HISTORY OF SWITZERLAND Federal Constitution 1848

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History of Switzerland

Switzerland's Way towards
the Federal Constitution of 1848

The Restoration of 1815

After defeating Napoleon, European Kings and statesmen met at the Vienna Congress in Austria in 1815 in order to arrange peace conditions. All great powers were interested in Swiss neutrality and agreed on a common declaration of guarantees for it. Winning powers were also interested in reducing French influence. So they decided, that Valais, Geneva and Neuchâtel, that had been associated members to the old Swiss confederation before Napoleon annexed them, should be part of Switzerland (as full members). Switzerland consisted of 22 cantons now with the borders to its neighbours that are still valid today.

Switzerland could arrange it's inner affairs for itself. Conservative forces won for the moment and managed to restore a lot of old laws. The cities again dominated their rural vicinity, but not as absolutely as before: they had to grant them a reduced representation in parliaments. (for example Basel city had 90 representatives, the Basel Country only 64 members in Basel's cantonal parliament, while the countryside counted more than twice as many inhabitants compared to the city; Lucerne countryside 10 of 36 seats, Zurich coutryside 82 of 212 seats etc) Certain revolutionary achievements as the abolition of bondage, individual rights and general education remained in force.

The supporters of liberalism did not disappear altogether, however. Their principal claims were

  • equal right to vote and democratically elected councils
  • court hearings held in public (against arbitrary jurisdiction)
  • freedom of trade (abolishment of the restrictions, which permitted only the practice of certain handicrafts to the members of certain guilds)
  • more central laws expense of the canton sovereignty (uniform regulations of whole Switzerland)

Switzerland's Way to Modern Democracy

The Regeneration around 1830

Under the impression of the French July Revolution of 1830 a liberal renewal movement began in Switzerland, which is called regeneration. They demanded full democratic rights and equality between citizens in cities and from the countryside. Within one year, 12 cantons changed their constitutions and abolished aristocratic rule and press censorship. The number of political newspapers and magazines rose from 29 in 1830 to 54 in 1834. Education was promoted: elementary schools were reorganized and the formation of teachers improved (several specialized high schools trained professional teachers replacing farmers and craftsmen teaching as a part time job). Universities of Zurich (1833) and Berne (1834) were founded.

Canton Baselland [Basel Countryside] splitting off from Basel City

In Basel the City still refused to grant equal rights to the countryside. Thereupon the countryside declared independence with an own constitution. The city tried to keep up the old order by military force, but was defeated twice. Negotiations under mediation of the other cantons failed, so the splitting into two half-cantons became definitive in 1833. In Schwyz, the other cantons helped to negotiate a new constitution, so this canton would not split.

The idea of the Federal State (1833)

Paul Vital Ignaz Troxler, a liberal physician from Beromünster (Lucerne) proposed a new federal state after the model of the United States of America in 1833. Interestingly enough, this idea originated in central Switzerland, but it became a reality only after a short civil war with central Switzerland opposed to it (see below)! The "Tagsatzung" [federal conference of cantonal representatives] prepared a moderately liberal Federal Constitution. A federal parliament with 44 members, a federal government with 5 members and a federal court of justice were planned. The powers of the federal authorities would have been substantially smaller than they are now according to the constitution of 1848. In particular there would have been no house of representatives elected in proportion to the number of inhabitans. This would have given more influence to the small, rather conservative cantons of central Switzerland than they have today. Lucerne as the biggest city in central Switzerland was foreseen as federal capital - nevertheless central Switzerland missed it's chance and wanted to stay with the old system. The draft was criticized by the conservative as being to progressive, and by the liberals as beeing to conservative. At that time, four out of ten consenting cantons were catholic, whereas several large reformed cantons opposed it. This shows that the dividing line between conservatives and liberals was not a confessional one at the beginning of the dispute.

Standardization of measure and weight

Some cantons introduced the metric measurement and weight system (with the basic units meter and kilogram, invented during the French revolution - today's international standard in science) in 1838, many other cantons stayed with their old systems. In a small country like Switzerland there the unit "foot" had eleven different definitions, there were 81 different units for liquids and the pound differed from 459 grams to 520g. This made commerce between the cantons difficult. In 1815 most cantons had returned also to the old currencies. A final solution to the problem was only reached in 1877 (law on measures and weights) after the 1874 revision of the federal constitution.

