assume that someone 
wanted to go against this principle, such as the Habsburgs. Then you 
look at a map, and you see all these valleys, lakes, rivers, and steep 
hills and mountains, breaking the country up into a tapestry of 
thousands of natural villages. If you wanted to impose your will even 
on your neighbor, how would you do it? It would take a large army just 
to conquer a few such communities. How would you then take over dozens 
or hundreds of them?"

This haven naturally had an impact on the surrounding aristocracies. 
It put ideas into the heads of peasants and laborers bound to service 
in the more feudal communities around Switzerland. In Uri and Schwyz, 
the grant of rights had been made directly from the emperor to the 
people at large, making the Swiss example especially dangerous for the 
neighboring aristocracies.

Finally, as is common when we find human competition and conflict, 
there were economic elements. Sometime shortly before or after the 
year 1200, the freemen of canton Uri opened a small bridge across the 
river Reuss. The bridge wobbled several hundred feet above the torrent 
during low periods, precariously close to it when the river rose, and 
connected two sides of a deep gulch not far from the Gotthard Pass.

It was called Teufelsbrucke, or devil's bridge. Some attributed this 
to a large bulge of rock above that appeared suspended by occult 
forces. Others note the bridge itself stood somewhat athwart nature 
and normalcy. Man seemed to issue to the rocks, like Satan to God, his 
own defiant non serviam.

Crossing was no exercise for the meek. Even riding over today's 
modern, concrete bridge, not far from the original, in a four-door 
sedan, the winds are enough to bounce your car around a little, and 
the occult shadows thrown off by the high and jutting cliffs menace. 
The combination of height, galloping waters, howling air currents, and 
sharp rocks stabbing out from tall cliffs all around creates a feeling 
of great precariousness.

Nevertheless, the bridge became a transportation jugular, and a 
catalyst for a rapid increase in economic exchange for all the 
surrounding countries. Before, there had been no economical way to 
transport cattle and other products from the dairy farms of Uri and 
its neighbors to the wealthy regions surrounding Milan to the south. 
Now these products could make it through, and more developed products 
from north and south could be exchanged more efficiently, spurring 
trade between Germany, Italy, and France.

No one kept elaborate output or trade statistics in those days, but we 
can infer the impact of the Teufelsbrucke from related measures. For 
example, as Swiss historian Werner Meyer has noted in his fine history 
{1291: L'Histoire), there was one major chateau in the central Swiss 
region in the year 1000: Rotzberg in Nidwald. This grew to four by the 
year 1100, and stood at five at the turn of the century in 1200, 
roughly the completion of the bridge. By the year 1250, however, this 
number tripled, to sixteen, with nine of the eleven new structures in 
Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden. These figures suggest a rapid expansion 
of economic activity during the period.

The population of many existing towns in Uri, Schwyz, Luzern, 
Unterwalden, and the region around Zürich more than doubled between 
1200 and 1300 - a time of relatively slow rises in life expectancy, 
and many conflicts in Switzerland. This was much faster than the 
surrounding towns, many of which saw flat population growth.

As one direct measure of the economic impact of the bridge, in 1359, 
Uri paid approximately 100,000 francs for lands in its district held 
by the Fraumunster cloister of Zürich. This was only a fraction of 
Uri's collection of tolls from the bridge, since the canton made 
similar purchases from the Habsburgs, individual lords, and other 
abbeys during the same decade.

On May 26,1231, Emperor Friedrich II sent a Freibrief, or freedom 
charter, to "the people of the Uri valley," recognizing and 
formalizing in law the independence from the Habsburgs that they had 
gradually won in fact. It is worth noting that this letter was 
addressed to "the people," not a particular official, institution, or 
lord. The Swiss cantons asserted, and the emperor recognized, not 
merely a set of terms for a set of nobles and their king to agree on 
privileges, but of rights enjoyed in common by the inhabitants of the 
Uri valley.

Friedrich was succeeded by several emperors of lesser note and by an 
"interregnum" (1256-1273) between emperors. In 1273, the nobles 
selected no populist to head the empire, but one of their own in 
spirit: Rudolf I.

Rudolf was a Habsburg, the first in a long line to serve as emperor 
for much of the next 500 years. Rudolf was interested in recovering 
his family's holdings and influence in Switzerland, now all but 
crumbled, as a long-term guarantee of Habsburg rule. In this, he may 
have been shrewd, but his methods made enemies both in the Waldstatte 
and the empire at large. He attempted to raise taxes and to exploit 
many feudal obligations. For example, he called upon his subjects to 
send troops for sham or at best uncertain battles, then negotiated 
with them to waive his rights in return for cash payment. Rudolf 
appointed family members and foreigners as judges and other officials 
to the Swiss cantons.

The simple Swiss villagers resented these bureaucrats not only as 
economic dead weight, but as arrogant overlords. Several of the 
Habsburgs apparently used their position to seduce or compel women in 
their districts to convey sexual favors and join them in what the 
Bundesbrief itself alludes to as "unnatural" perversions.(2)

By the end of his life, the excesses of Rudolf and his family had 
alienated most of Switzerland. Close to the end he tried to recoup 
popular support by offering to reconfirm the essence of the freedoms 
of the Waldstatte in a slightly repackaged form. Rudolf promised to 
appoint judges only from among the Swiss. But this was only a promise 
not to assert his right to appoint other judges, not a limitation of 
his own power per se. And his description of who would be covered by 
these rights was ambiguous - clearly including the nobility, not so 
clearly the general population. Gone was the clear-cut universis 
hominibus of Friedrich, to be replaced by an elitist and unprincipled 
game of divide and conquer.

Rudolf's death on July 15, 1291, was preceded by two years of 
obviously declining health. Even so, the Swiss rebels moved with 
surprising speed, considering the state of communications in those 
days - suggesting that such moves had been orchestrated in 
anticipation of his death. Within two weeks - August 1, 1291 - they 
had sealed a pact for "everlasting cooperation," the Bundesbrief.

We have no recorded debates or newspaper accounts of the actual event. 
In this sense, almost anything said about the drafting and approval of 
the Bundesbrief is speculative. But there is intelligent speculation 
based on evidence. From this, without making too many leaps, we can 
ascribe a number of features to the event.

The text of the agreement refers to a renewal of the "ancient" 
cooperation between the cantons, suggesting that no dramatic 
departures were needed and the requirement for popular oversight was 
light. On the other hand, this was a dramatic time, and the 
declaration of a perpetual alliance at a time of possible war. The 
very fact that something was being put on paper suggests a heightened 

The Bundesbrief describes itself as a pact between "the people of Uri, 
the community of Schwyz, and representatives of the people of 
Underwalden." Read literally, this sounds like a meeting, probably in 
Schwyz, at which the "communitas" (community) of Schwyz was largely in 
attendance, a large popular assembly of Uri, and a group from 
Unterwalden more in the character of a chosen assembly or group of 
representatives. We need not read it so literally, of course, but we 
have no strong reason to prefer a different interpretation, especially 
given the broader context. Whatever combination of leaders and common 
farmers joined together, they met, in all likelihood, in some village 
along the Lake of Luzern or of one of the rivers nearby. Such a choice 
would have made for a central location, and would have made broader 
participation possible by allowing for use of the rivers, lakes, and 
nearby roads that were much of the transportation network. The author 
Schiller, among others, placed the events on the banks of Rütli, 
certainly one possible location. Another is the town of Schwyz itself, 
where the Bundesbrief is now kept.

The composite scene that emerges is not necessarily far from the 
legendary paintings, tapestries, and operatic versions - an indication 
that either the artists did their historical homework, or that the 
Muse that moved them did so in emulation of the fact. The men stood 
out along one of the gentle hills that have formed a backdrop to so 
many popular deliberative assemblies over the last 1,000 years and, 
looking forward as well as back, sealed a solemn "and perpetual" oath. 
Even in this setting, at Rütli or nearby, Switzerland seems almost 
designed to be a democracy. The slopes make for a natural stadium or 
amphitheater, allowing a large number of citizens to participate in a 
discussion and then vote.

That there was some kind of democratic assent is implied not merely by 
the political system of the villages in the cantons, but by the 
document itself. The Bundesbrief notes, for example, that there was 
near unanimity, but not total unanimity, of the participants - 
suggesting some sort of measurement or discussion or both. It refers 
several times to the document as an "oath," renewing, solidifying, and 
perfecting an "ancient alliance." This suggests, particularly in the 
Middle Ages when oaths were taken seriously, an actual oath of some 
sort. Yet the Bundesbrief is also self-consciously a document, 
referring to the statutes and promises "above," and those "now 
written." Hence it was not merely a pro-forma repetition of whatever 
old oath of alliance may have existed.

Here again, Schiller and the artists may be saluted for either happily 
or artfully conforming their representations to the likely facts. And 
Tschudi, Gagliardi, and other historians sometimes taken to task for 
their credulity may turn out to have greater skeptical acumen - 
refusing to judge a thing wrong just because it is deemed true by the 
oral tradition - than some revisionists who are merely contrarian. 
Aspects of the Bundesbrief's content are worth noting. The document 
contains no "signatures," unlike the Declaration of Independence or 
Magna Carta. In this sense, it is highly populist, almost corporatist. 
At the bottom are the community seals of Uri and Unterwalden, and on 
the left, a mark where the corporate seal of Schwyz once was.

In some ways, this anonymous character is appropriately Swiss, the 
product of a politics of consensus by a group of equal citizens.

