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The rise of the Swiss republic: A history online

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to have been more sinned against than sinning. He had
caught the imagination of a restless generation, reflected its
aspirations, and in an unconventional, free spirit bad taught
men to learn from nature at first hand. He made all Europe
stop and think. Certainly the French Revolution derived
from him its conception of civic equality and national sover-
eignty, and the world has many lessons still to take to heart
from the Genevese philosopher.

Voltaire was sixty-one years old when he took up his resi-
dence in his estate of Les Delices^ near Geneva. His free-
thought writings and the theatrical performances, which he
delighted to hold with his friends and followers, shocked the
Puritan city inexpressibly. Whether at Lausanne, or in the
castle of Prangins, near Nyon, or at Ferney, just outside the
jurisdiction of the Republic of Geneva, whither he retired
after his enemies grew too strong in the city, everywhere he
created a stimulating, irreverent atmosphere. From his
retreat, he delighted in worrying and twitting the staid magis-
strates of the city. He laughed at the disturbances he cre-
ated. There was something sinister in his raillery, and
malicious in his cynical genius. At times his feverish wrath
against his enemies took on an almost diabolical character*
But the marvelous brilliancy of his satire, his perseverance,
even if unworthily exhibited, must be accounted of value in
the general assault which was being made on antiquated
abuses, and irrational modes of thought.

Edward Gibbon, on three occasions, made his home in
Lausanne, in 1756, again from 1763-1767, and from 1785-
1793. It was there that he finished his great work on the
"Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Not possessing
the magnetic, attractive power of either Voltaire or Rousseau,
Gibbon did not gather around him a circle of disciples, but
was well known to all his contemporaries in the world of
letters. It is interesting to know that he was at one time
engaged to be married to Suzanne Curchod, later the wife of
Necker, the famous financier of Louis XVI.

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It was in the castle at Coppet, a little village on the lake»
near Geneva, that the daughter of Mme. Necker, Mme. de
Stael, held intellectual court, at the beginning of this century.
The best thought of Europe flocked thither. For a time
European brilliancy was focused upon that small place.

In this manner the ground was being prepared for a mighty
harvest. A regeneration was at hand, and in this world-wide
movement, Switzerland was playing a prominent part.

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IT is unnecessary for the writer to describe in detail that tre-
mendous awakening of mankind, which characterized the
last decades of the eighteenth century, and changed the face
of Europe. The centenary of the French Revolution was
recently celebrated with so much splendor, its history was so
fully and minutely reviewed, and the lessons which it incul-
cates were placed before the public in so unmistakable a fash-
ion that nothing new remains to be said upon the subject. I
will simply call attention to the fact that Switzerland also felt
the promptings of the spirit of the age, and played her part in
the tragedy which marked the overthrow of an old civilization
and the beginning of a new one. Indeed, the Revolution,
like the Reformation two hundred years before, was a univer-
sal movement, penetrating every sphere of thought and action
and spreading to every land. It was not exclusively French,
for in 1776, fully twenty years before the outbreak in France,
the United States of America had launched forth upon an
astonished and applauding world the glowing enunciation of
first principles contained in the Declaration of Independence.

As early as the first decades of the eventful eighteenth cen-
tury, the people of the Land Cantons of Switzerland had
grown restive under the autocratic rule of their governments.
Popular risings occurred in Appenzell against Landamroann
Zellweger, who, intrenched behind his office, resisted for some
time all efforts made to dislodge him ; in Zug against a certain
Zur Lauben ; and in Schwiz against the aristocratic supremacy


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of the family of Reding, who, having acquired wealth in for-
eign service, had constituted themselves patriarchal leaders of
the people at home.

The cities also began to feel the effects of the new ideas
which were taking possession of the people. Geneva, as has
been noticed in the preceding chapter, was the scene of
countless revolts and revolutions against the established order
of government. In Bern, Henzi, the leader of a democratic
movement, was executed, with two companions. In Zurich a
certain Waser shared the same fate.

