The birth of modern democracy in the heart of Europe

The “Swiss Revolution” brought democracy to Switzerland. It was an uprising against the aristocracy – and the start of a long journey that the country could only accomplish with foreign aid.

This content was published on March 28, 2022 – 09:00

Renat Kuenzi

On a spring day in 1798, Peter Ochs of Basel proclaimed the birth of the Helvetic Republic from a balcony of Aarau’s town hall. There was great rejoicing in the streets as this marked the liberation of the central territories from their Bernese masters.

Ochs had been commissioned by the French government to draft a constitution to create a unified state. In it, the enlightened reformer justifies the division of powers between legislative, executive and judicial authorities – this is the first time it has been done at the constitutional level.

The Helvetic Republic only lasted from 1798 to 1803. It revolved entirely around French policy at the time, which envisaged creating sister republics – even if it required force. It depended on the economically powerful but politically disenfranchised citizens living under the Old Regime. But it failed because of ruling aristocrats in guilds, patrician houses and rural communities.

“Swiss democracy flashpoints” series

This series in several parts is tailor-made for our author: Claude Longchamp’s know-how makes him the man who knows how to bring to life the places where important events have taken place.

Longchamp was one of the founders of the research institute gfs.bern and is Switzerland’s most experienced political analyst. He is also a historian. Combining these disciplines, Longchamp has been offering popular historical tours of Bern and other sites for many years.

“Longchamp performs democracy”, headlined a journalist during a report on a visit to the city.

This multimedia series, which the author produces exclusively for SWI swissinfo.ch, does not focus on cities, but on important places.

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It was, however, a breakthrough on the road to democracy. Soon after, in 1803 and 1815, there were setbacks. Democracy rarely develops linearly, but in waves, and democratization takes a long time. It is also never finished.

The new state

Among the innovations was an early form of political parties. Their programs were very basic. But they included modern and progressive positions.

There were democrats, who were called patriots at the time. They were unconditional supporters of France. There were also republicans who were mostly wealthy people who were in favor of France, but against paying taxes to neighbors. Moreover, there were federalists, who wanted to reverse any revolutionary innovation.

While a coalition of European powers was waging war on France, there were four coups in Switzerland. These shifted political power from the Democrats to the Federalists. Eventually, the French secured power to the Republicans.

Another innovation was a capital. But it took a long way, going from Aarau to Lucerne and Bern before ending up in Lausanne (see box below).

Reforms stalled

Many reforms to create a civilized and bourgeois state during the Helvetic Republic were initiated by France, therefore from outside.

Individual freedoms were introduced. The special status of Jews has been abolished. And torture has been abolished. Forced membership in guilds also disappeared; merchants and craftsmen could operate freely. Vocational schools were founded. The Swiss franc, as a single currency, was born. The assets of the monasteries were seized. The tithe of the peasants, the Zehntehas been partially removed.

But the new republic failed due to chronic financial struggles and the European war, which was partly fought on its soil. Internal conflicts also played a role.

Democratic innovations

Two democratic innovations of the Helvetic Republic stand out, and they also influenced the emergence of other democracies:

In 1799, the first assemblies of active male citizens were established. These could elect the municipal authorities. And they chose electors, who in turn elected parliamentarians, judges and the cantonal chamber, which supervised the cantonal administration. The parliament elected a five-member executive. He appointed the ministers of administration and the president of the highest court, as well as the governors.

The second experience concerned the first national referendum. It was introduced on the occasion of the revision of the constitution of 1802. The novelty was that there were no longer open-air assemblies: instead, the votes by secret ballot cast by individuals were counted .

But the counting process operated on the principle of veto. In this case, votes in favor and abstentions were counted together. This meant that votes in favor exceeded rejections, even though more people voted against the revision than for it. The constitutional amendment was therefore adopted.

It would be fair to speak of “directed democracy”. Democratic institutions emerged. But the power – make no mistake about it – remained in the hands of the French occupiers.

Civil war

Under the Lunéville Peace Treaty of 1797, the occupants withdrew in the summer. This destabilized the republic. This resulted in the Stecklikriegor “War of the sticks” – an uprising of peasants brandishing pitchforks against the bayonets of the occupiers.

Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France, once again intervened and dictated a publicized constitution to the Helvetic Consulta, the assembly. It aimed to balance the interests of the fighting parties – this time, without a referendum!

A federal model was introduced and, for the first time, the cantons had equal rights. In addition to the 13 central territories, there were six “Napoleonic” cantons. For them, it was the liberation of their status as subjects.

Republic and the question of the capital

After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Switzerland considered itself a republic consisting of 13 sovereign republics. There was no capital.

On September 22, 1792, the French monarchy became a republic. Under his influence, model republics succeeded one another in the Netherlands (1795-1806), Italy (1797-1805) and Switzerland (1798 and 1815).

Following the French model, the Helvetic Republic was granted a capital in 1798. It started as Aarau, but changed three times because of the war.

In 1803, the system was changed so that the place of origin of Landammann, the head of state, was the seat of government. Only the cantons had capitals.

In 1832, Lucerne was proposed as the permanent capital of the Swiss Confederation, but the conservative Catholic canton rejected this proposal.

Thus, Switzerland did not obtain a permanent seat in parliament and government until 1848 – but that was only a Bundesstadtor “federal city”, and was not the administrative capital.

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After the defeat of France on the battlefields, the Austrian and Russian troops occupy the country. Through the mediation of Ioannis Kapodistrias, who later became President of Greece, an agreement was reached in 1814 to accept the Congress of Vienna. This designated Geneva, Neuchâtel and Vaud as part of the Swiss Confederation, as the country has been known ever since. This resulted in the formation of a neutral buffer state with stable boundaries.

The Congress of Vienna granted two important exceptions to the restored confederation: Switzerland was allowed to build a national army, and the cantons were allowed to forge Konkordatsor intercantonal treaties.

Academic catering

The new State created in 1815 is in keeping with the spirit of the Restoration. This term was coined by the Bernese patrician Karl Ludwig von Haller.

He was a ruthless reactionary. A converted Catholic, he condemned to hell any idea of ​​a modern state built on the “popular sovereignty” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Theocracies, monarchies and military dictatorships, on the other hand, have gone to heaven. He also counted aristocratic republics, like the Old Confederacy, among good forms of government.

But he failed to get his ideas across. The young republic was already too robust.

Mary I. Bruner