Helvetic Republic 1798

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History of Switzerland

Swiss Revolution and
the Helvetic Republic (1798)

Switzerland is often regarded as the most ancient democracy of the world - but a more precise look on his history reveals that is not true for the majority of the territory. The history of change from domination by a minority to true democracy is one of a revolution, of occupation by foreign troops, of a failed attempt to introduce parliamentary democracy, of a partial fall-back into old structures and a long period of changes that were introduced little by little.

Age of Enlightment and Political Philosophy

As early as 1500 the sciences, the economy, philosophy and the arts all had changed deeply. Swiss mathematicians John Bernoulli (1667 - 1748), Daniel Bernoulli (1700 - 1782) and Leonhard Euler (all from Basel) as well as the naturalists Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672 - 1733) and Horace de Saussure (1740 - 1799, first ascension of the Mont Blanc 1787, beginning of alpinism) are well known also outside Switzerland.

Only the political system remained as it was, or more precisely, medieval feudalism culminated in forms of absolutist monarchy (especially in France and Austria). Though Switzerland was a loose confederacy of valley and city republics at the time, this fact alone made no significant difference to monarchy: A small number of families monopolized political (and economic) power in the cities (Geneva, Berne, Basel, Zurich, Lucerne) and even in the rural areas having some primitive form of direct democracy.

Jean Jacques Rousseau and his "Contrat Social"

Political philosophy, especially in France, reacted with new ideas on society and political organization. One of the famous philosophers of the time was Jean Jacques Rousseau, born 1712 in Geneva.. His novels Nouvelle Héloise (1761) and Emile (1762), his democratic program Contrat Social (1762) exercised a considerable influence. Jean Jacques Rousseau spent most of his life in France and died there in 1788.

The ancient political system in Switzerland

Switzerland before 1798: inequality of the old confederacy

Many people are inclined to believe that Switzerland is the most ancient democracy of the world. But this is only a partial aspect of the truth:

  1. The small rural districts in central Switzerland (Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Glarus) and Appenzell had a primitive form of direct democracy called "Landsgemeinden": All male citizens would meet regularly to elect the government and decide important matters. But effectively a small number of rich families were represented in the governments and prepared the political agenda and the decisions.
  2. The citizens of the cities had the right to elect the city councils, but only members of a small number of families were eligible, be in the form of patrician oligarchy (Berne, Solothurn, Fribourg, Lucerne) or be it in the form of guilds [corporations of master craftsmen] (Zurich, Basel, Schaffhausen).
  3. A broad majority of the Swiss people - the peasants of the areas controlled by the cities of Zurich, Berne, Lucerne, Zug, Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel and Schaffhausen as well as the inhabitants of the subject territories under common administration by all member states of the old Swiss confederacy (Aargau, Thurgau, Vaud) had no political rights.
  4. Liberty of commerce and liberty of press were unknown in Switzerland just as in other countries.

Revolts against the Ancien Regime

From 1650 to 1790 various revolts against the rich families in the cities had not any success:
  • The war of the peasants of the Emmental (subject territory of Berne) and Entlebuch (subject territory of Lucerne) against these cities in 1653
  • The revolt of Wilchingen against Schaffhausen (1717 - 1729)
  • The revolt of Werdenberg against Glarus (1719 - 1722)
  • The revolt of major Abraham Davel in Lausanne (Vaud) against Berne (1723)
  • The revolt of the peasants of Jura against the prince-bishop of Basel (1726 - 1739)
  • The revolt of the Leventina (Ticino) against Uri (1755)
  • The revolt of Chenaux (Fribourg) against Fribourg (1781)
  Niklaus Leuenberger leader of the Emmental peasants 1653 (monument in Rüderswil)

Only the population of Toggenburg (1707, against the abbot of St. Gallen) and of Geneva (1707 - 1738, against the aristocrats of the city) could assure themselves some new or restore some old rights. But already in 1782 a troop of 11'000 soldiers from France, Berne and Piedmont enforced a restoration of the aristocracy to Geneva.