The new agreement did not set up a mechanism of government; it did not 
proclaim itself a new republic or even promise one. In this sense, the 
Bundesbrief is indeed a limited document. It is, however, a social 
contract as well, albeit a focused one. And because the participating 
communities were already significantly democratic in form and practice 
and assumption, it set up a very important experiment, and proclaimed 
the legitimacy of doctrines implicitly contrary to monarchy and 

For the most part, the empire was much too absorbed in wider and more 
immediate problems to deal with the Swiss. It took nearly a year for 
the bitterly divided electors of the Holy Roman Empire to select a 
successor to Rudolf, whose own holdings had to be divided among his 
sons. Adolf of Nassau (1292-1298) was killed in battle trying to keep 
his empire stitched together. Albrecht I (1298-1308), the son of 
Rudolf I, tried to create trouble by encouraging the Habsburg nobles 
in Austria and Aargau to reassert their ancient rights, but the lords, 
as noted above, were expelled rudely. Not until Friedrich the 
Beautiful (1314-1326) was the empire sufficiently stable for the 
Habsburgs to mount a serious effort to overturn the upstart 

The Swiss founders, by luck or shrewd design, took advantage of this 
confusion to consolidate their own internal relations and to add 
allies. The powerful surrounding cities of Bern, Zürich, and Luzern 
were natural allies, and longed to free themselves from the Habsburg 
influence. But they would be more inclined to take part in an alliance 
that seemed solid than to gamble their prosperity on a mere chance 
coalition of farming communes. The Bundesbrief served not only an 
internal function, but an external one, projecting a picture of 
solidarity to potential friends and enemies. This was a touchy game to 
play: Too brazen a rebuke of the nobles might have focused the 
counter-revolution in Switzerland. Instead, the royals fell out among 
themselves - the German princes versus France versus Burgundy; Saxony 
against Austria for influence in Bern, Fribourg, and Aargau; and 

If this account does not overcredit, then the founders of the Rütli 
emerge as not only effective nation-builders, but shrewd strategists. 
The Bundesbrief, in combination with economic boom and a citizen's 
army of growing effectiveness, helped shelter the Swiss from foreign 
intervention for a generation - roughly from 1291 until the Battle of 
Morgarten in 1315.

Morgarten added the seal of military history to the Bundesbrief. Some 
15,000 Habsburg troops from Austria - noble, well-armed, mounted, and 
skilled - marched toward the central cantons. Through a clever series 
of road-blocks, the outnumbered Swiss farmers and village craftsmen 
drew the attackers into a narrow passage between the Aegerisee and 
Mount Morgarten. With perhaps only 100 troops, and certainly no more 
than 250, the farmers fell upon the Austrians in the narrow pass, 
suffering little disadvantage from numbers under the cramped quarters, 
and surpassing the Habsburg contingent with their courage and 
resourcefulness. Many Austrians were slaughtered in the "bloody rocks" 
just west of what is now a nearby town; the Swiss rolled boulders, 
logs, and (in some accounts) wild animals onto them. Other Austrians 
were driven into the water and reportedly drowned. About 2,000 
Austrian and twelve Swiss troops died.

"Morgarten," as one military historian put it, "shocked the world," 
much as the success of the American Revolution over the British 
Empire. The Swiss had proven, in their first great test, that a 
popular, citizen army could hold its own against elite forces from one 
of the great European powers.

Indeed, "Switzerland," though not yet existing, was an attractive 
political economy and an attractive idea even early in the fourteenth 
century. Before and after Morgarten, the Swiss managed to form 
important agreements with Glarus, Arth, Milan, and Luzern. Even the 
ill-fated first alliance with Zürich, which ended when besieging 
Habsburg troops crushed the town in 1292, rebounded in favor of the 
Swiss. After the sacking, the resentment of the people of Zürich for 
the Habsburg dominance was, like the Bundesbrief, "in perpetuity."

It was only a matter of time - and a few more victories like Morgarten 
- before the forest cantons convinced Zürich, Bern, and other great 
cities of the region decided that this was a confederation worth 
joining. Morgarten was the material manifestation of a long policy of 
intelligent statecraft by the central Swiss, a combination of internal 
political justice and equality with prudent external alliances.


1. The diffusion of wealth and breakdown of feudal privileges seen in 
Uri and in Switzerland generally went against the trend of the times. 
Danish peasants and private farmers, for example, owned more than half 
of the land in the year 1250; by 1650, this figure had declined to 
just more than 10 percent. For most of Europe, the transition enjoyed 
by Switzerland came only in the 16th Century, and in some cases, later 

2. See for example Jurg Stussi-Lauterburg, and R.Gysler-Schoni, 
Helvetias Tochter, Huber, Zürich, 1999

 3. Willensnation

Victory at Morgarten established the upstart confederation as a viable 
emerging confederation. It also set off the dynamic of growth by 
attraction - the voluntary association of neighboring principalities, 
cities, and individuals - that makes Switzerland a nation created by 
acts of the free will.

The Swiss call this concept, and the political entity based on it, 
Willensnation, and use the term with pride. It is a nation of people 
who have come to Switzerland (even today, nearly 20 percent are 
foreigners) or whose ancestors did, or whose ancestors belonged to 
towns or small principalities that freely joined the confederation. 
The common point is some attraction to the idea of Switzerland with 
its freedom and cultural diversity under a banner of strong national 

In this way, as in many others, Switzerland bears some resemblance to 
the United States.

The term Willensnation is apt in a second sense - one used by few or 
no Swiss today, and certainly not intended at the start, but 
nevertheless appropriate. For Switzerland was also "willed" in the 
sense that the country's independence, neutrality, prosperity, and 
special political and social culture resulted in part from a long 
series of deliberate policies. Switzerland's position and its 
geography sometimes aided these developments, sometimes frustrated 
them. They were not, however, sheer accidents of climate and other 
facts of nature, contrary to much commentary from Sully to Montesquieu 
to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and down to the present.

These tendencies, once established, reinforced one another. As 
Switzerland became known as a haven for the industrious, the freedom-
loving, the independent, it tended to attract more such people. Many 
emigrated to escape ruinous taxes, or the feudal duties that acted 
like taxes. As this turbulent frontier attracted such pioneers, the 
traits of independence and fortitude were reinforced, and so on. All 
these dynamics, however, required a point of crystallization, some 
core, at the start - much as the "Norwegian section" or "little 
Vietnam" of Chicago, after reaching some critical mass, became a self-
generating phenomenon.

Without this core, we might have seen simply a long history of bloody 
rebellions along the borders of the three great empires - France and 
Burgundy; the German-Austrian Hapsburg Reich; and Italy and (to some 
extent) Lombard and the Papacy to the South. Instead, the 
confederation of independence-minded states at the crossroads of 
Europe became an example and a magnet. Suddenly, and ever since, the 
idea of liberty had enough soil for something living to grow on.

If we examine Switzerland's history from 1291 up through the twentieth 
century, its political economy and culture can be seen as represented 
in Figure 3.1. The figure is not exactly a map, though it roughly 
positions the main actors geographically. It is more of an historical 
flow chart that represents a number of Switzerland's roles in Europe 
and, indeed, the West.

For 800 years, Switzerland has served as a natural crossroads for the 
exchange of goods between Germany, France, and Italy. By the early 
eighteenth century, more than 10,000 persons passed over the Devil's 
Bridge annually - often accompanied, of course, by more than one cart 
or horse of products per traveler. There were other ways to travel 
between France, Germany, and Italy, of course, but - especially for 
transporting livestock or large caravans of goods - the most efficient 
way was to cut through the Alps, especially as this became more and 
more efficient with improvements to the bridge and the surrounding 
roads and towns.

To attract a growing volume of traffic, even this strategically 
situated crossroads had to be adept, or at least competent, at many 
tasks. Merchants needed a safe road to travel on, with inns and 
churches and other essentials of life along the way. They would prefer 
traveling through areas where the legal system was fair, prompt, and 
relatively simple to deal with. Money - preferably a single, reliable 
currency; certainly a multitude of them if not one - was essential. 
When Plato sets about establishing the ideal state in his Republic, he 
starts with the need for a market for exchange and for a market to 
carry out that exchange - money is needed. Naturally it would be 
helpful to find people along the way who could converse in your native 
tongue, particularly in the larger cities where contracts and 
exchanges might have to be worked out.

Switzerland has benefited from the earliest times in that it had a 
strong incentive to develop this kind of efficient, stable political 
economy. All nations have an interest in this, of course, but for the 
people that inhabit what is now Switzerland, the potential gains were 
even larger - and the potential for division and violence, arguably, 
greater too. Much was riding on the successful maintenance of this 
position, both for the original cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and 
Unterwalden, and for the surrounding cities - Zürich, Baden, Luzern, 
Bern - that prospered in part thanks to the success of the 

The geographical additions to the confederation began almost 
immediately. Zürich joined in a separate alliance weeks after the 
Bundesbrief. It proved ill-fated when the Hapsburg Austrians destroyed 
much of the city in revenge two years later, and was tested again 
throughout the fourteenth century, but eventually proved solid. 
Luzern, likewise, sometimes leaned Hapsburg, sometimes toward the 
Alpine Bund. These two rich cities had the largest stake of any in a 
free, prosperous transit across the Alps.

In a sense, the early Swiss were in a competition with the Hapsburgs - 
with the support of the merchant cities likely to swing toward the 
group they thought could provide the most effective economic and 
political regime. Who could run the trans-Alpine marketplace best? 
Inexorably, both Luzern and Zürich took advantage of every opportunity 
to side with the confederation, and generally tacked back toward the 
Hapsburgs only under duress. There were divisions within their own 
populations as well, of course, but these were evidently few. Note, 
for example, how eagerly the Zürich elite sided with the unproved 
alliance within ten weeks of the sealing of the Bundesbrief in 1291.