Finally the subject lands themselves, the down-trodden,
long-suffering victims of a system of tyranny, but little better
than that of the feudal age at its worst, revolted against their
abnormal condition. The little Gemeinde of Wilchingen, in
the territory of Schaffhausen, seems to have been the first to
rise ; then came liberty-loving Entlebuch, under the rule of
Luzern ; and other small communities followed the example
thus set to them. The most notable of the revolts, at this
time, was the ill-fated one of the people of Vaud, under Major
Davel, a singularly disinterested, but visionary character. His
heroic efforts failed utterly. Having been seized by the Ber-
nese authorities, he was beheaded just outside of Lausanne.
Disturbances broke out subsequently in the territory of the
Prince Bishop of Basel, and in the Toggenburg, a subject land
of the Prince Abbot of St. Gallen. The Val Leventina, mod-
em Ticino, showed signs of unrest under the rule of Uri ; and
Neuchatel tried to throw off the Prussian yoke, which had
been saddled upon the little city by the treaty of Ulrecht, in

But soon the efforts of the revolutionary parties sought
wider fields. A regular propaganda of new ideas was started
by a Swiss Club, formed for the purpose, in Paris. Pamph-
lets were distributed broadcast, in spite of the watchfulness of
the Cantonal authorities ; the subject lands were exhorted to
throw off the yoke of foreign rule. The principles of equality
and natural rights were preached.

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On several occasions, war seemed imminent between France
and Switzerland, especially in 1792, when the greater part of
the Swiss Guard was massacred in defending the Palace of the
Tuilleries from the attacks of the mob. It appears that the
Swiss troops were more than holding their own, when the
word of command came from the King to cease firing, and the
people, overpowering the guard, killed more than half of them.
It is in commemoration of this deed that the famous lion of
Luzem was designed by Thorwaldsen, and the words ^^ Helvetia
orum fidei ac virtutV^ eng^raved beneath. But the final out-
break of hostilities did not come till later, when the Directory
having been established in France, and Napoleon having
assumed control of affairs, the conquest of Switzerland became
a necessity, in order that she might act as a buffer against
Austria and Germany and a link with the newly conquered
regions of the North of Italy. There can be no doubt that
Napoleon deliberately planned the invasion of Switzeriand,
in order to make use of her important strategic position for
the furtherance of his great plans. He also desired to replen-
ish his coffers with the great sums of money, which were
known to be hidden in the treasury vaults of Bern and other
rich centres.

The French were helped in their designs by two Swiss
statesmen of talent, whom they had succeeded in winning
over to their side ; Peter Ochs of Basel, and Frederic Caesar
La Harpe of Vaud. Not that these men intentionally played
the part of traitors to their native country ; they were inspired
by the desire, which all true patriots must have shared with
them, of seeing the aristocratic factions in the various Can-
tons swept away and true democratic governments substituted.
The mistake they made was in trusting too much to the good
faith and the avowed disinterestedness of French statesmen.

The first infringement of Swiss territory took place in
1797. The Val Tellina (Gr. Veltlin), then a subject land of
Graubiinden, but now forming part of the kingdom of Italy,
seized the opportunity created by internal difficulties in

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Graubiinden, to break away, and, with Napoleon's permission,
to join the newly erected Cisalpine Republic

In the same year, Napoleon passed through Switzerland, on
his way to the Congress of Rastadt. Geneva and Lausanne
received him with open arms. He passed by Morat, Bern, and
Basel through the country, greeted everywhere with enthusiasm,
either as a deliverer and avenger, or as an all-powerful con-
queror. The Congress of Rastadt was a failure, but Napoleon
had been able to reconnoitre Switzerland, and it is probable
that the indications which he gave his generals upon his return
to Paris were of great service in the subsequent invasion of
the country. In the meantime, the patriots of Vaud were
carrying on a systematic agitation, under the leadership of
La Harpe, encouraged by the French authorities. Bern then
sent troops into Vaud, and the inhabitants called upon the
French for help ; thereupon the French -ambassador, in the
name of the Directory of France, officially recognized the " Re-
public of the Leman ", and two days after, upon a slight pre-
text, French troops entered and occupied the new Republic.

