History of Italy 1798-1803

Switzerland 1740-1798

The Swiss Confederation was a complex structure of sovereign cantons, subject territories and associated territories. There were two kinds of sovereign cantons, cities whose council also ruled the surrounding countryside, and rural cantons practicing direct democracy (Landsgemeinden). The situation was further complicated by the cantons being divided in two opposing camps, the Catholics and the Protestants. The highest authority lay with the Swiss diet, which met episodically. Her decisions were usually based on a general agreement; the antagonism the confessions showed toward each other resulted in few decisions being agreed upon. In regard to foreign policy, Switzerland pursued a policy of neutrality; the Catholic cantons continued to permit foreigners to recruit mercenaries on their territory. This was a matter of cantonal policy; the federation was comparatively weak; most political authority was concentrated on the cantonal level.
While Switzerland prides herself in a long democratic tradition, 18th century Swiss democracy differed much from a 21st century definition of that term. The powerful city councils of Zürich, Basel, Bern etc. were dominated by the patriciate, a group of families which came to regard themselves as the privileged ruling class. Similarly, in politics of the rural cantons, a few families had succeeded in obtaining a dominant position. The inhabitants of the subject territories had no say at all. The structure of Swiss government made political reform, as suggested by the Enlightenment philosophers, a seemingly impossible task.

When, in 1762-1763, the French minister of war, implemented a reform which placed Swiss mercenaries under French officers, the Canton Schwyz regarded this a breach of privilege. France, in turn, boycotted trade with Schwyz; Schwyz banned further recruitment for French service; none of the other Cantons supplying France with mercenaries had complained.

The philosophes, most notably Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau, identified a number of ills in their contemporary society which needed reform - education, the penal system, the powers of the church, an overreglemented economy, the existence of serfdom. They disagreed over how these reforms were to be implemented, by a powerful enlightened monarch (Voltaire), by a constitutional monarchy (Montesquieu), by a Republic (Rousseau). All of them primarily had France in mind, when they proposed their constitution of choice. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, but had grown up outside of Switzerland under difficult circumstances. Voltaire would spend the later years of his life in Switzerland, living in Ferney, an estate he had purchased.
Urban Switzerland produced a number of enlightened thinkers, among them Lavater. As they were attracted by a Court and Salon culture, they travelled a lot and spent much time outside of their home country. Swiss banker Necker served twice as comptroller of Frances finances under Louis XIV.
Enlightenment philosophy had an impact on Switzerland's urban elite, especially in French-speaking Switzerland. Among the Swiss protestants, Liberal political views came gradually to emerge, which included the conviction that church and state had to be separated. In rural Catholic cantons, the Catholic clergy managed to maintain their hold on education, and remained politically influential; rural cantons tended to be more conservative. The persecution of perceived witches declined sharply in the 18th century; the last 'witch' was executed in 1782.

Heinrich Pestalozzi attempted to implement enlightenment concepts of education by founding educational institutions and by working as a teacher (from 1775 on). The first Masonic lodge had been established in Geneva in 1736; Masonic organizations were not permitted in most Catholic cantons.

Since the 16th century, Switzerland pursued a policy of freedom of trade, which meant that many of the privileges and obstacles the philosophes criticized as obsolete in France did not exist in Switzerland. Hence the Alpine Republic would be among the first nations on the European continent to undergo industrialization (1798-1830)

Ancien Regime und Aufklärung, from Schweizer Geschichte, in German
Article Johann Kaspar Lavater, from BBKL, in German; from Wikipedia, in English
Biography of Heinrich Pestalozzi, from Pestalozzi im Internet, in English
Article Jacques Necker, from Wikipedia, in English
REFERENCE Charles Dandliker, History of Switzerland, The History of Nations Volume XIII. NY : Colliers (1907) 1916, pp.327-594, revised by Elbert J. Benton
Basilio M. Biucchi, Die Industrielle Revolution in der Schweiz 1700-1850 (the Industrial Revolution in Switzerland), pp.43-62 in : C.M. Cipolla (ed.), Die Entwicklung der Industriellen Gesellschaften (The Development of Industrial Societies), Stuttgart : Fischer 1977 (in German) [G]

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on February 9th 2002, last revised on February 15th 2006

Click here to go Home
Click here to go to Information about KMLA, WHKMLA, the author and webmaster
Click here to go to Statistics

Impressum · Datenschutz