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The rise of the Swiss republic: A history online

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ideal trysting-place.

As subsequent historians based their accounts almost exclu-
sively upon the "White Book of Sarnen," it is not necessary to
examine their work in detail. Suffice it to say that they did
not hesitate to supply the persons with names and the events
with dates, whenever these were needed. The traditions found
their best exponent in Giles (Aegidius) Tschudi of Glarus,
from whom in turn Schiller derived most of the material for
his play.

The true explanation of the legends, which surround the ori-
gin of the Swiss Confederation, seems to be somewhat as
follows :

All nations when they have risen to importance begin to
speculate about their origin. Obscure local events, connected
superficially with the struggle for independence, appeal to
popular imagination and become traditions. These are col-
lected and fitted together so as to produce one continuous nar-
rative, which shall sound reasonable and satisfy patriotic pride.
But, of course, the longer this task has been delayed, and the
more remote the national origin, the greater the obscurity
which surrounds these traditions, and the more numerous the
inaccuracies which have crept into them. For unwritten his-
tory soon loses its original purity in being transmitted from
father to son, so when finally put down in writing, it no longer
represents events as they have actually taken place, but as
the people have learned to imagine them. The long conflict
against Habsburg was concentrated into a short space of time;

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the multitudes, who took part in it, symbolized by a handful of
determined men; and the Swiss nation was made to result
from a sudden upheaval.

The history of the early Swiss is more than picturesque, it
is instructive. T^ht chroniclers need not have resorted to
legends of doubtful origin in order to invest the rise of their
Confederation with the interest it ought always to have com-
manded. In attempting this they rather obscured than dis-
played the qualities which made their ancestors worthy of our
admiration, and pressed into the background those features of
Swiss history which best deserve to be studied. The chroni-
clers would have us believe that the sacred flame of liberty was
kindled by the whim of a petty tyrant, the liberation of the
people efifected by murder; they would make the origin of the
oldest feudal republic in existence depend upon a trick, upon
the chances of an arrow in its flight, when in reality it is
based upon the eternal laws of the brotherhood of man; they
would represent as fortuitous, abnormal, and sudden, what was
eminently deliberate, lawful, and long drawn through centur-
ies of strife and struggle.

Nothing could have been more heroic than the ceaseless
resistance of the patriots in Uri, Schwiz and Unterwalden to
the encroachments of Habsburg, or m'ore admirable than the
patient wisdom with which they finally won their independence.

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HISTORICAL analogies are apt to be misleading because
exactly the same conditions can never be reproduced in
different countries and at different periods. At the same
time the lessons to be learned by the comparative method of
study are so manifold, that they cannot well be neglected with-
out serious injury to the subject under consideration.

Peculiar interest must attach to the origin of the two most
successful systems of federalism in modem times. A judi-
ciously conducted comparison between the forces which led to
their founding, and their subsequent growth into independent
free states, cannot fail to be of value to the student, especially
when the truly marvelous resemblance between their present
organizations is duly appreciated.

In reality the main difference to be noted in the develop-
ment of the Swiss Confederation, as compared with that of the
United States, is one of time rather than of manner. The
growth of the former from a loose aggregation of states into a
firm federal body, has been spread over the better part of six
centuries, while that of the United States has been compressed
into little more than two centuries and a half. On the other
hand there are moments in the history of both countries, nota-
bly in their constitutional progress, which are so nearly alike,
that they may well be placed opposite each other in parallel
columns of development

The Alamannian tribes, which invaded Switzerland and


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later laid the foundations of the Confederation, found what was
practically virgin soil for their Teutonic institutions. They
themselves were almost entirely free from the influence of
Latin civilization, and the few Celto-Roman Helvetii, whom
they encountered upon taking possession of the country, they
promptly reduced to slavery. There was nothing to disturb
the essentially Teutonic character of their civilization. Very
much the same set of conditions obtained in England at the
time of the Saxon invasion, so that Teutonic institutions took
root and flourished in those two countries, and preserved their
primitive purity as nowhere else.