Provocations and struggle for power between conservatives and liberals

In 1832 Pope Gregor XVI. condemned modern culture, the liberal way of thinking and the "impudent science". Catholic priest Alois Fuchs pleading for a democratic constitution of the church in 1833 was removed from office. A member of the Lucerne (!) cantonal government organized a meeting in Baden (Aargau), where liberal politicians defined six demands for a democratic church and state control over the church ("Badener Artikel"). These were confirmed by several cantonal parliaments. The Pope, France and Austria demanded for the cancelling of the articles.

Conservative reversal in reformed Zurich

In Zurich a reform of elementary schools, which would have led to a reduction of the children's work in the industry (note that Switzerland was one of the first continental countries to follow Great Britains industrialization) was opposed by farmers and entrepreneurs. The liberal government appointed 1839 the German theologian David Friedrich Strauss to the university, who had inspired a wave of critical Bible research with his book "Das Leben Jesu, kritisch betrachtet" [the life of Jesus, looked at discerningly] in 1835. Immediately a "faith committee" was formed and forced Strauss into retirement. The struggle for power continued, however, the cantonal government resigned after armed countrymen had marched to Zurich. New elections brought victory for the conservative party. In Ticino liberals were defeated in the elections of 1839, but seized power by force of arms. The people of canton Lucerne revised their constitution in 1841, keeping up democratic elections and the division of power between government, parliament and courts, but cancelled the secularization in education [abolition of church-run schools].

The monastery abolition in the Aargau (1841)

Canton Aargau was formed in 1803 from several subject territories ruled partly by single cities, partly by the old confederation. So during the reformation some parts of the canton were forced by their rulers to get reformed, some were forced to stay catholic and those ruled by the confederation were allow to choose individually. The 1815 cantonal constitution fixed a 50:50 representation of catholics and reformed in the cantonal parliament, while the fourth (within 38 years!) cantonal constitution in 1841 changed to representation according to number of inhabitants. The constitution was accepted with 16'050 yes-votes to 11'484 no-votes. A revolt of the catholic areas (Fricktal, Freiamt, Baden) was struck down by armed force. The catholic(!), but liberal director of teacher's seminar [high school] Augustin Keller accused the monasteries as being "sources of all evils and wire-pullers of the conservative revolts" and proposed that they would be closed down. So the cantonal parliament decided, but this was illegal under the terms of the federal contract of 1815. The catholic cantons protested, supported by the conservative government of canton Zurich - so the dispute was still not a confessional one! Aargau's government gave in only partially and restored the women's monasteries, men's monasteries remained closed - and the "Tagsatzung" (federal council of cantonal delegates) did not intervene. In 1843 the council formally declared the affair as being settled - and now the conservative joined to oppose. In canton Valais elections of 1843 led to a conservative majority and a new, church-friendlier constitution in 1844.

Appointment of the Jesuits in Lucerne (1844)

Lucerne's parliament - at that time with a conservative majority - appointed the Jesuit order (known to be intellectual and at the same time especially devoted to the Pope) - to take care of the education of catholic priests. Some prudent conservatives like the president of cantonal government Konstantin Siegwart-Müller had warned against provoking the liberals in vain. Abovementioned radical Augustin Keller from Aargau tried to obtain a resolution by the federal "Tagsatzung" [council] against this appointment, but a conservative majority of both catholic and reformed cantons rejected his draft.

Liberal partisans (1845)

The disappointed liberals and radicals did not resign and respect the majority decisions of both the cantonal parliament of Lucerne and the federal "Tagsatzung". In canton Vaud (western Switzerland) the moderately liberal government was overthrown by armed radicals in February 1845 because of it's indetermination in the Jesuit affair, a new radical constitution was proposed and accepted by a 64% majority of the people in August 1845. In spring 1845 crowds of armed radicals from several cantons marched for Lucerne. In two battles they were defeated, 185 of them were killed and 1785 imprisoned. The federal "Tagsatzung" prohibited any further armed marches. In July the leader of the conservative hardliners, Joseph Leu von Ebersol was assasinated in his bedroom. The fragil balance of powers was severely threatened.

"Sonderbundskrieg" (civil war)

The conservative governments of central Switzerland were not contented, however, with the fact that the federal "Tagsatzung" supported its positions (toleration of the Jesuits, prohibition of armed marches). And they decided to give an new, denominational label to the dispute between conservatives vs. liberals: in December 1845 Konstantin Siegwart-Müller left his formerly prudent point of view and formed a coalition of cantons Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Fribourg and Valais - all of them catholic. The so-called "Sonderbund" [special alliance] explicitly referred to the time of reformation, when almost the same coalition had waged two civil wars against the reformed big cities of Zurich, Berne and Basel. When the secret alliance became public in June 1846, the reformed cantons, including the conservatives, were filled with indignation.