By 1393, the original confederation of three cantons had grown to 
eight: Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden were joined by Luzern, Zürich, 
Glarus, Zug, and Bern as confederates. This central core was working 
cooperatively with communities on the next periphery to solidify the 
new de facto state still further. Bern reached out toward the now-
French-speaking cities of Fribourg and Lausanne, Uri and Luzern looked 
south toward what is now the Italian portion of Switzerland, and 
Zürich and Schwyz aimed at popular diplomacy with the independence-
minded farmers and merchants of Aargau to the West and St. Gallen to 
the East to provide a buffer zone from the Hapsburgs - and, of course, 
potential ground for the federation's own growth. This process is 
represented in Figure 3.2. Note that Switzerland was not yet a 
"country" as such, and would not be for many years. Some would place 
the date as late as 1648 and the treaty of Westphalia - or even 1848 
and the constitution following Switzerland's final major religious 
war. On the other hand, attributes of sovereignty were forming out of 
this Willens-confederation as early as 1291, as we have observed. This 
makes assigning an exact date both difficult and, in a sense, 
arbitrary and unnecessary.

The white core in the center represents the three original cantons of 
Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden (Obwalden and Niwalden) roughly as they 
were in 1291. The four gray regions that seem to move out from that 
core represent the 52), and the cities of Zürich (1351) and Bern 
(1353). Some of the territories not marked as part of the 
confederation were already, in the mid-1300s, "subject territories" of 
Bern, Zürich, or of the confederation. For example, Fribourg 
(associated with the confederation in 1481). The broadest dark line 
around the outside is the border of modern-day Switzerland with 
France, Germany, Italy, Liecthenstein, and Austria.

An illustrative addition to the confederation during this period was 
Zug, a city (and now canton) on a still lake south of Zürich. The 
Hapsburgs strove to retain control there as they did in Bern and 
Zürich - anything to avoid being completely cut out of the picture in 
a region evolving as a crossroads. Parts of the town sympathized with 
the earlier confederation, and probably fought as individuals at 
Morgarten. Some of the ruling aristocracy were Hapsburg and pro-
Hapsburg; others not. After securing the support of Zürich and Luzern 
in 1351, the central cantons moved against Zug in June 1352. It fell 
in a matter of weeks. From a Hapsburg point of view, one might say 
that the Swiss on federation seized the town by mere physical force. 
This, though, is only part of the story. There was in fact a vigorous 
faction within the city that supported incorporation within the 
confederation. Families within the township of Zug and in the 
surrounding countryside organized themselves and were fighting for the 
confederation within the city. Few details of the battle remain and 
there were apparently few casualties, all suggestive of a short battle 
in which the conqueror was welcomed as a liberator.

It was at the end of the century, however, that the real cement was 
applied to the confederation. In that year, Emperor Friedrich III 
died, succeeded by his son Maximilian I. To a treasury already 
strained by rivalry with the French, Maximilian added an untimely 
taste for luxury and even display. He established a tax, the Pfennig 
tax of one penny, throughout the kingdom. Maximilian also strove to 
centralize the judicial system, introducing an Imperial Chamber of 
Justice and allowing appeals of purely local cases. Here were two 
matters, taxes and centralized justice, on which nearly all Swiss, 
peasant and landowner, worker and merchant, could agree. After winning 
an alliance that brought money but no troops from France, the Swiss 
confronted the Austrians, the Kaiser's initial proxy, in a series of 
campaigns running from the Jura in the Northwest through Basel and 
Baden in central Switzerland and Graubünden and St. Gallen in the 

The decisive battle took place on July 22, 1499, near the Solothurn 
fortress of Dornach. The Austrian troops assumed the Swiss were far 
away and were bathing lazily in the Birs to escape the heat. The Swiss 
fell on the Austrians and killed many of their 16,000 men, including 
the Austrian commander. The Kaiser relented and agreed to a peace 
treaty at Basel on September 22, 1499.

Within two years, Basel itself joined the confederation, which grew to 
thirteen cantons with its entry in 1501. Basel illustrates the 
attraction of the confederation's free democratic model in a highly 
positive way. Even the city's ruling class had reason to admire the 
tenacious fighting spirit that the mountain democracy of the forest 
cantons seemed to breed. Swiss troops had heroically defended the city 
in 1444 in what might be called the Pyrrhic defeat of St. Jakob's. 
Marching with the intention of absorbing Basel and nearby areas into 
France, the French troops slaughtered their opponents. But they were 
chastened by the courage with which some 1,500 Swiss held off 40,000 
trained and well-armed troops, inflicted great casualties, and fought 
to the death. The French decided there were better places to expand 
than this region where they would be resisted with such ferocity. The 
people of Basel realized they had been rescued by this act of self-
sacrifice, and relations between the city and the confederation grew 
closer in the coming decades.

The cities joining the federation took the lesson of Willensnation to 
heart, adapting some of the principles of democracy at work in the 
rural cantons to their own use. Bern, one of the most aristocratic 
entrants into the confederation, adopted democratic political reforms 
after resentment of the city's ruling elite resulted in riots in 1470. 
Zürich's ruling families ceded increasing powers to an elected council 
and acquiesced in the rise of the guilds, whose power transformed the 
city. These reforms did not put the more elitist cities on a 
democratic par with the rural Landsgemeinde, or community meetings, 
but they were a significant step.

Thus, even Switzerland's conquests represent persuasion and example as 
much as sheer muscle. It was at popular diplomacy that the Swiss 
excelled. Such cities as Bern, Fribourg, and others followed the 
pattern of Zürich in many ways. They could surely have resisted the 
mountain men of the Alps, had it not been for the fact that many of 
their people sympathized more with, and longed for the freedom of, the 
Waldstätte. They evidently felt an alliance with these rugged folk was 
more reliable than those based on the caprice of the dukes and princes 
and clergy that dominated the rest of Europe. "The Swiss are not easy 
to win as allies," as the Duke of Milan said during one of 
Switzerland's less creditable hours as the Duke and France engaged in 
a bidding war for the use of Swiss mercenaries. "But they are highly 
sought because, as allies, they are extremely valuable." Machiavelli, 
who observed the Swiss in battle and traveled extensively in 
Switzerland, regarded the Swiss as perhaps the toughest fighters in 
Europe, comparing them - the highest compliment possible from 
Machiavelli - to the soldiers of the Roman Republic. This reputation 
as fierce fighters stayed with the Swiss down through the centuries, 
leading to comparisons to the Vietnamese in the 1960s and 1970s and 
the Afghanistan rebels of the 1980s.

Like the Romans, Machiavelli observed, the Swiss fought well in part 
because they had something to fight for. Their free lives and 
republican virtues not only gave them better weapons and better 
leaders to fight with, but animated great individual courage among 
this "army of citizens."

By the time Machiavelli saw the Swiss defeated by French forces at the 
battle of Marignano (1515), Switzerland's growth by absorption of 
territory was almost at an end. Thirteen of the present twenty-three 
cantons belonged to the confederation, stretching from the Bernese 
territories in the west across Basel, Zürich, and down through the 
forest cantons and into Appenzell and Glarus in the East. The full 
inclusion of many of the French-speaking cantons in the West in a 
multilingual Switzerland was not complete until the nineteenth 
century. But already there was great affinity and extensive trade, 
monetary, and other links with Geneva and Lausanne, as well as with 
some of the towns of what is now the Italian-speaking Ticino in the 
South. This affinity became formal defense treaties with Lausanne in 
1525 and Geneva in 1526. The Duke of Savoy made a final attempt to 
assert his rights over Geneva and was crushed by a confederate force 
composed largely of troops from Bern and Solothurn.

It would be wrong, however, to think that Switzerland ceased to be a 
political magnet after 1500. From the sixteenth century onward, 
Switzerland didn't absorb bordering cities and territories at the same 
rate, and it began to follow a policy of neutrality in foreign affairs 
that has survived to the present. It did, though, continue to attract 
large numbers of people. Some were religious, political, or ethnic 
refugees. Others were risk takers, entrepreneurs. Still others were 
the rebellious and the contrary who didn't like the taxes, the feudal 
dues, or the social elitism of European society. Almost all took part 
willingly in the culture of freedom, tolerance, and democracy.

In short, before about the year 1530, Willensnation moved borders. 
Afterward, to a large extent, it moved people.

In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, setting forth a great 
exodus of Huguenots and other Protestants from France. In the coming 
years, an estimated 120,000 poured into the Swiss confederation. Many 
of these resettled into Germany, America, and other countries, but 
many chose to remain. In percentage terms, those figures compare with 
the great Irish migration to the United States. A deliberate policy to 
control the population growth played a role in how the immigrants were 
assimilated (or not) into Swiss society. In the 1670s and 1680s, Bern, 
Luzern, Solothurn, and Geneva established fees before one could become 
a burgher. Smaller towns followed suit and the fees generally grew 
throughout the century until they were prohibitively high. The result 
was that skilled laborers, who valued their ability to export readily 
into the French market, had the wherewithal to remain in Switzerland: 
approximately 3,000 in Geneva, 1,500 in Lausanne and Bern, and a 
significant number in the smaller towns of Vaud and Fribourg. Of 
these, a disproportionate number consisted of highly skilled artisans, 
employers, and financial elites.

"Much of Swiss industry (watches and textiles, to name just two) owes 
its origins, not to economic causes, but to religious oppression in 
neighboring countries," writes J. Murray Luck in his History of 
Switzerland. "The refugees from France and Italy brought with them 
invaluable skills and know-how."

Data from Geneva and Zürich for the year 1700 indicate the population 
of both cities consisted of 28 percent or more of immigrants. If we 
add in the number of persons who came from other parts of the 
federation - such as

Italian-speaking and German-speaking Protestants from the forest 
cantons and the Ticino - the proportion of refugees and immigrants 
would surely have approached or exceeded 40 percent.