When in the course of the seventh and eighth centuries the
descendants of the original Alamannian settlers colonized the
Forest States, and the descendants of the Saxon invaders
crossed the Atlantic to people the American coast, each group
of emigrants was able to transplant the rudiments of ancient
Teutonic institutions to fresh soil, in much the same form as
they had originally received them from their ancestors. As
a matter of fact, therefore, the Celtic Helvetii had as little to
do with founding the Swiss Confederation as had the Red
Indians to do with the formation of the United States of
America, The organization of both these confederated states
was essentially Teutonic in conception and application. Even
the manner in which the colonization of the Forest States was
effected bears a strong resemblance to that of New England.
The majority of the settlers were sent out by great ecclesias-
tical corporations or by powerful noblemen, and these may be
likened, for purposes of illustration, to those joint-stock com-
panies, the London Company and the Plymouth, and to the
English noblemen who took so prominent a part in the colo-
nization of the American coast.

But the English settlers had one very appreciable advant-
age over the Swiss mountaineers. The task of founding a
free state, in the modem sense of the word, was much easier
for them, because when they left England the fabric of feu-
dalism was already torn, the principle of the divine right of

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kings was no longer unquestioned. Their opportunity to rear
a state upon true democratic principles, upon an equality of
opportunity for all men could not have been better — it has
never been equalled in the history of the world. Indeed, if
they had succeeded in establishing an aristocratic, feudal soci-
ety upon the American continent, their act would have been
an historical freak, pure and simple, and wholly out of the nat-
ural order of the world's development. But the struggle of
the early Swiss had first to be directed against the allied forces
of feudalism. They bore the incubus of a system of society
based upon special privileges for the few. Their constant con-
flict was for democracy in an age encumbered with the para-
pharnalia of medievalism, and their ultimate victory for popu-
lar rights was as wonderful in itself, considering the obstacles
in their path, as would have been the triumph of feudal prin-
ciples in the settlements of the English colonists.

In Switzerland and in America alike, the various states
acquired local self-government by different methods. They
grew into sovereign communities before they united into a
federal body, remaining in subjection to a distant supreme
power — the Forest States to the head of the German Empire,
and the American Colonists to the King of England. In both
countries there were charters issued by this supreme power,
which formed the basis of later constitutions in conjunction
with local enactments.

The first feudal constitution of the Swiss Confederation,
which has come down to us, is the perpetual league drawn up
by the three communities ot Uri, Schwiz and Unterwalden in
129 1. In the history of the United States there is a docu-
ment which may fairly be said to correspond to this. It is
the Articles of Agreement, framed in 1643, by the four colo-
nies of Connecticut, New Haven, Plymouth and Massachusetts
Bay. In both cases the fear of aggression from a commoa
enemy led to union. The Swisd mountaineers were induced
to enter into their league, in order that they might repulse
the constant encroachments of Habsburg-Austria, while the

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English settlers founded the United Colonies of New England
to withstand the attacks of Indian tribes.

In this connection the provisions of the Articles of Agree-
ment are worthy of examination. We " enter into a consocia-
tion amongst ourselves,** say the four colonies, "for mutual
help and strength in all future concernment, that as in nation
and religion, so in other respects, we be and continue one."
They, therefore, establish a "firm and perpetual league of
friendship and amity.** Each state shall retain its own pecu-
liar form of jurisdiction. "Charges of all just wars" shall be
borne by them in certain fixed proportions. Levies shall be
raised from each state according to regulations. Two commis-
sioners from each state shall meet to exercise carefully enu-
merated powers. And finally the document asserts that
commissioners from the four states have subscribed to "this
peVpetual confederation." The American Articles of Agree-
ment are somewhat more explicit than the Swiss Perpetual
League, they are not quite as discoursive, they do not contain
as many provisions of a purely judicial character, but in other
respects, they betray the same untutored, experimental qualities
as the Perpetual League. It is somewhat remarkable also that
the Colonists should have declared their confederation perpet-
ual when this form of phraseology is so comparatively rare in

