Ancien Regime : Switzerland 1648-1798

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Jung, Jia
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2007

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Political and Military History
II.1 Formal Recognition of Independence from the Holy Roman Empire
II.2 Political Structure
II.3 Swiss Diet
II.4 Policy of Armed Neutrality
II.5 Rural Uprisings
II.6 18th Century Challenges to the Administrative Structure and Federal Authority
II.7 New Waves in 18th Century Swiss Politics
II.8 The Massacre of Swiss Mercenaries in France
II.9 The French Revolution and the End of the Old Swiss Confederacy
II.10 The Establishment of the Helvetic Republic
III. Economic Aspects
III.1 The Economic Landscape
III.2 18th Century : Overall Prosperity and Scientific Development
III.3 18th Century : Development and Expansion of Industry
IV. Social Aspects
IV.1 17th Century Society
IV.2 Religious Conflicts
IV.3 18th Century : Unity, Peace and Enlightenment Philosophy
IV.4 Helvetic Society
IV.5 Revolutionary Ideas Spread
IV.6 The Issue of Witches
IV.7 Education
V. Conclusion
VI. Notes
VII. Bibliography

I. Introduction
            Swiss history from 1648 to 1798 is referred to as 'Ancien Regime' retrospectively in post-Napoleonic Switzerland (1). During the period was established the political, economic and social base of modern Swiss society having been through several conflicts within as well as significant development. "Ancien Regime" Switzerland saw significant outgrows of modern political structure and policy, economic and scientific development, and the development of unique social structure and cultural features.

II. Political and Military History

II.1 Formal Recognition of Independence from the Holy Roman Empire
            In 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, the Swiss Federation was internationally and formally recognized as a free federation.

II.2 Political Structure
            Switzerland had a complex structure compromising of several sovereign cantons, subject territories, associated territories, and subject territories of associated territories, associated monasteries and their subject territories (refer to Figure 1) (2). Swiss cantons differed in size, social structure, culture and many other features thus in power structures did (3). Most power remained at the Cantonal level although there is a common subject that was to decide Federal issues which needed common agreement.
            Absolutism prevailed in the ruling style of European countries strengthening the power of royal families throughout Europe. Switzerland showed its moves towards Authoritarianism in the period (4). The power structure moved into aristocracy in which only the limited number of people involved in political decision making process.

Figure 1 : Switzerland c. 1648

            There are two types in sovereign cantons; rural cantons and city cantons that ruled surrounding territories (5). In both types of cantons, The ruling class was solidified into certain families or few people, forming oligarchy. Inviting people to talk tradition disappeared in the process. The rural cantons (Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Glarus, and Appenzell) practiced direct democracy called Landsgemeinden. Landsgemeinde is a "popular assembly" that every male citizen participated, however in fact, not all communes were member (6). The crucial positions in the political structure were held by patrician families only. In some industrial city cantons such as Zürich, Basel, Schaffhausen, guilds which had very selective membership monopolized the administrative positions and decision making process; rural inhabitants had no influence at all. In city cantons that ruled surrounding territories such as Bern, Solothurn, Fribourg, Lucerne, it was no difference in that certain patrician families dominated politics (7). A broad majority of the Swiss people - the peasants of the areas controlled by the cities of Zürich, Bern, Lucerne, Zug, Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel and Schaffhausen (world) as well as the inhabitants of the subject territories under common administration by all member states of the old Swiss confederacy (Aargau, Thurgau, Vaud) had no political rights (8). Other city cantons - Bern, Lucerne, Fribourg, Solothurn - were in effect ruled by aristocrats. The citizens were squeezed out of decision making, which came to be exercised by a few families in the canton capital. In Bern, for example, the rulers were known as "Their Excellencies" (German: Gnädige Herren) (9).

II.3 The Swiss Diet
            The common body that held highest authority lay in the Swiss Diet; however, it failed to impose strong obligation for the cantons to bind together. The decision was based on a general agreement (10). The "common lordships" were administered by bailiffs appointed by the cantons (11). However there was a strong tension among the cantons in the Diet working as a federation; a common agreement over a issue often failed because of the rivalry among the cantons. Since the Catholic cantons were in the majority, the Protestants often felt oppressed because the cantons took it in turns to appoint the bailiff and it often left the Protestants for years out of the position (12).

II.4 Policy of Armed Neutrality
            In the midst of the devastating war in Germany, 30 years war, Swiss Federation could avoid the devastation by uniting two powers of Protestant and Catholics to block possible foreign intervention. The cantons fully understood the importance of Armed Neutrality thus pursued and gradually formalized the policy of it (13). Still the catholic cantons continued to permit foreigners to recruit mercenaries on their territory (14).