In 1864, the confederation concluded a treaty with France that 
provided for the establishment of Jews in Switzerland. The treaty 
obliged the Swiss to allow French Jews to settle freely in Swiss 
territory. This was followed by a popular vote, in 1866, that codified 
the right of Jews to settle anywhere they wanted in the country. If it 
seems a grudging measure by today's standards, it came some eighty 
years before similar protections were provided in the rest of Europe. 
Coming at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise again in Europe, 
as the industrial age advanced and paranoia about "Jewish capitalists" 
resurfaced, this was an important gesture by the newly reconstituted 
nation. In Geneva (about 6 percent) and Lausanne (close to 10 percent)
, the percentage of Jews in the population was higher. A number of 
Jews, of course, emigrated to Switzerland only to relocate in a few 
years to such destinations as Poland and the United States. Those who 
remained made disproportionate contributions to scientific, financial, 
and other core economic activities, and helped generate the kind of 
critical mass in intellectual brilliance that would attract other 
leading researchers and entrepreneurs, making Switzerland the greatest 
contributor to increased productivity of the nineteenth and twentieth 
centuries. (Switzerland has won more than five times the Nobel Prizes 
for science of any other nation on a per capita basis.)

If generous, then, the policy was also wise. Jewish immigrants from 
France and (later) Germany formed the basis of a great expansion of 
the Swiss banking, construction, and manufacturing industries. The 
contribution from immigrants was by no means limited to Jews. Arab 
traders and financiers fled from Spain and helped make Basel a center 
of science and trading in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and 
their descendants remain today. Protestant refugees from France, 
fleeing to the Western cantons, and later Catholic refugees from 
Holland, England, and Scotland flocked to the central cantons - 
Switzerland, at times, was a magnet for both confessions. It was the 
willingness to accept people power of many different races, faiths, 
and ideologies that helped Switzerland thrive. Diversity, it turns 
out, is competitive.

For example, two engineers who left France in the 1860s played a key 
role in the construction of a railroad through the St. Gotthard pass, 
completed in 1882. The initiative, financed privately by the 
leadership of investment magnate Alfred Escher, spawned a number of 
spin-off innovations in engineering by immigrants in Geneva, Lausanne, 
and Bern. This intelligent but much-disputed decision by government 
and industry (debated from the late 1840s onward) acted somewhat like 
the U.S. space industry or the Internet, catapulting Swiss firms to 
the lead in a number of technological fields. The direct impact 
resembled that of the Teufelsbrücke: the new trans-Gotthard route 
reduced transit time from a period of several days to less than ten 

The list of Swiss immigrants (Jewish and non-Jewish) from the mid-
nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries reads like an international 
Who's-Who of overachievers, job generators, and breakthrough 
scientists. In 1858, Henri Nestlé left Germany to work in the pharmacy 
of another Swiss immigrant; during his apprenticeship he first began 
to toy with improved infant food formulas that were not only to form 
the basis of one of the world's largest conglomerates, but would save 
countless lives. He was spurred on by the work of two American 
brothers, Charles and Henry Page, who in 1866 had founded a condensed 
milk factory in the small Swiss town of Cham. The development 
illustrates the important "critical mass" feature seen in places such 
as America's Silicon Valley, where the presence of so many bright 
minds, finance capital, and new ideas becomes a synergistic, self-
generating boom.

In the same period, Brown Boveri of Baden was founded by a Scottish 
engineer and a German financier. Today, Asea-Brown-Boveri, or ABB, 
employs several hundred thousand workers in Switzerland and around the 
world. French immigrants had already brought the manufacture of muslin 
to Zürich in the 1690s; in the early nineteenth century the textile 
industry attracted more immigrants as Escher Wyss and other spinning 
establishments, not allowed to import equipment, brought spinning 
experts from Britain and the United States to develop their own. In 
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Switzerland proved an 
attractive haven for such diverse intellectuals as Victor Hugo, Madame 
de Stael, Gibbon, and Albert Einstein.

In flipping through five or six centuries in as many pages, we run the 
risk of missing some important intervening developments, rather like a 
time-lapse photographer snapping a shot only once a generation. For 
the purpose of understanding Switzerland, however, it is enough to 
describe the dynamic that was at work over those many years - and to 
provide some examples and anecdotes that illustrate the basic 
historical movement.

One danger is that we make the development of democracy in Switzerland 
seem easier than it really was. There were, after all, jealous and 
powerful princes who would have loved to seize control of the 
chokepoint in the Alps. For all the advantages geography gave to the 
Swiss in defending their mountain redoubt, geography also placed most 
of the country's arable land and natural living space in a valley wide 
open to French and German attack, and naturally drawn toward those 
lands by many habits of language and culture. Swiss toleration for 
religious differences seems simple looking back, but then, so does 
most history when we can look back on it. For four centuries, the 
Swiss were as divided between competing religious ideas as the rest of 
Europe, and, indeed, gave birth to two of the more searching critics 
of Catholicism, Zwingli and Calvin, the West has seen.

Before we begin to survey the operation of Swiss institutions in the 
present and recent past, it is important to examine some of the 
difficulties they had to overcome to arrive at their present state.

 4. Geodeterminism

"Switzerland," avers Alfred Defago, "was made for federalism and 
democracy." Defago is the Swiss ambassador to the United States and 
the former head of one of Switzerland's broadcasting services, a 
sophisticated communicator and politician.

He leans back in a slim, comfortable chair - ostentation, no; 
functionality, yes; he is Swiss - and continues. "I doubt our 
institutions could simply be copied and replicated elsewhere with the 
same results. We are a small democracy with certain geographic 
features, cultural pluralism, and political consensus-building. Others 
would not enjoy these traditions and this landscape."

This is vintage Swiss: Keep it small. It works for us, but we make no 
large claims. But before my opportunity to object - "Mr. Ambassador, 
without copying the Swiss system wholesale, surely other countries can 
adapt your institutions, and profit from your experience" - Defago 
seems to recollect himself. He is speaking to an American - and one 
interested in the historical overlaps and parallels of "the Sister 
Republics," as the United States and Switzerland have been called.(1) 
Defago rocks forward.

"Then again, I guess what we did is more or less copy the U.S. 
constitution." He is right: The Swiss constitution of 1848 was largely 
based on the U.S. constitution of 1789. (The U.S. constitution in turn 
drew on the Swiss experience, while avoiding some of the perceived 
pitfalls by setting up a more coherent central government than the 
Swiss enjoyed at that time.)

"Then, Mr. Ambassador, perhaps the system can be exported - provided 
it is copied from the U.S. and not Switzerland."

Defago relaxes into the smile of both an intellectual patriot, who 
appreciates his own country being understood, and a satisfied 
politician, who likes to see a problem solved with a turn of phrase.

The Swiss have benefited of a number of accidents of nature that make 
them seem, at times, a kind of geographically chosen people. Mountains 
and ridges offer a defensive redoubt. The Alpine passes make it a 
natural transportation node, and therefore, a cultural and economic 
one as well. It would be wrong to infer, however, that Switzerland has 
enjoyed an "uninterrupted... peace and happiness," as a Baltimore 
Gazette correspondent gushed in 1788.

This is a common mistake, repeated by visitors in each of the last 
seven centuries. "The entyre people," as an English merchant put it 
during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), "seem blessed" with a 
"felicity ordained from the mountains themselves." This geodeterminism 
is seductive because it has some truth. Nowhere else in the world, 
perhaps, is one so aware of the role the land must have played in 
human activities as in Switzerland. And Switzerland, while by no means 
always affluent, has traditionally enjoyed a balanced development in 
which extremes of rich and poor are rare. These facts are abetted by 
the Swiss, with their self-minimizing temperament: They would rather 
point to nature or fate as explanations for the country's 
achievements, than their own skill or that of their ancestors.

The result can be to sell short what has been achieved by 
statesmanship, leading us to overestimate the forces of nature, and 
underestimate the potential for human action.

The constitution of 1848 is one example. Its basic arrangements 
survive today, a tribute to the political acumen of the framers, who 
had to deal with religious, social, and economic conflicts against a 
backdrop of foreign meddling in Swiss affairs and a general European 
revolution. It was not, however, written by rivers or mountains, but 
by men. If we think in terms of geographic predestination, then we may 
miss valuable lessons.

The view of Switzerland as a merely fortunate accident of geography, a 
sort of historical boutique, is simply inaccurate.

One obvious barrier for Switzerland is geography itself - something 
that cuts in different directions. To whatever extent the Swiss 
landscape tends to impose a certain natural federalism, it also 
frustrates Swiss nationhood. Imagine trying to unite these different 
communities of aggressively independent fanners and merchants, 
especially when ties of religion, language, and power were often 
tempting them to turn outside.

For purposes of review, we can group these entropic forces into 
several broad categories: economic factors, using the term broadly to 
cover matters of domestic policy and politics; military-strategic 
elements; and religious divisions, including those between Christian 
sects since the Reformation, but also those within the Catholic Church 
both before and after it.

If we look at some defining moments of Swiss development, we nearly 
always find one of these factors present - usually two or three. It 
then becomes clear that Switzerland came about because human ingenuity 
was able, at critical times, to surmount large difficulties

Economics are at the heart of Swiss political development, and not 
always a positive factor. The potential for passage through the 
Gotthard and other passes was only economically relevant with the 
effort of the people of Uri to build the Devil's Bridge. Even this act 
of community entrepreneurship, however, was only necessary, not 
sufficient, for significant commercial traffic. Someone would have to 
supply money, security, lodging, and other services critical to a 
marketplace and a highway. And provision of these, while in the 
interest of Uri and indeed all the cantons, was rendered difficult by 
the very federalism, independence, and do-it-my-way spirit of the 

As the historian Arthur Mojonnier noted, even after the Napoleonic 
occupation ended in 1815, the route to and through the Devil's Bridge 
was a tangled thicket of regulations, special charges, and other 
expensive complexities.(2) Linen manufacturers of St. Gallen often 
sent their wares all the way through Strassburg to reach the Western 
parts of Switzerland, rather than across their own country. Foreign 
companies in the 1820s and 1830s sometimes bypassed the country 
entirely, at a cost of many added days, rather than pass through a 
number of its competing twenty-two cantons. A piece of cloth, cheese, 
or other item passing through the Gotthard was liable to some 400 
taxes on the transport of goods. The Ticino alone, one Swiss canton, 
managed to apply thirteen taxes and tolls. At each stop, merchants had 
to take their goods, unload them, and allow customs bureaucrats to 
weigh them. The cantons grew vexed at one another, each one wishing 
its neighbors would leave the revenue collection to it and stop 
clogging the road with competing taxes; trade and tax wars were set 
off as each one tried to dream up new charges.