The Helvetic Society

During the 18th Century, more and more persons descending from privileged families began to think about and discuss new political perspectives. Zurich became a center of German language literature with Johann Jabob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger. Isaak Iselin of Basel, Salomon Hirzel, Salomon Gessner and Johann Heinrich Schinz of Zurich founded the Helvetic Society in 1761. They met each year at Bad Schinznach (Aargau) to discuss together the history (and the future) of Switzerland. In 1777, Johann Georg Stokar of Schaffhausen pleaded in his presidential address for a united (national) state of Switzerland with equal rights for all the citizens of Switzerland (instead of a loose confederacy).

The Death of the Swiss Mercenary Troops during the French Revolution

The Lion Monument (Löwendenkmal), Lucerne For several centuries, young Swiss men, especially from Central Switzerland, had served French kings and Italian dukes in mercenary troops. During the French Revolution a detachment of 800 mercenary troops from Switzerland tried to defend the king against the Montagnards [radical party in the French Revolution] attacking the castle of the Tuileries in 1792. All mercenary troops were killed. The Lion Monument in Lucerne reminds of the infamous end to the Swiss military force that had once been feared throughout Europe.

The Helvetic Republic

Revolution in Switzerland

The history of revolts in Switzerland during the 17th and 18th centuries shows that the revolution of 1798 in Switzerland was not at all a simple copy of the French Revolution, but rather the logical consequence of the corrupt political system in Switzerland. Of course, the French Revolution was not without influence on Switzerland, it had two functions:
1) it proved that a revolution is possible (after all the failures in Switzerland)
2) revolutionies were able to threaten with a French intervention

Everywhere in Switzerland the situation after the French Revolution and the perspectives for Switzerland's political system were discussed. Numerous were the petitions of the rural population:

  • 1790 reading societies were founded at Wädenswil, Stäfa and in the valley of Glatt (Zurich): the peasants began to get informed
  • 1790 petition by Unter-Hallau (Schaffhausen)
  • 1790 petition by Aarau
  • 1790 petitions by various cities of canton Vaud (then subject to Berne)
  • 1790 reverend Jean Rodolphe Martin from Mézières arrested
  • 1790 city council of Basel puts an end to bondage
  • 1791 festivities in Lausanne and Rolle (Vaud, western Switzerland) in commemoration of the assault to the Bastille (French Revolution)
  • 1792 revolution in Geneva, 1793 elections, 1794 new constitution
  • 1792 the opposition founded a college (Philanthropin) at Reichenau (Grisons), from 1796 under the direction of Heinrich Zschokke (later member of the revolutionary government). Frederick-Cesar de Laharpe and other politicians of the revolutionary Helvetic Republic were educated there.
  • 1794 revolt of the peasants in canton Grisons
  • 1793 revolt against taxes at Gossau (St. Gallen), 1795 petitions of Wil (St. Gallen) and popular meeting with 6000 participants, in summer new petition with 61 demands, in November concessions by the prince-abbot of St. Gallen. Agreement concludef at a popular meeting with 20000 participants, with lots of observers from other regions (Zurich, Thurgau, Rhine valley)
  • 1794 memorials at Stäfa (Zurich) : the peasants asked for the restauration of old rights, granted by documents dating back to 1489 and 1532, that had been revoked little by little during the following centuries. But the city council of Zurich preferred a military solution and prevailed for the moment (1795).
  • 1797: the countryside population of Basel demanded for liberty and equality, supported by liberal politicians from the city (Peter Ochs, Peter Vischer). The city coucil hesitated. The revolutionaries threatened with a French intervention and burnt the castles of Waldenburg, Farnsburg and Homburg. After the resignation of the mayor the patriots [liberal politicians] organized elections to a constituent assembly. Peter Ochs went to Paris in order to elaborate a Helvetic Constitution for a united (and centralised) Switzerland.

Revolution in Vaud

For the history of the Helvetic Revolution, the canton of Vaud (western Switzerland, northern shore of Lake Geneva) and the leader of its revolutionaries, Frederick-Cesar of Laharpe played a key role. Frederick-Cesar de Laharpe asked in public for a French intervention against the domination by Berne in 1797. When French General Napoleon travelled through Geneva, Berne and Basel to Germany, the population of Vaud used the occasion to show their political convictions: at Nyon, Rolle, Lausanne and many other cities a crowd enthousiastically welcomed Napoleon.

