1740-1798 History of Italy Switzerland

Helvetic Republic, 1798-1803

In English, the Names Helvetian Republic and Helvetic Republic are both used.

During the 1790es a number of Swiss, both political exiles and men within the country, called for the democratization of the old Swiss constitution. The old Swiss Confederation distinguished between member cantons and subject territories (not surprisingly, the voices for reform were the loudest in areas treated as subject territories). In the member cantons, political power often lay within the hands of a few privileged families. Yet, even in the face of obvious, openly displayed dissatisfaction with the political situation, those in power decided to stick with the old constitution and refuse modernization. Only in certain cantons, and there only in reaction to political pressure from the side of the populace, has a more democratic canton constitution been introduced.
Subject territories, with or without the assistance of French troops, declared their independence and adopted a constitution / form of state based on the French model : the former bishopric of Basel constituted herself as the RAURACIAN REPUBLIC (1792-1793), the Vaud as the LEMANIC REPUBLIC (1798-1803), the Valais/Wallis as the REPUBLIC OF VALAIS. The VALTELLINO, BORMIO and CHIAVENNA, hitherto subject territories to Grisons, were annexed into the CISALPINE REPUBLIC in 1797. The Rauracian Republic had already been annexed into France in 1793, Geneva was annexed into France in 1798.

Napoleon Bonaparte had travelled through Switzerland in 1797, and was welcomed at many places as hero and liberator (although he did not bring change). At the request of Swiss advocates of change, LAHARPE and OCHS, France interfered in Swiss affairs in Dec. 1797/Jan. 1798. The Swiss were divided over the question to resist or not; the military resistance they put up to the invading French forces, mainly Bernese, was quickly overcome. The HELVETIAN REPUBLIC was proclaimed (March 29th 1798), with a federal constitution (granting much more power to the central institutions, such as the DIRECTORY, in comparison to the previous Swiss Confederation). The Republic was to have a bicameral parliament; the capital, after having been at AARAU from May to Oct. 1798, was to be LUZERN.
It turned out that not all cantons were ready to sign up to the new constitution; the three original cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Nidwalden - Catholic, the clergy objecting to the treatment given to the church - not only refused to sign but organized armed resistance, which after a valiant struggle, saw themselves compelled to sign a peace under French terms (May 1798).

In the Swiss campaign, the French pursued more ulterior aims than merely assist Swiss democrats in reforming their constitution. The French plundered the treasury everywhere they went; excesses committed by French troops only added to growing displeasure with the presence of the latter.
The Helvetic Republic, giving up the traditional policy of neutrality pursued by the Swiss Confederation, signed a TREATY OF ALLIANCE with France (Aug. 1798). In the SECOND WAR OF THE COALITION, Switzerland became battleground; Austrian and Russian troops temporarily liberated eastern Switzerland (where the measures of the democratic reforms were immediately cancelled). The Swiss communities suffered, in addition to destruction caused by the war, also by contributions they were forced to pay for the respective armies. The Russians signing peace with France in 1799 turned events in favour of the latter, which once again was in complete control of the country.

In the short livespan of the Helvetic Republic, the representatives in the two chambers were split in two rival camps, the CENTRALISTS and the FEDERALISTS. In five years the country saw 4 coups d'etat and 4 constitutions - in short, it was notoriously instable. In Jan. 1800 the directory was dissolved, replaced by an EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE of 7 members, established by the legislative councils; in Aug. 1800 the latter were dissolved, to be replaced by a single legislative council of 50 members; in Nov. 1801 the Federalists staged a coup, establishing a senate composed by their own men; in Feb. 1802 a Centralist counter-coup followed. In most cases the French were involved. With Switzerland involved in a civil war, NAPOLEON BONAPARTE interfered in Oct. 1802. He soon accepted the title of MEDIATOR OF THE HELVETIC REPUBLIC (Feb. 1803). In March 1803, Napoleon passed the ACT OF MEDIATION which restored the old SWISS CONFEDERATION. However, he separated the VALAIS from the Helvetic Republic in 1802.

Among the accomplishments of the Helvetic Republic are the centralization of the minting and printing of money (hitherto done by the individual cantons), now replaced by the uniform SWISS FRANC. With the first constitution of the Helvetic Republic, all privileges of nobility, clergy, ruling cantons (over subject territories) were abolished, freedom of religion and of the press guaranteed.FEDERAL ARCHIVES were established. The FRICKTAL, an Austrian possession until 1797, was annexed by the Helvetic Republic in 1801.
The introduction of the METRIC SYSTEM did not last.

The Collapse of the Old Confederation in 1798 and the Long March to the New Federal State of 1848, from Swiss Genealogy on the Web
Entries from Infoplease Encyclopedia : Switzerland and Helvetic Republic
The Hassler Legacy : Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler and the US Coast Survey, from noaa
Switzerland in a revolutionary Europe, from revue.ch
Zum Kulturtransfer der Schweizer Soeldner in Fremden Diensten (on resistance against Helv. Republic 1798), in ASMZ, German language article
DOCUMENTS Flag of the Helvetic Republic, the Helvetic Legion, of the Valais, from FOTW
Treaty of Luneville, 1801, from napoleonseries.org
La constitution de la Republique helvetique (12 avril 1798), from cliotexte, click here for the German text
Statesmen representing the Helvetic Republic, from World Statesmen : Switzerland by Ben Cahoon
Documents on Swiss Constitutional History : the Helvetic Republic, posted by Univ. Bern, Institute for Public Law, 16 documents, in German language
Map featuring Switzerland 1536-1798, from Swiss Genealogy
Suisse, from Annuaire 1789-1815, in French
Republique Helvetique, from Annuaire 1789-1815, in French
REFERENCE Charles Dandliker, History of Switzerland, The History of Nations Volume XIII. NY : Colliers (1907) 1916, pp.327-594, revised by Elbert J. Benton

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on September 29th 2012

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