Taxes weren't the only problem. "Money," as one historian put it, "was 
a mess." Before 1848 each canton, many cities, and even some 
ecclesiastical lords had the right to issue currency. There were more 
than fifty such authorities in Switzerland, producing an estimated 700 
different pieces of gold, silver, and other types of coinage. The only 
saving grace for the Swiss was that their own little currencies were 
of such limited use that most cantons by statute, and the entire 
country as a matter of practice, tended to accept the French franc and 
écu as legal tender. From time to time, the currencies of Bavaria and 
Württemberg were also accepted. Still, acceptance of the franc, along 
with associated free trade and other privileges extended to France, 
created other problems, making the Swiss economy more vulnerable to 
the swings in value of the French economy and monetary authorities.

Money and taxes were only two of the most visible downsides of radical 
federalism. Legal codes were distinct from canton to canton and even 
town to town. Some descriptions make the cantons sound like an 
accumulation of speed traps and rigged courts. Cloth was measured 
according to more than five dozen units of length; liquid volume 
stated in some eighty-one different measures. There were, of course, 
four languages, and many different subdialects of the most common, 

France's invasion of Switzerland in 1798 suggests weaknesses in the 
Swiss position of a military and strategic nature. Perhaps just as 
impressive, the French occupied the country until 1815. These facts 
illustrate the fact that not all geography works in favor of Swiss 

The French made substantial preparations, illustrating some of 
Switzerland's vulnerabilities as a multicultural hub. For months prior 
to the invasion, the Directorate flooded Western Switzerland with 
pamphlets, newspapers, and speaker-agitators, urging its comrades to 
take arms against the aristocrats, particularly in the frankly 
oligarchic cities of Lausanne, Bern, and Fribourg. These arguments 
played to an already strong and fast-growing community of expatriate 
dissidents and Swiss fellow travelers - a subsidized Fifth Column - 
present since the run-up to the 1789 revolution. "The Swiss loved 
these fugitives," a French nobleman living in England remarked as the 
juggernaut pointed East. "Now they will be reunited."

The campaign began on an inauspicious note when several regiments from 
the city of Geneva, assigned by the Swiss Diet or cantonal congress to 
aid in the defense of Bern, declined to take an oath of allegiance to 
the confederation. There were few or no outward demonstrations against 
l'ancien regime de Suisse, but many of the people were lukewarm in 
their support. French troops marched down off the heights West of 
Switzerland and into Vaud, proclaiming liberation. History books 
barely even speak of the battles in this war. Some Swiss troops tried 
to make a stand and were out-maneuvered; many dissolved as units and 
returned home; a small number, perhaps two or three percent, joined 
the French. The canton of Vaud fell without a shot being fired, and on 
January 28, the French occupied the important city of Lausanne without 
resistance. In late February, French forces occupied most of Fribourg 
and the canton of Bern; General Schauenburg entered Solothurn on March 
5. On March 14, after being issued an ultimatum by Brune without a 
fight, the Great Council of Bern abdicated. Zürich and Basel did not 
fight, and though proud Schwyz and later Nidwalden made a stand, it 
was not a memorable one. On March 28, Lecarlier, commander-in-chief of 
the occupation forces, could inform the French government that he had 
assumed "the full powers of government over the whole of Helvetia." By 
May, he was generally in control.

Where were the country's unassailable mountains, not to mention the 
fighting spirit of its militia, as the French strolled across 

One answer is that while most of the country in terms of square miles 
consists of mountains and is highly defensible, the bulk of the 
population and economic output are located in the crescent-shaped 
valley that runs across the Northwest, from Geneva across to Zürich. 
One need only seize control of perhaps 20 percent of Swiss territory 
to have control of most of its population and economy.

Another answer can be found in the cultural affinity between 
Switzerland and France. This is particularly evident in the French-
speaking region in the West, but extends East by tradition and 
psychology. For hundreds of years Swiss mercenaries, largely from the 
poorer German-speaking cantons in the center and East, earned a small 
fortune from the kings of France by offering their services on the 
country's behalf. That the communities could be tempted into this sort 
of arrangement is another illustration of Switzerland's sometimes 
precarious position; the country is always vulnerable not only to the 
cultural pull of the great nations around it, but to economic and 
military manipulation.

Switzerland was also somewhat divided by political and economic class. 
In fits and starts but for centuries, the cities of Bern, Zürich, and 
Geneva had undertaken gradual political reforms to enfranchise the 
burghers and the guildmen. In the early and middle eighteenth century, 
however, this progress in voting rights, due process, and other 
democratic reforms had been halted and, in many cases, reversed. When 
Russian and Austrian troops marched in from the East and South, they 
were treated as forces of freedom. There was, however, a substantial 
minority, the disenfranchised and the radical, who welcomed the French 
invasion. And the majority, while certainly patriotic, was lukewarm.

Switzerland was not sharply divided, but it was not unified to the 
extent required for tiny countries to resist large-scale invasions. 
The Swiss lacked the fighting spirit they showed when the mountain men 
resisted the Austrians in the fourteenth century and booted them 
across the Rhine in the fifteenth century; the people did not fear and 
loathe the French leadership as they would Bismarck in 1870 and Hitler 
in 1935. The Diet barely began military preparations even though it 
had debated defense improvements at almost every session from 1793 on.

Geographically, Switzerland was and is divided and small. Three 
distinct language and economic zones are separated by mountains as if 
they were a television dinner tray. "The natural conditions," as James 
Bryce writes, "might seem most unfavorable to the creation of a State 
or even of a nation. The Swiss people 1/4  dwell on different sides of 
a gigantic mountain mass, 1/4  separated from one another by craggy 
heights and widespread snow-fields. Given the easy crossing at many 
points of the Rhein, no natural boundary marks them off from the 
Germans to the north and east, from the French to the west, and from 
the Italians to the south."

By virtue of its historic tolerance, and its relatively recent social 
consensus, Switzerland is often wrongly perceived as having missed the 
religious quarrels of the rest of Europe. "The cantons of Switzerland,
" as the Reverend John Witherspoon wrote during the American 
Constitutional Convention, "have never broken among themselves, though 
there are some of them Protestants, and some of the Papists, by public 

In fact, Switzerland has suffered its share of religious divisions. 
>From the intra-Catholic disputes of the Middle Ages through the strife 
of the Reformation, Switzerland sometimes escaped the fury of the 
times - it came nearly unscathed through the Thirty Years War - but 
more often did not. Figure 4.1 lists just some of the large-scale 
religious conflicts experienced by Switzerland.

Table 4.1
Swiss Religious Wars

1525 Repression of the Anabaptists

Religious leader Huldrych Zwingli declares the Anabaptists, who favor 
"full acceptance" of the Sermon on the Mount, are "heretics," and the 
city of Zürich begins a repression. Anabaptists are expelled, drowned, 
hung, and burned.

1531 Battle of Kappel

Catholic cantons, with outside backing from Austria, defeat a force of 
Protestant forces from Zürich. In this battle the Swiss religious 
leader Zwingli - a pacifist - fought for the Zürich forces and was 
killed along with 500 compatriots. (October 11, 1531).

1586-89 Civil War Plans; Savoy hits Geneva

Central cantons form an alliance with Spain. Catholic Savoy attempts 
to take over Protestant (Calvin) Geneva. (Catholic cantons opposed.) 
"Civil war was probably averted," the Catholic historian Hillaire 
Belloc argues, "only by the defeat of the Spanish Armada" in 1588.

1618-1649 Wars over Graubünden

Reformed Synod of Bergün condemns local pacts with Spain, Austria, 
aimed at preserving Catholic predominance. Prominent Catholics are 
driven from their homes; some killed. In July 1620, Catholic bands 
retaliate, murdering 500 persons. Spain, Austria, France, and Venice 
intervene, with major engagements in 1621, 1622, 1624, 1633, 1635, and 
1637. A "permanent peace" was signed in 1649.

1633-1634 Swedish intrusions

Zürich (according to Catholic cantons) allows Swedish troops, on their 
way to battle the forces of the Kaiser, safe passage through Thurgau. 
Catholic cantons demand resistance. Reformed cantons make plans for a 
war, the Catholic cantons allege, at Zürich in January 1634. The Swiss 
Diet (May 21, 1634) approves a plan for internal peace and neutrality 
vis-à-vis Sweden. This statecraft, according to Gagliardi, "saved the 
country," and leads to conclusion of the Defensionale of Wyl (1647).

1655-1656 First Villmergen War

Schwyz confiscates properties by citizens converting to Protestant 
faith, beheads others, and demands return of subjects who fled to 
Zürich. Zürich (aided by Bern) mobilizes 25,000-man army against 6,000 
Catholics, but the confrontation dissolves. Erupting again, the two 
forces meet at Villmergen on January 24, 1656. The forces of the 
mountain Cantons crush the Bernese forces (backed by Zürich), and 
craft an agreement confirming cantonal sovereignty for confessional 
matters (Baden, March 7).

1667-1681 French Comté

Louis grabs the French Comté without strong resistance. Switzerland's 
newly federalized war council tries to organize a response, but too 
late. The cantons renew the Defensionale in 1668 and briefly win the 
return of the region to Spain. But France re-enters in 1674. As the 
War Council contemplates retaliation (1675-76), Schwyz, then other 
cantons, withdraw (1679) from the Defensionale.