Under outside pressure, and when it was too late, the gov-
ernments of the various Cantons announced all manner of
reforms, thinking thus to satisfy the long-expressed demands
of the people. But the latter now took matters into their own
hands. In every Canton the glad news of " Liberty, Equality
and Fraternity " was proclaimed. The whole country was in a
state of confusion and transition, admirably suited to further
the plans of the French Directory. In fact, Bern was the only
Canton which made serious preparations to withstand the inva-
sion. The other Cantons were either too busy in settling
their own local disturbances, or were indifferent to the bonds
which still held them to each other. It must also be acknowl-
edged that the majority of the Swiss people did not suppose
that France harbored any hostile plans against them, but
naively believed in the assurances of the French emissaries
accredited to their various governments. At most they looked
for a benevolent intervention.

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After long negotiations, an unacceptable ultimatum was
sent to the Bernese authorities by the French, and the attack
began upon the old city, so long free from foreign foes.

The French army, under Brune and Schauenburg, mustered
25,000 strong with reserves, while Bern could put only 15,000
in the field. It was not long, therefore, before the three
columns of the French bad thrown back the Bernese detach-
ments sent forward to intercept their approach. At Grauholz,
a decisive battle was fought.

From the very beginning of the conflict, it was evident what
the result must be. The disproportion between the forces
was too great to admit of a favorable outcome for the Bernese,
but, nevertheless, they stood undaunted and steadfast in their
place of defence, displaying throughout that terrible conflict,
the truest heroism. Old men and women, with agricultural
implements, threw themselves into the fray, only to be cut
down by the French soldiery. At length, overcome by
superior numbers, the Bernese troops withdrew to their city,
and capitulated just as Erlach, their leader, was meditating a
last supreme effort.

It seemed as though the power of resistance in the outworn
Confederation had been completely broken, for, after the fall
of Bern, the other states yielded without striking a blow.
The ancient league of Thirteen States collapsed like an old
house, unfit for use.

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AS one of the few Americans who have turned their atten-
tion upon Swiss history has aptly remarked, " A con-
sultation of French doctors sat upon the case of Switzerland.
Having rejuvenated France, the Paris revolutionists proposed
to reform the rest of the world. Switzerland must be made
a unit state, and so it was. The ancient Cantons, cradled in
independence and grown old in isolation, were suddenly trans-
formed into departments of a single government and called
the Helvetic Republic.'*^

Had disinterested motives alone prompted French inter-
ference, Switzerland might have been spared those scenes of
violence which followed the proclamation of the new Helvetic
constitution, but the French statesmen and their generals had
absorbed the lust of conquest and of plunder. Brune issued
a pompous proclamation, in which he solemnly affirmed that
he had come as friend of the worthy descendants of William
Tell, and not as conqueror. He told the Swiss to fear noth-
ing for their personal safety, their possessions, their religion,
their political independence, and the integrity of their terri-
tory. As a matter of fact, these promises were deliberately
broken. No sooner had the French troops taken possession
of the country, than the inhabitants were ordered to lodge and
feed them, and a systematic plundering of the cantonal treas-
uries was undertaken by Brune and his associates. Many
millions of francs were thus sent to France, ostensibly to pay
for the costs of the occupation, but really in order to fill the

1 Vincent, J. M. A Study In Swiss History. Pamphlet p. 12.


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depleted coffers of the French Directory. Especially hard
was the fate of Bern, whose rich treasury, the long-saved-up
hoard of centuries, was promptly despoiled of available funds
in bullion and securities.

No words are too strong to condemn the conduct of these
French invaders. No regrets can suffice to express the harm
they did to the cause of liberty in Switzerland and in the world
at large. The ultimate benefit which accrued to Switzerland
from the French Revolution is the only extenuating circum-
stance, the only excuse which can be cited in their behalf.

It was determined to put in force a Constitution, modeled
upon that of France, and for this, the project drawn up by
Ochs was taken as a basis, but considerable vacillation showed
itself at first in adopting a definite scheme. An idea was
mooted of breaking up the country into three parts, with
ready-made boundaries, and utterly fanciful names. There
was to be, first, a Republic of the Rhone, comprising Vaud,
Fribourg, parts of Canton Bern, the Valais, and Ticino;
secondly, a County of Tell {Tellgau)^ for the Forest Cantons;
and thirdly, an Helvetic Republic, for the Northern and East-
em Cantons. Finally, this separatist project was abandoned ;
it was decided to create a completely centralized state, the
Helvetic Republic, one and indivisible.

