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

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.

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.
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