1701-1735 Expulsion of the Anabaptists

Bern, Zürich, and other cities engage in large-scale expulsion of 
Anabaptists. Some Anabaptists are compensated, but others suffer 
property confiscation and harassment. Bern hires Ritter & Company to 
assist the effort, paying a fee for every Taüfer Ritter could dispatch 
to America or Canada; there was a bonus for paupers.

1712 Baden and the Freiämter

Zürich and Bern combine against five of the central cantons to fight 
over administrative control of Baden and the so-called Freiämter. "The 
Swiss lack only one thing," the Swiss historian Abraham Ruchat 
comments. 'They are not united ... and the cause of their division is 

1732-1768 Geneva: Burning Rousseau

Geneva, Swiss historian Johannes von Müller commented, was "nearly 
always" troubled in this period. Peasant demands focused on economics 
but had a sectarian edge given the Calvinism of the ruling 
aristocracy. In 1738 the city gave in to many of their demands. The 
ruling class attempted a reversal in 1760, and held a celebrated 
burning of the books of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in front of the Geneva 
Council House. The burghers again revolted, and though Bern and Zürich 
sent aid to their fellow Protestant elites, the oligarchs retreated in 

1798-1815 French Occupation

Only partly religious, but there were confessional and clerical issues 
at stake. These strengthen after Napoleon declares the Protectorate 
Constitution in 1803. (See text.)

1802 Federalist Revolution

Due to the treaty system of Lunéville and Amiens, French troops had to 
evacuate Switzerland in 1802. Immediately afterward a federalist 
popular revolt swept away the centralist government left by the French 
and installed a government at Schwyz. Napoleon Bonaparte sent his 
troops a second time and had them stay until 1804 to stabilize his 
clever adaptation of the newly federalist Swiss system, the so-called 
Mediation of 1803.

1847 Sonderbund War (Swiss Civil War)

Civil war between Catholic cantons, which formed their own "defense 
league" against alleged intrusions against cantonal rights to allow 
Jesuit instruction in the schools, and Protestant cantons opposed to 
what they term de facto secession. (See text.)

A recurring theme of these conflicts is the presence of, indeed 
manipulation by, foreign interests. Switzerland's geopolitical 
position at once excites the interest of these powerful states, and, 
at the same time, exerts a certain cultural pull on the people toward 

This is not to say that Switzerland was overcome by these 
difficulties; this would be geodeterminism merely redirected. The 
Swiss were able to conquer their challenges, for the most part. The 
point is, they did, in fact, have to conquer them.

The Defensionale of 1647 - which helped cement Switzerland's 
independence and growing prosperity from 1600 to 1800 - was written 
and concluded not by rivers but by men, and approved by a referendum-
like popular assembly in the Landsgemeinde cantons. Likewise the 
declaration of neutrality in Baden on May 3, 1764, despite its flaws, 
was a helpful instrument and guide to the future in helping the Swiss 
avoid some of the entanglements of European affairs. But it was a man-
made instrument.

All of these factors - economic, political, and religious fissures, 
abetted by foreign meddling - came together in 1847 in Switzerland's 
civil war, the Sonderbund War.

The war was rooted not only in Swiss internal factors, but in the 
effort of European statesmen to build stability after the ravages of 
the Revolution and Napoleon. European maneuvering to control, 
influence, or simply divvy up Switzerland began as early as the first 
grand coalition. In 1813, as the troops of Austria and Russia swept 
across Switzerland, all the powers had ideas about the proper shape of 
a new regime. Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia disliked Swiss liberal 
tendencies, but was concerned about French influence of any sort. Even 
with Napoleon gone, maps, institutions, and sympathies had been 
rewritten in the generation since 1789, and he feared a strong France. 
Tsar Alexander I of Russia felt neither great sympathy nor enmity 
toward the Swiss, but as a practical matter, favored a buffer state 
against the French dominated by him and his fellow royalists. Britain 
felt a certain natural sympathy for the Swiss as a democratic republic 
and a victim of continental meddling. Robert Peel was serving as 
Ambassador to Bern for Palmerston's government and developed a deep 
respect for the Swiss. The British also viewed a strong Switzerland - 
armed and neutral - as a bulwark against aggression in any of several 
directions. More than most of the other diplomats, Peel and Palmerston 
understood that Switzerland's high ideals and democratic institutions 
were helpful, if not essential, to the country's ability to play this 

Animating and shaping the approach of the great powers for the first 
half of the nineteenth century, however, was Metternich of Austria. 
Though seen as a dispassionate diplomat of the chessboard school, 
Metternich was anything but cool and analytical regarding the Swiss. 
His memoirs, private correspondence, and accounts of his conversations 
with the British suggest a contempt bordering on fury. He loathed the 
way this "Germanic people" showed historic sympathy to the French. He 
disdained the "former strength" of Swiss arms in the divided nation 
and was vexed that the Swiss were not more grateful for their 
liberation from Napoleon by the Austrians. Perhaps, too, like a suitor 
somewhat scorned, Metternich knew that Switzerland's ancient mistrust 
of the Hapsburg Empire to the East had never really disappeared.

Above all, though, and simply put, Metternich seethed at the Swiss 
democracy. He loathed its toleration of intellectuals and dissidents - 
loathed it, and feared it. He blamed Switzerland, in part, for 
harboring some of the revolutionists that had brought chaos to Europe 
for thirty years. He seems to have been determined, even passionate, 
to bring this mysterious and uppity renegade - "perhaps the greatest 
threat to peace in Europe"  - to heel.

Insisting that others abstain from involvement in Austria's internal 
affairs, Metternich meddled liberally in Swiss domestic politics. In 
1830, the Swiss made efforts to revise their constitution in a manner 
that would have strengthened the central government but, naturally, 
reduced somewhat the autonomy of the original Waldsätte. Metternich 
growled that respect for Swiss neutrality was dependent upon the 
constitutional state of affairs as of 1815, strongly suggesting armed 
intervention. He encouraged the Catholic cantons of Innerschweiz to 
toy with the usual special leagues in 1830 and again in 1845. When the 
Swiss declined a French demand that they extradite Prince Louis 
Napoleon, Austria and Russia encouraged the French to mobilize 25,000 
troops. The Swiss prepared for battle. War was avoided only when Louis 
Napoleon voluntarily left Switzerland in 1838.

By 1845, developments within Switzerland had the country on a path to 
civil war. In the canton of Aargau, newly molded after the French 
occupation and precariously balanced between Protestant and Catholic, 
Reformed forces gained the upper hand and began demanding taxation, 
regulation, and expulsion of the monasteries. Nearby, Luzern and other 
cantons wanted to accept the offer of the Jesuits to provide teaching 
in the schools, based on both sectarian grounds and economic: the 
Jesuits cost far less to maintain than regular public school teachers. 
Under the constitution and the practices of many years, both efforts 
were probably within the legal competence of the cantons in question, 
but they were resented by opponents. Both sides began to get jumpy. In 
1844 and again in 1845, radicals from the Reformed cantons formed a 
small private militia and attempted an assault on Luzern. The threat 
was marginal but the fears and suspicion aroused were not.

As fears mounted, the cantonal governments began to take preemptive 
action, while the relatively weak federal government was paralyzed, in 
effect divided within. The Protestant cantons formed an economic 
league that had no formal religious purposes but had strong anti-
Catholic overtones. Uri, Schwyz, Luzern, and other central Catholic 
cantons formed a mutual defense league, the Sonderbund. The Bund aimed 
narrowly at protecting their distinctive religious preferences. More 
broadly, the agreement was viewed as a secessionist arrangement by the 
other cantons that violated the spirit of the confederation. In 
effect, the Sonderbund was a Catholic version of the Protestant 
alliances already aligned against it. Elements of the old rural 
peasants versus urban elites were involved, along with economic issues 
(such as taxes) and regional disputes (very roughly, Austria and 
France with the Catholics, versus Britain and Germany with the 

While all this was going on, the political and economic power of 
Switzerland was gradually shifting back to the cities, thanks largely 
to the appearance of steam engines and other advances. Center-left 
coalitions favoring a stronger federal union won elections in both 
Zürich and Bern. Politicians in the Diet realized there would soon be 
enough votes to pass a measure discussed in 1846 and early 1847, 
mandating the dissolution of the Sonderbund. The vote took place in 
July 1847, with Swiss military leaders on both sides already making 
plans for armed conflict. The confederation chose Henri Dufour to head 
its army and, on November 4, passed a resolution instructing him to 
bring the rebel cantons into compliance by force of arms.

The war itself, viewed in retrospect, was anticlimactic. The cities 
were larger, better armed, and better prepared. The forest cantons 
wanted their independence, but the invaders were not foreign enemies; 
in this war, they were marching not against French or Austrian troops, 
but against other Swiss. The federal forces under Dufour won a pair of 
relatively minor skirmishes and a truce was called before the end of 
the year. The business lasted twenty-six days and produced 435 wounded 
and 128 killed in battle. If estimates of participation by different 
immigrant groups are accurate, there were probably more Swiss killed 
in the American Civil War than in their own. Dufour won the 
appreciation of the rebellious cantons, and the respect of his own 
side, by insisting that there be no reprisals, lootings, or other such 
acts. "The men we are fighting," Dufour reminded his troops, "are 

The war did not end without a final spasm of interventionism. Twice in 
December the continental powers - France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia 
- wrote to the Diet expressing their concern and threatening to 
intervene. Metternich reasserted Austria's view that the peace of 1815 
gave them the right to do so. The Swiss politely informed the powers, 
to the bemusement of Peel and the British, that they would need no 
assistance putting their affairs in order as the civil war had been 
ended. In less than a year, Metternich himself was ousted in a civil 
coup and became a refugee, as the revolutions of 1848 swept Europe. 
The Swiss, meanwhile, had drafted a new constitution, strengthening 
the federal government but wisely conciliating the defeated forest 

Swiss today are mildly proud of their civil war. For although it 
followed upon and was sparked by abuses and errors, it also removed 
those abuses. In fact, the Swiss civil war of 1847 was the catalyst 
for the new constitution, a constitution that finally reconciled the 
Swiss love of cantonal and community autonomy with a coherent (but 
limited) central government. The basic framework survives today, a 
tribute to those who were able to construct it under the press of 
domestic religious quarrels, economic and cultural debates, and the 
interference of foreign states.