The new constitution, promulgated April 12th, 1798, first
enunciated a series of general principles. They are now uni-
versally understood and clearly established, but were abso-
lutely foreign to the spirit of the old Confederation. The sum
total of the citizens was declared sovereign ; the form of gov-
ernment was to be a representative democracy ; religious lib-
erty and the freedom of the press were guaranteed ; all
hereditary powers and titles were abolished, as well as the last
remnants of feudal tenure of land. "The natural liberty of
man is unalienable ; it has no other limits than the liberty of
every other man,*' says the text. Radical ideas, such as these,
came like a revelation to men who had suffered under systems
of local tyranny, which, in every Canton, had bred a host of

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economic and social abuses. The very boldness of these decla-
rations, their irresistible logic, captivated men's minds. A new
vista of justice seemed opened to the oppressed. A great
reform wave seemed ready to dash away every vestige of long-
accumulated wrongs.

The document then proceeded to determine the various
attributes of government. Two legislative bodies were insti-
tuted, the Senate and the Grand Council, the former to con-
sist of four delegates from each Canton, and the latter of
representatives chosen according to population. The execu-
tive power was lodged in the Directory of five members, to be
elected by the Senate and the Grand Council conjointly. Four
ministers, with special departments, were also to be chosen to
act with the Directory in the administration of executive
powers. A Supreme Court, consisting of one judge from each
Canton, controlled the highest judicial functions. A small
standing army of paid troops was to be maintained, and a body
of militia in each Canton.

Moreover, every Canton was to possess a Prefect, who repre-
sented the central government, besides a board of administra-
tion and a cantonal tribunal. For the districts, which were
subdivisions of the Cantons, sub-Prefects were appointed.

Finally, conditions were imposed which made any revision
of the constitution an extremely cumbersome procedure. ^

It will always remain the principal merit of this Constitu-
tion that it abolished utterly all distinctions between the Can-
tons and their subject lands ; that it placed the inhabitants of
the whole of Switzerland upon an equal footing, and gave them
the inestimable privileges of religious liberty and freedom of
the press. It destroyed the last vestiges of the aristocratic
organization of the fan tons, and created a new title — the
Swiss citizen. But unfortunately these benefits were accom-
panied by narrow, vexatious ordinances, often too ridiculous to
deserve serious consideration, but of such a nature as to rouse
all the deep-seated prejudices and susceptibilities of the Swiss

OechsU, W. Quellenbuch. p. 417.

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people. For example, the uniforms which were to be worn by
various government officials were designated with the utmost
precision, and often in the worst possible taste. Some of the
descriptions of the obligatory costumes are a positive shock to
one's aesthetic nerves. A Senator wore a blue coat, a straw-
coloured waistcoat, a tri-color scarf with fringes, and a black
hat with a green ostrich feather. A solemn decree was
issued, making the national colors of Switzerland green, red
and yellow. We shudder to think of this combination, and
marvel at such an aberration of French taste.

On the whole, the failure of the Constitution, so admirable
in its enunciation of general principles and so logical in its
arrangement, must be ascribed to an absolute disregard of the
historical development and habits of the Swiss people. It
was purely artificial; it was super-imposed, and therefore
unacceptable to a people accustomed, through centuries of
experience, to manage their own affairs. The Old Confedera-
tion deserved to fall ; but the Helvetic Republic was not
suited to succeed.