  Coat of Arms, Canton Vaud, green color is sign of helvetic revolution (cf. arms of St. Gallen, Thurgau)

The bailliff of Berne lost control, his residence, the Castle of Chillon was occupied by a revolutionary committee. But Berne, as Zurich in 1795, did not want to negotiate and sought a military solution. When Berne sent 5000 German speaking soldiers to enforce order in its French-speaking subject territory Vaud, the inhabitants of Vaud took up arms and proclaimed the Republique Léman. [Léman = French name of Lake Geneva].

An incident gave occasion to the French general Ménard to declare war to Berne and to occupy the territory of Vaud. The French troops were welcomed there as liberators. Berne wanted to recruit troops against the French in canton Aargau (at the time another subject territory in northern Switzerland) - but this provoked only open revolution in the Argovian cities of Aarau, Lenzburg, Brugg and Aarburg. The confederates of central Switzerland had declined assistance to Berne concerning the territory of Vaud already in 1579 and did so once more in 1798. The Bernese troops, in insufficient number, poorly motivated and poorly commanded, were defeated in the battles of Fraubrunnen and Grauholz, the city of Berne was occupied and looted on March, 5th 1798.

Liberation of the Other Subjected Territories (1798)

  • Valais: January, 28th: revolution in the French speaking part of the canton against domination by German speaking communes
  • Fribourg: revision of the constitution by the city council, introduction of sovereignty of the people (instead of aristocratic rule)
  • Solothurn: revision of the constitution according to the model of Basel
  • Schaffhausen: January, 1st abolition of bondage,
    February, 6th constituent assembly with representatives of peasants
  • Lucerne: January, 31st resignation of the old patrician government
  • Zurich: grants amnesty to the leaders of Stäfa petition, February 5th constituent commission
  • Coat of Arms, Canton Thurgau, green color is sign of helvetic revolution (cf. arms of Vaud, St. Gallen) Thurgau: February, 1st meeting of the people in Weinfelden,
    March, 3rd definitive liberation, Thurgau becomes an independent member state of the Swiss confederacy.
  • Coat of Arms, Canton St. Gallen, bundle of Roman bodyguards and green color are signs of helvetic revolution (cf. arms of Vaud, Thurgau) St. Gallen: February, 14th proclamation of the republic of rural areas of St. Gallen
  • Sax: February, 5th independence granted by Zurich
  • Rheintal and Sargans (valley of the Rhine between Sargans and Lake of Constance) : March, 5th free and independent member states of the Swiss confederacy.
  • Uznach and Gaster: independence granted by Schwyz and Glarus
  • Werdenberg: March, 11th independence granted by Glarus
  • Ticino: independence granted by the confederacy (Lugano, Mendrisio, Locarno and Maggia: February, 15th), by Uri (Leventina: March, 14th) and finally by Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden (Bellinzona, Blenio and Riviera: April, 4th)

Proclamation of the Helvetic Republic

Tricolour Flag of the Helvetic Republic Helvetic Flag  

121 representatives of the territories Aargau, Basel, Berne, Fribourg, Léman (Vaud), Lucerne, (bernese) Oberland, Schaffhausen, Solothurn and Zurich met in Aarau on April, 12th 1798 to proclaim the Helvetic Republic and confirm its new constitution.

France had annexed Geneva, Neuchâtel, Bienne, the territory of the prince-bishop of Basel (nowadays canton Jura) and Mulhouse (Alsace, former associated member of the old Swiss confederacy). Veltlin, Bormio and Chiavenna had declared independence of Grisons already in June 1797. The constitution of the Helvetic Republic was similar to the constitution of the French Republic, with a parliament (two chambers), a government (called board of directors) and a Supreme Court of Justice. The federalist tradition of Switzerland was eliminated.

The Counter-Revolutionary Revolt of Nidwalden

Central Switzerland was not represented and tried to withstand the change, a revolt of Nidwalden was knocked down by French troops in September 1798 at the cost of 368 deaths, of which 102 women and 25 children. The famous pedagogue John Henry Pestalozzi was appointed director of the orphanage of Stans that had to take care of the numerous orphans. Canton Grisons remained independent until 1799. The board of directors [government] of the Republic Helvetic signed a military alliance pact with France. They wanted to defend the Republic against reactionary forces (especially Austria), but the result was that the alliance with France engaged the Helvetic Republic in the wars of France with other nations.