So public opinion changed once again. In 1846/47 a liberal constitution replaced a conservative on in Berne, Geneva and Basel, the catholic (!) people from the southern part of canton St. Gallen sent only liberal representatives to their cantonal parliament, so that St. Gallen got a liberal government, too. In Fribourg, liberals attempted a revolution. On the other hand, the Pope, Prussia and Austria (monarchies) exercised pressure on the federal "Tagsatzung". But foreign interference was firmly rejected with a (now) liberal majority and the "Sonderbund" alliance declared as illegal under federal law. Now the alliance called for Austrian help and made propositions on territorial changes in case of a victory. This shows that the conservatives had just as little respect for the right of self-determination of the cantons as the radical marchers. The federal "Tagsatzung" reacted with a resolution urging the catholic cantons to expel the Jesuits.

In October, both sides elected military commanders and mobilized soldiers. The civil war was opened on November, 3rd 1847 by attacks of the alliance on Ticino and Aargau. Federal troops marched to Fribourg and Zug, which surrendered without a battle. At the borders between Zug and Lucerne, and between Berne an Lucerne there were several battles on November, 23rd, the following days federal troops occupied Lucerne without further fighting and the other cantons of the alliance surrendered. Siegwart-Müller left Switzerland. The commander in chief of the federal army, general Guillaume Henri Dufour (of Geneva) had urged his troops to avoid unnecessary bloodshed and any plunderings. Thanks to him, the war was over fast and did not cost more than 86 lives and 500 wounded soldiers. Dufour is by the way also co-founder (together with the key player Henri Dunant) of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1864 and inventor of modern maps (1844 - 1864) that establish Switzerland's leading role in cartography.

Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848

After the defeat of the "Sonderbund" alliance the liberals used the opportunity to strengthen central power in Switzerland. They were prudent enough, however, to allow cantons extensive rights of self-determination, particularly in areas that had proven to be delicate (e.g. education). Now basic principles of the constitution of the U.S.A. were adopted:

  • Declaration of fundamental individual rights
  • Two chamber parliament with "Nationalrat" [national council = house of representatives, initially one member per 20,000 inhabitants (1848: 111 seats, 1850: 120 seats), later the number of members was fixed on 200] and "Ständerat" [council of states = senate, two members per canton]. While big cantons dominate "Nationalrat", the smaller cantons may block legislation in "Ständerat"
  • Federal government "Bundesrat", 7 members with equal rights, elected by the parliament. While every member is responsible to lead a part of the administration, important decisions will be taken by majority. The presidency is rotating yearly and gives opportunities to hold speaches rather than special powers. [Note: the German word "Bundesrat" is also used to denote the German and Austrian equivalent of the senate, therefore some dictionaries will translate Bundesrat = Upper House of Parliament]
  • A federal court of justice should settle disputes between the cantons (today the cantons always solve their problems in negociations, but individuals and companies appeal to the federal court, if they are not willing to accept judgement of cantonal courts - so it's judgements help to unify the interpretation of laws by cantonal courts).
  • Alliances with foreign powers, decisions on war and peace, customs, postal services and coinage became federal responsabilities. Local toll station on some 400 roads and bridges within Switzerland were closed in 1849, the Swiss Franc was reestablished as common currency in 1850.
The new constitution was accepted with a majority of 15½ cantons (including Lucerne!). Berne was designed as the federal capital.

Development of Direct Democracy

Domination of affairs by the liberal party

The first elections brought an overwhelming victory for the liberals and radicals, the forerunners of today's free - democratic party (FDP), they gained 87 out of 111 seats in the big, and 30 out of 44 seats in the small chamber. This means that even in central Switzerland some liberals were elected. In cantons Fribourg and Valais that had been part of the conservative "Sonderbund" liberal cantonal governments were elected in 1856/57. The overwhelming majority of liberals in parliament gave birth to an new generation of "wire-pullers". A true master in this discipline was Alfred Escher in Zurich, entrepreneur, founder of several railway companies, of the bank now known worldwide as "Credit Suisse", of insurance companies and influential member of parliament. Politics and economy got matted to an extent that called for opposition.