One by one, the Swiss Cantons accepted the new Constitu-
tion, until it came to be the turn of the Forest Cantons.
Here, however, the French met with a determined resistance ;
all efforts to introduce the foreign-made organization into the
cradle of Swiss liberty failed in the presence of their uncom-
promising attitude. Full of patriotic fervor, and inspired by a
sort of exaltation, the people of the primitive Cantons prepared
to oppose the hated innovation by force of arms. Ten thou-
sand men put themselves under the command of Alois Reding,
of Schwiz, ready to repulse the French. Their plan of cam-
paign, however, was destined to result in failure, for, instead
of concentrating their forces upon a few threatened points and
acting entirely upon the defensive, they dispersed in every
direction in the hope of winning the surrounding country to their
cause. The French, on the other hand, advanced with 30,cx>o
men, from Zurich and Luzern, upon the village of Schwiz. As
in the olden days of the war of independence against Austria,

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so now, this little place was the objective point, the soul and
inspire- of the rebellion. There were a number of hard-
fought preliminary encounters before the decisive battle was
fought, notably one in the Hohle Gasse, near Kussnacht, where
the historical association of the spot fired the Swiss to deeds
of utmost valor. At the upper end of Lake Zurich the fight-
ing was also very sharp, but in the end the French forced their
way through, until the Canton of Schwiz was completely

Now came the supreme moment which was to decide the
issue of the campaign and the fate of Schwiz. Strangely
enough the final conflict was fought upon that very range of
Morgarten which had witnessed the first great victory of the
early Confederates against Austria, more than four hundred
and fifty years before. In the morning of the decisive day,
the French advanced from the Lake of Zurich, and penetrated
as far as Einsiedeln, through the treachery or cowardice of a
busybody priest. Reding had been expecting them at the
pass of the Schindelleghi^ but, hearing of this movement, with-
drew to the plateau of Rothenthurm, where he received rein-
forcements from Uri and the Landsturn of Schwiz, consisting
of old men and beardless youths. In the meantime, another
detachment of French troops advanced from Aegeri, climbed
the slopes of Morgarten, and took possession of the whole
ridge. The Swiss dislodged the French from this ridge, after
severe fighting, and then turned, with fanatical fury, against
the enemy coming from Einsiedeln. They succeeded in driv-
ing back even this force with great loss, but when night fell
the conflict was undecided; for, although the Swiss had
repulsed the French, it was evident that they could not long
sustain the attacks of greater numbers continually being rein-
forced. An armistice was concluded before fighting could be
renewed next day, and a definite peace signed, by which the
Forest Cantons agreed to accept the Helvetic Constitution,
but only on condition that all their ancient liberties should be
guaranteed to them.

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The example of Schwiz was followed by Uri, Glanis, Zug,
and Unterwalden. Resistance was offered in the Upper
Valais, but the patriots were promptly defeated near Sion.
On the 14th of July, 1798, the deputies from the eighteen
Cantons, which at the time composed the Republic, met in
Aargau to take the oath of allegiance to the constitution.

Nidwalden alone refused to allow its citizens to take the
oath, and went so far as to depose the Helvetic officials of
the Canton, at the instigation of the fanatical local clergy.
Schauenburg, the French general, therefore, oh the 6th of
September, began operations against the stubborn mountain-
eers, with a force of between i2,ocx) and 16,000 veterans.
Barely 2000 inexperienced peasants of Nidwalden stood
opposed to him. His attempts to land troops at Stansstadt
and Kehrsiten having proved unsuccessful, he next, on the
9th, directed his attack upon Stans, the village-capital of
the Canton, advancing by way of the valley lying between the
short ridge of the Mueterschwand and the great Stanserhom.
But the French met with heroic resistance, their advance was
effectually blocked, until finally they penetrated to the rear
of Stans by the pass of Grossacherli. This had been left
almost undefended. The inhabitants fought in desperation,
with a fury which knew no bounds, while the victors, maddened
by the long resistance they had encountered, committed the
most atrocious acts of cruelty, slaying women, children and
old men alike in their rage. Schauenburg was obliged to
write to General Jordi: "We have lost a great many men,
which was unavoidable, considering the incredible stubbornness
of these people, whose fearlessness became positive madness.
. . . It was one of the hottest days I have ever seen."^
In fact, while Nidwalden lost only a little over four hundred
persons, the French mourned several thousand men.

The battle of Stans deserves a place in world-history, apart
altogether from its character of an heroic defence. It gave
Pestalozzi, the founder of modern pedagogy, an opportunity

Online LibraryWilliam Denison McCrackanThe rise of the Swiss republic: A history → online text (page 23 of 32)