Nor does the resemblance between these two perpetual
pacts stop at this point. Neither the one nor the other gives
us any reason to believe that these primitive confederations
harbored any aspirations after cutting adrift from the protect-
ing parent country. As a matter of fact, both were eventually
driven to separation, as much by the natural process of great
world forces, as by their own individual efiforts. When the
Swiss Confederation was formally and officially recognized as a
power independent of the German Empire, at the Peace of
Westphalia in 1648, the signatory parties only set their seal to
a state of things which had virtually existed since the Swabian
war in 1499. And in the same manner the Declaration of

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Independence, enunciated by the thirteen colonies in 1 776, was
only the world-wide announcement of a fact which had been
patent to every investigator long before. As at the present
moment the practical independence of the Australian colonies
and of Canada must be conceded, although those states have
never actually severed their connection with the mother

The Swiss Confederation and the United States have each
in their way contributed invaluable services to the cause of
federalism. It would be invidious to award the palm to either.
The first seems to have represented the principle in Europe
untij the second was ready to develop it on purer lines in the
New World. For when the United States were founded the
prevalent conception of government amongst civilized nations
was that of a highly centralized monarchy. The Dutch and
the Swiss Confederations, it is true, existed, but they had
grown to be most unworthy examples of federalism. Switzer-
land presented the unedifying spectacle of extreme decentral-
ization, of a disorganized and demoralized conglomeration of
sovereign states, bereft of national sentiment, divided into
religious factions, and a prey to foreign intrigue. The Nether-
lands had been consolidated by the house of Orange into a
centralized state, almost devoid of true federalism. It was the
representative system of England, in its last analysis a species
of federalism, which the founders of the United States trans-
planted to a new environment. Working at first crudely
and imperfectly, but later with a marvelous precision, they
accomplished a practical revolution in the whole science of
constitutional government. To-day, therefore, the Swiss Con-
federation and the United States stand side by side in friendly
rivalry to demonstrate the blessings of federalism.

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IN spite of the conservative tone which is observable in the
text of the first perpetual league, there can be no doubt
that the signing of this instrument denoted a new departure
in the policy of the Forest States. Every line breathes the
determination of the contracting parties to resist fresh
encroachments upon the liberties they had so far acquired, as
well as to enforce law and order within their boundaries. No
disguise was made of the fact that they were committed to a
policy of organized resistance against Habsburg.

The death of Rudolf was the signal for a period of confu-
sion. He had made every effort to secure the succession to
his eldest son, Albrecht, but so great was the alarm caused by
the extraordinary development of the Habsburg power, that
after the throne had remained vacant for almost a year, it was
awarded to Count Adolf of Nassau. The partisans of the two
rivals broke out into open feud. In the south of the empire
the cities of Bern and Zurich, with a number of spiritual and
temporal lords, united in hostility to Habsburg, and it was
this alliance which Uri and Schwiz joined by making a spe-
cial compact with Zurich to last for three years. Unterwal-
den does not seem to have felt strong enough to incur such
responsibilities. Of this alliance we need only say that it was
not particularly successful, and fell apart before the term had
expired for which it had been concluded.

Adolf s short reign is not distinguished in the history of the
young confederation by any event of a startling nature, but
still it deserves to be noted for the fact that, in 1294, the first


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Landsgemeinde, or open-air legislative meeting, of which we
have any record, met in Schwiz. A decree promulgated on
this occasion will ever remain memorable on account of the
lig^t it throws upon the economic and social conditions exist-
ing in Schwiz at this early date.

It refers to the subject of land tenure. The assembled peo-
ple of Schwiz agree to forbid any one to sell or give land to
monasteries in the valley, or to strangers dwelling outside,
under pain of a heavy fine. All land thus alienated ifnust be
bought back, or else confiscated by the community. The mon-
asteries must pay the same taxes as all the other members of
the community, or else be excluded from using the common
lands, /. e. the Almend. The strangers must also pay the
same taxes ; nor can they exact any compensation from their
tenants for this reason, or take the land away from them.