Democratic revisions of the constitution

In 1865 a partial revision of the cantonal constitution of Zurich introduced the so-called "popular initiative" (10'000 voters may demand a change of the constitution) and in 1869 a total revision introduced mandatory referendums for all changes of the constitution and all laws, the election of cantonal government by citizens instead of parliament, the abolition of lifelong posts and a progressive taxation of incomes and fortunes [ i.e. rich people have to pay a higher percentage at taxes than poor people]. Other cantons followed Zurich's reforms. In Lucerne a facultative referendum was introduced (a number of voters may demand a referendum on a new or changed law). In the first partial revision of the Federal Constitution in 1866 only one of 9 suggestions were accepted by a majority of citizens: the Jewish citizens were granted the right to settle everywhere in the country (before, they had been restricted to a few areas).


The struggle between state and church (or more precisely the radical party and the catholic church) began in two catholic cantons: In Ticino the radical government expelled 22 Italian monks and in Fribourg the bishop was expelled following a conservative attempt to seize power. New elections in Fribourg led to a landslide-like victory for the conservatives (64 of 67 seats) and a new, conservative constitution. Pope Pius IX. (1846 - 1878) fought with all means against the new spirit of the century, shaking the very foundations of his still medieval world:

  • Political liberalism radically challenged the medieval rule of the nobility and the church with its demands for liberty, equality and social justice.
  • Positivism stated that truth could only be found and proven by critical scientific research - and success of science and its technical applications in the 19th century, which had been reached against the resistance of the church, made this obvious in a certain sense for the masses.
    Because the church for too long a time had stubbornly claimed to be "in posession of truth" and urged people to humbly believe instead of investigate themselves, scientists refused to deal with anything that was not measurable with their methods.
  • Materialism denied the theory, that the human spirit (the soul) would be independent of the body - an opinion that had been prevailing since the times of ancient Greek philosophy, although not biblical!

With the dogma [mandatory church theorem] of the "Immaculate Conception of Mary" Pope Pius IX. in 1854 again stubbornly priorised irrational belief (not accessible to "positive" science). The reaction in Switzerland was not spectacular, but on a long-term basis effective: In St. Gallen a constitutional change in 1861 declared education to be a task of the state instead of the church. Today most schools throughout Switzerland are run by the state, private schools are allowed, but only under public quality control.

Industrialization had led to considerable immigration of catholics from rural areas into reformed cities like Zurich, Basel, Berne and Geneva. In 1865 the Pope wanted to appoint separate Geneva from the diocese of Lausanne and appointed a bishop without consulting the local government first. The government refused to acknowledge the bishop - and the diocese of Lausanne and Geneva remained united till today.

The first Vatican council [bishop meeting] declared in 1871 against better knowledge the dogma of the "Infallibility of the Pope" [meaning: the Pope will never be wrong,, if he publicly announces a religious doctrine], although with exact study of the collection of church doctrines (see Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum) one may easily find examples, where a Pope declares doctrines of a predecessor (to be found in the same collection) as erroneous. So obviously one (if not both) must be "fallible". When the bishop of Basel publicly supported the dogma, some 412,000 catholics left the Roman Catholic Church, only some 73,000 of them joined the Christian-Catholic (old catholic church) that formed in protest against the dogma in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany. When Bishop Lachat proceeded excluding priests opposing the dogma from the Roman Catholic Church, the cantonal governments declared him and 97 priests dismissed, 84 were expelled from Switzerland.

Total Revision of the Federal Constitution (1874)

Further standardization and federal referendum

In 1874 the Federal Constitution was completely revised. The central administration became more important compared to the cantons, in other fields cantons remained responsible, but had to keep up to new federal standards. Referendums had proven to be a reasonable instrument and were now introduced on federal level as well. Citizens moving to a different canton were granted full rights of vote after three months. This was to the benefit of catholics emigrating from central Switzerland to the big cities Zurich, Basel and Berne. The revised constitution was accepted with a 63% majority of votes. In 1883 a new law standardized legal grounds for contracts and commerce throughout Switzerland. The standardized civil code of 1907 came into effect in 1912 and remained valid since except for regulation on marriage, these were totally revised and adapted to modern concepts of a equal partnership in 1985.