It is fruitless to debate whether men govern forces, or forces govern 
men. Obviously, the two act and react upon one another; history in 
some sense is merely this reciprocal action. Geography did not write 
the Bundesbrief or unite the forest cantons with Zürich and Bern; it 
never wrote a single constitution. Yet it played a role in the 
development of Switzerland.

Perhaps the highest tribute one can give to statesmen is to say that 
they conformed their actions intelligently to these factors - 
accepting the material they are given, but shaping it too. If the 
design works, we may learn from it.


1. The phrase was probably coined by Johann Rodolph Valltravers, 
councilor of Bienne, in a letter to Benjamin Franklin dated 14 April 
1778. An excellent book on this subject is published by the Library of 
Congress: See James H. Hutson, The Sister Republics: Switzerland and 
the United States from 1776 to the Present.

2. In E. T. Rimli (ed.), Histoire de la Confédération, Stauffacher, 

 5. Constitution

Albert Blaustein, the great scholar of world constitutions, once 
devised a simple and intriguing method for assessing them at a glance. 
According to Blaustein's rule of thumb, the shorter a constitution, 
the better it probably is. Corrupted polities tend to cram such 
documents full of sham "rights," complex rules, and pompous 
pronouncements. The constitutions of such countries, like the tombs of 
the self-important Egyptian kings, often run to 50,000 words. By 
contrast, the constitutions of the United States, Germany, and other 
successful republics tend to be shorter and more limited. Powers are 
distributed and denied. Popular liberties are stated or implied, and 
then followed. Naturally there are caveats and exceptions, but this is 
a very fast way to form a general impression of a country's 
fundamental law and government.

The Swiss constitution of the late twentieth century didn't perform 
terribly on this "Blaustein test," but at some 15,000 words, or about 
sixty-five pages of normal-sized type, it didn't achieve the economy 
we normally attribute to the Swiss.(1) Unlike a recent Asian 
constitution, it contains no elaborate listing of the rights of 
tenants in high-rise buildings. Nor, as distinct from the constitution 
of Cuba, are the people guaranteed progressive and inspired 
leadership; and the civil liberties of left-handed persons, generously 
shielded in Nigeria, are not pledged protection. The Swiss 
constitution in place until January 2000, however, did "encourage the 
growing of table-fruit," and provide for a tax of "1.9 percent on 
radio and television activities of a noncommercial character." It also 
compelled the civil authorities to "make sure that every deceased 
person can have a decent burial," and, importantly, established "the 
total tax rate for beer" at "the level of 31 December 1970."

The picture suggested of a highly encumbered document, though, is 
misleading. The constitution's core sections, such as those outlining 
the powers of and limits on the different branches and providing for 
election to the various federal offices, occupied little more than 10 
percent of the document. This portion of the old Swiss constitution, 
in about forty brief articles, comprised perhaps 2,000 words and was 
comparable in brevity and clarity to the American Constitution - on 
which it is partly modeled. The articles referenced above, on 
everything from the prohibition of absinthe to federal authority to 
regulate "the slaughter at abbatoirs and other methods of killing 
animals," came under the headings "general provisions" and 
"transitional provisions." These made up some ninety or one-hundred 
longer articles and took up more than 85 percent of the document.

Such provisions were enacted not as part of the basic governing 
structure when the constitution was written in 1848 and revised (but 
with many key provisions left unchanged) in 1874 and 1999. Rather, 
they became part of Switzerland's fundamental law by public referendum 
over the last 125 years. Under a quirk in the system, citizens are 
allowed to "initiate" a constitutional change by collecting 100,000 
signatures, leading to a vote of the people by referendum. (To take 
effect, the referendum must achieve a double majority of the popular 
vote as a whole, and within the individual twenty-three cantons.) By 
contrast, the right to pass on regular laws is limited to challenging 
certain laws already passed by parliament in a referendum - mere laws 
can only be initiated by the parliament, but can be challenged with as 
few as 50,000 signatures. The Swiss also enjoy a right to petition, 
and to have their petition answered by officials. The result is that 
matters of policy that would normally be mere statutes are often the 
object to constitutional amendment. It is sometimes easier to change 
the constitution by this manner, despite the large majorities 
required, than it would be to persuade a bare majority of legislators 
to enact the same change. That this is the case - and probably would 
be in many other democracies - may itself be instructive about the 
state of our politics.

The length of the constitution, and its forays into seeming arcana, is 
also an indication of the extent to which the Swiss people have been 
able to shape the fundamental law of their own land. The accretion, 
while troublesome (the Swiss have discussed making initiative possible 
for federal laws, and likely will in the coming years) is also 
suggestive of the openness of the system to the action of citizens as 
individuals and groups. The working of the initiative and referendum 
process is of sufficient importance to merit its own examination later 
in the book. It must, however, be discussed in considering the working 
of the whole as well, given its importance to the whole operating 
spirit of the regime and its institutions.

Naturally, the amendment process is only one of many important 
revisions in the constitution. It was not even a major controversy 
when the basic ideology of the current constitution took shape in 
1848, following the civil war; initiative and referendum at the 
national level came about late in the nineteenth century, during and 
following the rewriting of the constitution in 1874.

As if to improve their performance under the Blaustein Test, or 
perhaps simply out of a desire to consolidate and perfect, the country 
drafted a revision of its constitution in the late 1990s, which took 
effect early in the year 2000. The new constitution, in the assessment 
of its framers and advocates, made no significant changes over the 
old. Certainly, on a structural level, this appeared to be so. The new 
constitution, at about forty-five pages of single-spaced type, 
achieved the same ends as the older, longer version. It retained some 
of the penchant for unusually specific provisions seen often in the 
old, such as a passage providing the Confederation may "encourage the 
variety and quality of cinematographic works offered" (article 71) or 
a clause "on avoiding abusive notices of termination" (article 109). 
For the most part, however, these provisions were moved into a final 
section of "transitory provisions" that will drop off the basic 
document as soon as they are enacted in the form of laws per se (Title 
6, Chapter 2 - article 191). "These provisions," as former President 
Dr. Kurt Furgler noted in an interview, "are more properly matters of 
regular legislation. The Swiss had always recognized this, and, being 
Swiss, have a desire to revise their fundamental law so as to put 
things in their proper place."

More controversial was a statement of "Social Goals" contained in 
article 41. Among the notable provisions, "every person shall benefit 
from necessary health care." As well, "every person looking for 
housing shall find... appropriate housing at reasonable conditions." 
On the other hand, "every person capable of working shall sustain 
himself or herself through working under fair and adequate conditions.
" Although this section of the constitution makes clear that this 
listing of goals implies no "direct subjective right" to receive them 
from the state, the wary Swiss, particularly in some of the central 
cantons, wondered whether the elaboration of social goals, albeit 
brief, might lead to subtle changes in their political fabric.

Indeed, the debate over the new constitution, in the words of Bernhard 
Ehrenzeller, "focused largely not on any of the positive provisions, 
but on the document's preamble and purpose sections." Ehrenzeller, a 
professor at the University of St. Gallen and adviser to former 
President Raoul Kohler, was part of a team of scholars that worked 
with Kohler to craft the new constitution and win support for it. One 
offending section of the preamble called for "solidarity and openness 
towards the world." This might seem an unobjectionable phrase, 
particularly since it follows a commitment to "liberty, democracy, 
[and] independence." To some Swiss, however, it seemed an erosion of 
Switzerland's tradition of neutrality, and its reticence toward 
involvement in international organizations that might compromise 
neutrality. Did the new phrase imply Switzerland's eventual entry into 
the United Nations, or even the European Union? "We certainly didn't 
intend to insert such a meaning," Ehrenzeller said, "and I don't think 
it's the right reading of the constitution. But, it became a 
controversy." Regardless of this original intent of the founders, a 
lively opposition formed in the weeks leading up to the vote on the 
new constitution. Swiss in nine cantons voted against the new design. 
Nevertheless, in April of 1999, the Swiss voted by a 59-41 percent 
margin to approve the work of the new framers.

The most striking aspect of the Swiss design, of course, is its use of 
direct democracy. Almost equally different, however, compared to other 
constitutions of the world, is the new constitution's federalism - the 
extent to which rights and prerogatives are delegated to the cantons 
and communities. Indeed, to the Swiss, such matters are not merely 
"delegated," but "reserved," having been retained by the local units 
of government all along.

Federalism was central to the framers during the constitutional 
sessions of 1848. The issue was how to create a stronger federal core 
without driving the independent-minded cantons to another civil war. 
Their first remedy was to follow the American Constitution, with its 
blend of states' rights and new federal powers. The opening paragraphs 
mention each of the "sovereign cantons." These are sovereign wherever 
there is no explicit federal power to make laws. Yet the constitution 
also speaks in the name of "the people" of each of the cantons. It 
proclaims citizens of one canton citizens of Switzerland - and 
declares that citizens of Switzerland have those rights in any of the 
cantons. This incorporative language was retained and strengthened 
over the years. The federal constitution also contains limits on what 
the cantons may do even within their own constitutions. For instance, 
confederation's guarantee of cantonal constitutions is conditioned on 
the assumption that "they have been accepted by the people and can be 
amended whenever the majority of citizens so demand."