Rough and ready as these regulations undoubtedly are, they
give evidence of great insight on the part of the rude peasants.
They constitute a revolt against special privilege, against the
monopoly of land by great ecclesiastical corporations and
absentee landlords. They show that the men of Schwiz felt
the pinch of land hunger, where land was in plenty, and that
they were persuaded of the necessity for regulating its tenure
in such a manner, as to g^ve every man an equal measure of
opportunity in the acquirement of wealth.

The causes which produced the revolt of the Forest States
against Habsburg, and thereby called into being a new state,
are to a certain extent, shrouded in obscurity. If they could
ever be traced to their ultimate, prime cause, there is reason
to believe that the great question of land tenure, which has
presided at the rise and fall of many another nation, would be
found at the origin of the Swiss Confederation also.

In the midst of the war between Adolf and Albrecht, for the
latter had never renounced his pretensions to the throne, Uri
and Schwiz succeeded in persuading Adolf to ratify their char?
ters of immunity. But unfortunately the Forest States were
not destined to be left long in their enjoyment of these char-

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ters, for, in 1298, Adolf lost his crown and his life in battle
with his rival, who was thereupon formally elected king in his

One might suppose that with Albrecht of Habsburg's acces-
sion to the throne, the Forest States would be made to feel
the full resentment which their independent action was calcu-
lated to provoke ; but, as it was, they escaped untouched for
more than twenty years.

The Swiss chroniclers of the sixteenth century have stigma-
tized Albrecht I., of Germany, as a ferocious tyrant, who in
order to establish his personal power, sent despotic bailiffs into
the Forest States, who, in their turn, behaved so arrogantly,
that the inhabitants were compelled to revolt. As a matter of
fact history does not corroborate these accusations.

It is true that Albrecht was every inch a Habsburg, a man
determined to extend the patrimony which his father had left
him, and not over scrupulous in the choice of means toward
the attainment of this object. But there is no evidence of his
having appointed tyrannical bailiffs, or of having brought about
the revolt which the chronicles relate. Of course his interests
forced him to oppose the aspirations of the Forest States. He
refused to ratify the charters of immunity, possessed by Uri
and Schwiz. There was also an uprising of the people on the
Habsburg estate of Kiissnacht, directed against the bailiff of
the place, but Kiissnacht did not, at that time, belong to the
Forest States.

On the whole, an examination of Albrecht's reign from
1298-1308 shows that the Forest States were allowed to man-
age their own affairs as freely as heretofore.

Uri was governed by a native Landammann, Knight Werner
von AttinghauseUf during most of this time, a man who had
taken a part hostile to Habsburg in the alliance with Zurich.
In Schwiz there are several notices of native Landammanner,
of whom one was Rudolf Stauffacher. This patriot had made
himself especially odious to Habsburg on account of his hostil-
ity to the great land-owning monasteries in Schwiz. As early

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as 1275, during the reign of Rudolf I., Stauffacher had per-
sisted in demanding taxes of the nunnery at Steinen, and
when the latter refused, had taken a horse belonging to that
institution as security. Thereupon Queen Anna, Rudolfs
wife, wrote a letter to Landammann Stauffacher, demanding
the instant surrender of the horse to the nuns, and their
exemption from taxation. In 1294 came the Laudsgemeinde
decree, mentioned above, and in 1299, by a curious coinci-
dence. Queen Elizabeth, Albrecht's wife, like her predecessor,
was constrained to write to the Landammann, of Schwiz,
again demanding exemption from taxation for the nunnery in
Steinen. One is inclined to suspect that this second Landam-
mann, whose name is not given, was in reality the same
Rudolf Stauffacher, to whom Queen Anna had once written
on the same subject, that arch-enemy of the monopoly of land.
Certain it is that this patriot filled the office of chief magis-
trate in 1304.