Switzerland Occupied by French, Austrian and Russian Troops

French general Napoleon Bonaparte had conquered Italy in the first Coalition War of France against Great Britain, Austria, Spain and Germany (1792 - 1797) and formed the Cisalpine Republic in northern Italy in 1797 (among others, the former subject territories of Swiss canton Grisons became part of the Cisalpine Republic). In 1799, Napoleon seized power in France by a coup d'état. In the second Coalition War of France against Great Britain, Austria and Russia (1799 - 1802) southern Germany, northern Italy and in between Switzerland became theaters of war. The Austrians won a first battle near Zurich, the French the second one while the Russian general Suworow came to assistance of the Austrians with 25000 soldiers from Italy - but he arrived too late and had to flee. During the passage of the St. Gotthard pass, the Kinzigkulm pass (between Uri and Muotathal/Schwyz), the Pragel pass (between Muotathal and Glarus) and the Panix pass (between Glarus and Ilanz), all of them obstructed by snow, Suworov lost 10000 soldiers. Nonetheless, as an opponent of the Helvetic Republic Helvetic that was well hated in central Switzerland, General Suworow remained well known and respected there.

Collapse of the Helvetic Republic

As the French Revolution before, the Helvetic Republic could not keep its promises. There were various reasons for that:

  • The representatives of the former system, especially in central Switzerland, did not miss a single occasion to attack the new order.
  • The war with stationing and nutrition of thousands of soldiers exhausted the resources of the civil population.
  • The centralistic system had no tradition in the history of Switzerland and was therefore not accepted by a majority of the people.
  • The peasants of the subjected territories of Switzerland had demanded for liberty, but they wanted to be admitted to the existing political system as members with equal rights rather than changing the system.
  • Liberty, this meant "to do what one wants" and "no longer pay taxes" for the simple people. Even the intellectual leaders of the revolution, as Peter Ochs, Frederick-Cesar de Laharpe etc. had not really thought about the necessity of a working administration of the state finances. But this did not work better 200 years ago than today: You can't have a working state without taxes ...

The French and Helvetic Republics won the second Coalition War in 1799, but they lost peace: France became a military dictatorship under general Napoleon Bonaparte, the Helvetic Republic was going to see at least four coups d'état between 1800 and 1802. The decision of Napoleon to withdraw the French troops from Switzerland in July 1802 gave the signal to the partisans of federalism: On August, 1st 1802 the citizens of Schwyz, Nidwalden, Obwalden met for the "Landsgemeinde" [political meeting] as of before. Appenzell, Glarus and Grisons also restored cantonal political institutions. The city of Zurich as well made opposition to the Helvetic government. Returned emigrants of the former system and armed peasants with sticks and agricultural tools attacked the helvetic troops in a civil war called "Stecklikrieg" [war of the sticks], conquered the Aargau and Berne and advanced to Payerne (western Switzerland).

The Mediation Act by Napoleon Bonaparte

At this moment, Napoleon intervened and gave orders to put an end to the civil war and to send delegations to a consultation in Paris. In October 1802 French troops entered Switzerland again and disarmed the rebels in central Switzerland. Napoleon had understood that centralistic state had no chance to be accepted in Switzerland. Therefore the constitution elaborated by his mediation gave most of the competences to the 19 cantons [member states] of the new Swiss federation. Everything just as before the revolution of 1798? Not exactly - Switzerland during the era of the Mediation Act (1803 - 1815) had 6 new cantons: St. Gallen, Grisons, Aargau, Thurgau, Tessin and Vaud with equal rights as the 13 old cantons. And the Mediation Act preserved political equality and in front of the law for all citizens.

The Restoration

After Napoleon had been beaten in Russia and at Waterloo, Switzerland returned to extremely federalistic structures. Nevertheless, the cantons of St. Gallen, Grisons, Aargau, Thurgau, Tessin and Vaud remained free member states of the confederacy instead of their old status as associated members or even subject territories. The cantons Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva that had been annexed by France in 1798, returned to the Swiss confederacy. Switzerland consisted of 22 cantons now with the borders to its neighbours that are still valid today.

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