The confederation wisely did not place a large number of such limits 
on the cantons, but this one is significant and, indeed, unusually 
sweeping among Western democracies. The United States, for example, 
proclaims the federal Constitution the supreme law of the land. It 
does not, however, specify that state constitutions must be amendable 
- still less, that they must be amendable by the people. Many U.S. 
states, particularly in the South and the East, have no such 
provision, and indeed, some have no referendum or initiative process 
altogether. That this is one of the more stringent impositions on the 
cantons reveals something of the Swiss faith in popular government. 
Like the U.S. Constitution's Tenth Amendment, the Swiss constitution 
reserves all powers not specifically delegated to the confederation 
for its states or cantons. The Swiss have followed this tenet more 
strictly than the Americans. The cantons remain the largest unit of 
government to this day, whether measured by revenues or employees.

The Swiss cantons enjoy rights not common among the local levels of 
government in many Western countries. They can establish religious 
institutions and support them with tax money, and provide religious 
teaching in the public schools. There is freedom of choice for the 
individual worshipper, protected by the constitution. There is, 
however, no "wall of separation" between church and state of the kind 
so often spoken of in other Western democracies. The remedy for a 
Roman Catholic living in Bern, or a Protestant or Jew living in 
Schwyz, is to attend his local independent church, or move to another 
canton. In practice, since all the major faiths are now recognized, 
and the school instruction and religious content is not aggressive, 
this is not a major issue. It is, however, a measure of the power of 
the cantons that they still enjoy such autonomy. The cantons also 
maintain control of roads and bridges, except for a few federal roads. 
And, unusually, each canton establishes its own system of criminal and 
civil court procedure. Court decisions and police actions taken in one 
canton are binding upon another. The cantonal courts enjoy significant 
discretion and exhibit a wide variety of methods.

Most powers reserved to the cantons were, in fact, merely reserved - 
not "given" to them in the federal constitution, because they had been 
enjoyed all along. As long as these were not, in fact, reserved to the 
federal government, they remain the province of the sovereign cantons. 
Among these are many nonenumerated powers over the police, public 
works, and education and the schools. It is difficult for many modern 
Americans and Europeans to grasp the idea of dual sovereignty inherent 
in this. Although we have traditions and rhetoric of federalism, the 
practice of federalism was significantly eroded over the nineteenth 
and twentieth centuries. In the United States, as well, the use of 
"states' rights" arguments by the Southern states before the Civil 
War, and again in the 1950s and 1960s, to oppose some civil rights 
measures, has somewhat discredited the very idea of federalism. This 
is not to say that state government has disappeared in the United 
States; still less so in Germany. Few take seriously, however, the 
idea that these units of government are truly sovereign. In 
Switzerland, this concept is still held and felt strongly, 
particularly by Swiss over the age of fifty.

The constitution gives the federal government oversight of the army. 
"The army is the province of federal legislation." The cantons may 
continue to administer elements of their own armed forces, but they do 
so "under the supervision" of the confederation. No canton may 
maintain a standing army of more than 300 persons - nor may the 
confederation itself. The army is another of those Swiss institutions 
that requires a separate examination. We cannot understand the working 
of the constitution, or the balance of its design, without at least 
referencing it here, for it is the most national and perhaps the most 
nationalizing institution the Swiss have devised.

In a very general way, the operations of Swiss federalism may be 
summarized as follows: The framers, in 1848 and 1874, did not provide 
the federal government with a large number of powers. (These have been 
added to over the years, however, through the referendum process.) The 
federal government at the center has only a few powers in number - but 
of those, several are highly compelling and strategic. Among these are 
its power to decide disputes between the cantons, its power over the 
currency, the unitary power over the military and over decisions of 
war and peace, and the sole power to negotiate treaties and nearly 
undivided power to approve or reject them. Many more powers, in 
number, were retained by the cantons, and are today.

Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated this when he advised his colleagues 
in the French Parliament what to watch for in the unfolding 
constitutional debates. The Swiss federal government, Tocqueville 
argued, did not need to provide most or all of the goods, services, 
and functions of government in order to be effective. But it needed to 
provide some of them. In particular, it needed to provide some of them 
itself, in a direct intercourse with the people - instead of always 
acting through, and therefore somewhat at the discretion of, the 
cantons. The Swiss federal constitution set up several such 
arrangements in 1848, to which more have been added. The creation of 
the Swiss franc, and abolition of cantonal currencies, was certainly 
one. Money is a "bottom line" in so many economic and even social 
transactions, and sound money provides a real service to the people 
and the economy. The frequent elections set up by the federal 
constitution and its requirement of amendability for the cantonal 
constitutions provides another unifying source, a sociological one.

The need to prevent a too-powerful federal government was also met 
through indirect means. The Swiss, like the Americans, divided the 
powers of the federal government between branches and then, for good 
measure, divided the branches somewhat within themselves. Thus the 
executive branch in effect has not one president, but seven council 
members, each of whom serves a term of one year as president in 
rotation. Legislation must pass both houses of parliament to become 
law, but it needs no further signature from the executive. This check, 
the "veto," was thought to be unnecessary: it is carried out by the 
people through initiative and referendum. Similarly, while judges are 
certainly respected in Switzerland - perhaps more so than in the 
United States and Britain - they are not appointed for life. The 
judiciary's independence is guaranteed, first by the good faith of the 
legislature, and second - this factor must always be kept in mind - by 
the ability of the people to overturn capricious or vindictive 
legislation directed at the judiciary, were such legislation to pass.

Here again we see a distinctive element in the Swiss system. No less 
than other democracies, the Swiss have checks and balances. A larger 
share of them, however, tend to involve popular checks - restraints 
imposed by the people on political elites, rather than by one group of 
elites on another. The difference in spirit can be seen if we compare 
various provisions in the Swiss constitution with those of other 
democracies, as in Table 5.1 on the next page.

The Swiss regard their constitution somewhat differently than the 
people in other Western democracies. Some of these differences appear 
to be advantageous, others not so.

On the one hand, in political and even everyday discussions, it is 
treated with a little less reverence than in the United States. If the 
constitution is a holy oracle or fixed tablet in the United States, 
France, or Germany, in Switzerland it is more of a home medical guide. 
The Swiss are more used to taking the thing off the shelf and using it 
- possibly doing damage, sometimes do-

Table 5.1
Constitutions at a Glance:
Provisions for Selected Countries

Switzerland, Germany, France, Mexico, U.S.


Federal is largest government unit($) – no, yes, yes, yes, yes

Citizenship voted at local level – yes, no, no, no, no


Proportional representation – yes, yes, yes, no, no

Two chambers – yes, yes, yes, yes, yes

Term limits – no, no, no, yes, no


Direct election – no, yes, yes, yes, yes

Veto power – no, yes, yes, yes, yes

Single executive – no, yes, yes, yes, yes


Executive appoints – no, yes, yes, yes, yes

Life appointment – no, yes, yes, yes, yes

Popular Access

Initiative@ - yes, no, no, no, no@

Referendum@ - yes, yes%, yes%, no, no@

Have government answer a petition – yes, yes, no, no, no

Primary system* - no, no, no, no&, yes

Source: "Constitutions at a Glance," research memorandum, Alexis de 
Tocqueville Institution, 1999. Copyright © AdTI, all rights reserved.

Notes: # - U.S. termed a direct election system for practical purposes 
since (1) electors have little discretion, (2) results of unit-rule at 
state level seldom vary from national popular vote, and (3) executive 
is not normally chosen by members of the legislature. @ - at the 
federal level. % - infrequent and not mandatory for certain laws. * - 
not a constitutional provision unless indicated. & - Some parties in 
Mexico, including ruling party (PRI), plan primary system for its 
elections in 2000.

ing good, and in any case, having it out for use. It is treated less 
like an icon, and more like a tool.

On the other hand, there is a certain friendly familiarity that 
results from such experience. This is particularly so given the 
somewhat greater ease of changing the constitution in Switzerland and, 
more importantly, the fact that the way one changes it involves the 
common people to a greater extent, both at the front end and the back. 
In the United States, since the passage of the initial ten amendments 
in the Bill of Rights, the Constitution has been altered some one 
dozen times over two centuries and only once since World War II. The 
typical Swiss voter of age fifty has seen about twenty to twenty-five 
constitutional changes in his lifetime, and as an adult has voted on 
an average of more than one per year. Perhaps he even volunteered time 
to help support the passage of one or the defeat of another. In any 
case, if he is a typical Swiss, he was reading regular newspaper 
articles about the merits of this change or that change. In this 
process, implicitly, he was engaged in a kind of rolling review of his 
country's fundamental law. This process makes the constitution alive 
and the people its owners, in a more tangible way than in nearly any 
other country. To say this is not to comment on the wisdom or lack of 
wisdom of the measures themselves. It is an observation about the 
process and its impact upon the sociology, if you will, of the Swiss 
constitution as against others.

The Swiss constitution, for all its flaws, is less an object for 
handling only by an opaque priesthood of attorneys and officials, and 
somewhat more of a living document and a family member. If familiarity 
breeds a certain rough contempt, the overall impact appears to be a 
healthy, balanced respect and a greater sense of pride and 


1. During the work on this book, Switzerland passed a new 
constitution, consolidating the language of the old into a more terse 
document, but kept the same structure. We can expect this new document 
to be subject to some of the same accretions and alternations through 
the process of initiative and referendum. Hence, references to length 
and complexity refer to the constitution in place for most of the 
twentieth century, though observations about substantive provisions 
apply equally to the new constitution that came into force in 1999. 
The fact that Switzerland's whole framework of government can be so 
smoothly altered every few years, and even consolidated into a whole 
new draft, is evidence of the kind of flexibility and populism that 
are the Swiss constitution's defining characteristics. The fact that 
many of its provisions, popularly enacted, were for a time not 
"written" through this process does not substantially alter the 
character of the document.
Next     Contents