Perhaps the most striking evidence that the liberties of the
Forest States were not seriously curtailed is supplied by the
fact that, during Albrecht's reign, in 1304, Nidwalden and
Obwalden appear for the first time united under the name of
Unterwalden, with a Landammann in the person of a certain
Rudolf von Oedisriet.

It is a question, however, whether these comparatively
friendly relations could have existed much longer between the
Habsburg family and the liberty loving peasants in Uri,
Schwiz and Unterwalden ; whether the open hostilities, which
broke out some years later, would not have shown themselves
already during Albrecht's reign, had not an event of the most
startling nature called away attention from the Forest States
to the wider interests of the German Empire at large.

King Albrecht was one day riding toward his ancestral cas-
tle near Windisch, when he was foully murdered by his ward
and nephew, John, Duke of Austria. When the sensation,
caused by this deed, had somewhat subsided. Count Henry
of Luxemburg was elected to the throne, and once more, as in

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the days of Adolf of Nassau, the supreme power had been
wrested from the hands of Habsburg in time to avert a conflict
with the Forest States.

Henry VII. confirmed the charters of Uri and Scbwiz, and
issued one to Unterwalden, which is the first official recogni-
tion of the immunity of that state, known to historians. These
royal acts were in themselves sufficiently hostile to Habsburg,
but Henry also appointed an imperial bailiff to govern the
three States conjointly, thus taking them from the stewardship
of Habsburg, and placing them directly under his own care.

The Dukes Frederic and Leopold, Albrecht's sons, were
engaged for the time being in waging a war of extermination
against the murderer of their father and his accomplices. Only
one of the conspirators fell into their hands, a certain Rudolf
von Wart, perhaps the least culpable of all. He was put to
death amid frightful tortures upon the scene of the murder,
where Queen Elizabeth thereupon founded the nunnery of
Konigsfelden, as a memorial to her husband.

This awful task accomplished, Duke Leopold, to whose share
the Habsburg possessions in the West bad fallen, turned his
attention to the Forest States, where his interests were in a
condition to awaken his worst apprehensions. He obtained an
assurance from Henry VH. that an exhaustive examination
would be made of Habsburg's rights in the Forest States.
Fortunately for these communities, however, Henry died in
I3I3» before the promised inquiry could be made, and the sub-
ject was pressed into the background by the difficulties experi-
enced in finding a successor to the crown. It was during the
long contest, which now ensued between Dukes Ludwig of
Upper Bavaria and Frederic of Austria, the two claimants to
the succession, that the final revolt of the Forest States against
Habsburg was destined to take place.

It is impossible to judge bow much longer the conflict might
. have been averted, had not the men of Schwiz committed an
outrage upon the neighboring Abbey of Einsiedeln, an institu-
tion which was under the stewardship of Habsburg. In the

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night of the 6th of January, 13 14, a marauding band from
Schwizy under the leadership of Landammann Werner Stauf-
facher attacked the monastery, took the sleeping monks pris-
oners, penetrated into the cellars, broke open the doors of the
sanctuary, and in drunken fury overthrew the ornaments, treas-
ures, vessels, vestments and relics. At daybreak they departed
with their prisoners, and the cattle they had found on the place.
The story of this raid has been told in a Latin poem, the Cap-
pella Heremitarium,^ by one of the sufifering monks. It reflects
but little credit upon the men of Schwiz. At the same time
the causes which led up to this outrage are not sufficiently
known to make a fair judgment possible. There seems to have
been one of those periodic quarrels with the monks about the
Almend, and the men of Schwiz seem to have been exasperated
beyond endurance at the infringement on their rights. Only
a few years before, the bishop of Constance, in whose see the
Forest States were situated, had launched a decree of excom-
munication against the men of Schwiz, in consequence of con-
stant complaints on the part of Einsiedein, so that the rela-
tions between the peasants and the monks were decidedly

Online LibraryWilliam Denison McCrackanThe rise of the Swiss republic: A history → online text (page 9 of 32)