Constitutional amendments against the catholic church

The struggle between state and church left its traces: The statement of civil status and the marriage ceremony, so far tasks of the churches became functions of the political authorities. This meant a substantial restriction of church control over the life of citizens. The federation also received the authority "to take suitable action against interferences of church authorities into the rights of the citizens and the state". The establishment of new dioceses became explicitly subject to the permission of the federation. The Jesuit order was banned and the foundation of new or reopening of closed monasteries was forbidden. Jesuits in fact returned to Switzerland already early in the 20th century, but the ban was formally removed from the constitution as late as 1973.

Direct Democracy

Proportional Representation and People's Initiative

A Revolt in Ticino and the proportional election mode

Due to the election system that every constituency would send one member to the parlament, cantonal elections in 1889 gave a solid majority of two thirds to the conservatives in Ticino, while they had only won 51.5% of the votes. The conservative government prevented a referendum over a reform initiative. Thereupon in 1890 a government member was shot and other taken hostage in an armed revolution. An intervention troop of the federation re-established the order and achieved a provisional reconciliation of the parties. Two revisions of the cantonal constitution in 1891 and 1892 redesigned the organization of constituencies and introduced election of a larger number of members of parliament per constituency in proportion to the number of votes given to the parties. Proportional elections were introduced in Neuchâtel in 1891 as well, but this time it was conservatives that would profit.

On federal level several approaches to introduce the proportional election mode failed. First the right to popular initiatives (50,000, nowadays 100,000 voters can demand a referendum on a change to the constitution, known to several cantons since 1865) was introduced on federal level in 1891. And this was used in 1918 to finally bring about the proportional election mode on federal level. This dramatically influenced the outcome of 1919's elections. The formerly dominant Free-Democratic Party (FDP) was limited to 63 out of 189 seats, while the Catholic Conservative and the Social-Democratic party scored 41 each, several new smaller parties a total of 44.

The way to the multi-party (coalition) government

Until 1891 all members of the federal had beed elected from the liberals. The government member Emil Welti had favoured the nationalization of railways, but was defeated clearly in a referendum, so he resigned. In his place, Josef Zemp, a conservative and member of the supervisory board of a big railway company, was elected. Not all conservatives were happy to share responsibility of government, however. In 1929 the first member of the farmer's party was elected into the government, in 1943 the first member of the social democrats. From 1959 to 2003 the "magic formula" is unwritten, but was always respected: 2 liberals, 2 christian democrates (formerly conservatives), 2 social democrats, 1 farmer's party. Since 1971 the farmer's party has changed into a populist right-wing party by the name of "Swiss people's party" and has constantly gained votes at the cost of the christian democrats. Consequently the people's party is represented with two seats in the government starting from 2004 while the christian democrats become the "junior partner" with only one seat.

Women's right to vote

The first women's federation was created 1885 in Aarau, in 1894 followed the women's association of Zurich, 1888 the Swiss non-profit women's association. 1897 met in Geneva the first Swiss congress for the interests of women. 1900 the women's organizations united in the federation of Swiss women's associations. The way to the equal rights of women in politics and economy was particularly long and stony in Switzerland. Thus women's right to vote was discussed already early in the 20th century, but it was introduced in Switzerland only in 1971 after several unsuccessful attempts.
More: The Long Way to Women's Right to Vote in Switzerland


After the end of the wars caused by Napoleon pacifism developed [ of Latin " pacificus " = liking peace ]. This radically idealistic peace movement, motivated by religion and ethics rejected any use of force, also the military peacekeaping measures and/or the defensive war. In England (1816 " Peace Society ") and Geneva (1830) developed peace societies, which organized international congresses since 1848. 1891 a peace office was opened in Berne. The prominent representatives like the Austrian authoress Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914, novel " the weapons down " 1889, proposed the donation of the Nobel peace prize on), the French socialist Jean Jaurès (1859-1914, murdered) and that Geneva Henri Dunant (1828-1910, founder of the red cross) exerted strong influence on the European policy. By a convention [ agreement ] of 1899 the constant international Court of Justice was created into the Hague (NL) with the goal of solving disputes between the states by an arbitral tribunal instead of war.

International Court of Justice

Switzerland agreed in 1904 with France, Belgium, Great Britain, Italy, Austria - Hungary, Sweden and Norway that they would recognize the International Court of Justice as an arbitral tribunal if direct negotiations should not lead to an agreement. This contradicted the old principles of the confederation for bearing no strange judges was however regarding the material balance of power between small Switzerland and it surrounding great powers surely not only intelligent, but urgently required. And furthermore it was a first step towards democratic principles between countries.

Switzerland's Constitution (official english translation, pdf)

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