II.5 Rural Uprisings
            Because of the heavy taxes that the city cantons imposed on their rural subject territories, there was prevailing oppressed feeling thus rebellious atmosphere in the rural areas even during the 30 Years War. In February 1653 the ruling class of Bern and Lucerne devalued their currencies it lead to rural revolts in these cantons. The revolt soon spread to Solothurn and Basel; however it did not last long. By the June the authorities regained the power and punished the revolt leaders severely. However there were some changes as a result of the revolt; the revolters passed some tax reforms and incidents that prevented future absolutist progress which prevailed at the time throughout European nations (15). The war of the peasants of the Emmental (subject territory of Bern) and Entlebuch (subject territory of Lucerne) against these cities in 1653.

II.6 18th Century Challenges to the Administrative Structure and Federal Authority
            The 18th century Switzerland generally saw peace and prosperity (16). However politically it also faced several crucial challenges to the ruling class. The oligarchical political structure was liable to be challenged (17) and the ruling class responded to the challenges with one consistent policy-oppression; none of the revolts could succeed. Only the population of Toggenburg (1707, against the abbot of St. Gallen) and of Geneva (1707 - 1738, against the aristocrats of the city) could assure themselves some new or restore some old rights. But already in 1782 a troop of 11'000 soldiers from France, Bern and Piedmont enforced a restoration of the aristocracy to Geneva (18). The following is the chronology of the Swiss revolts:

 :   The revolt of Toggenburg against the abbot of St. Gallen (1707)
 :   The revolt of Geneva against the aristocrats of the city (1707-1738)
 :   The revolt of Wilchingen against Schaffhausen (1717 - 1729)
 :   The revolt of Werdenberg against Glarus (1719 - 1722)
 :   The revolt of major Abraham Davel in Lausanne (Vaud) against Bern (1723)
 :   The revolt of the peasants of Jura against the prince-bishop of Basel (1726 - 1739)
 :   The "Henzi Consipiracy" in Bern (1749)
 :   The revolt of the Leventina (Ticino) against Uri (1755)
 :   The revolt of Chenaux (Fribourg) against Fribourg (1781) (19)

            Among the several rebels, the most known was Major Davel. He called for an end to Bernese domination and for Vaud to become the 14th canton; the oppression followed, and he was arrested and executed (20). In Bern in 1749 Samuel Henzi and his followers tried to enlarge the political circle, however, the so-called "Henzi Conspiracy" was revealed, and Henzi and his two co-conspirators were executed. Jcques-Barthelemy Micheli du Crest, Genevan military engineer, physicist and cartographer, was put into exile for the minor role he played in the "Henzi Conspiracy".

II.7 New Waves in 18th Century Swiss Politics
            The Swiss politics could not avoid the new movement of Enlightenment; liberal political philosophy came to existence (21). The development of industry also helped the changes. Since Enlightenment and industrial development mainly took place in urban areas, the cities went through the biggest influence overall. Furthermore since many enlightenment thinkers came from France, the French-speaking Switzerland was especially influenced (22). Rural cantons still tend to be conservative. The idea of separation of church and state emerged; the Catholic clergy in rural areas managed to maintain their hold on education, and remained politically influential (23). In the 18th century, the new industrial and intellectual elite challenged the entrenched ruling circles (24).

II.8 The Massacre of Swiss Mercenaries in France
            Many young men of Switzerland earned their living as mercenaries serving the French king. During the early stage of the French Revolution when Montagnards [the radical party in the French Revolution] attacked the Tuileries Palace in 1792, 800 Swiss mercenary troops were killed. The prevalent feeling in Switzerland was horror. The swiss guards were honored with the Lion Monument in Lucerne.

II.9 The French Revolution and the End of the Old Swiss Confederacy
            The revolutionary fervor prevailed in France; it also had a strong influence over Switzerland, especially subject territories and rural areas, provoking revolutionary ideas of liberty in Switzerland. In the 1780s, eading societies were founded at Wadenswil, Stafa and in the valley of Glatt (Zurich): the peasants began to get informed (25). The Following is a chronology of such revolts caused by French revolutionary fervor :

 :   1790 petition by Unter-Hallau (Schaffhausen)
 :   1790 petition by Aarau
 :   1790 petitions by various cities of canton Vaud (then subject to Bern)
 :   1790 reverend Jean Rodolphe Martin from Mezieres arrested
 :   1790 city council of Basel puts an end to bondage
 :   1791 festivities in Lausanne and Rolle (Vaud, western Switzerland) in commemoration of the assault to the Bastille (French Revolution)
 :   1792 revolution in Geneva, 1793 elections, 1794 new constitution
 :   1792 the opposition founded a college (Philanthropin) at Reichenau (Graubünden), from 1796 under the direction of Heinrich Zschokke (later member of the revolutionary government). Frederick-Cesar de Laharpe and other politicians of the revolutionary Helvetic Republic were educated there.
 :   1793 revolt against taxes at Gossau (St. Gallen)
 :   1794 revolt of the peasants in canton Graubünden
 :   1794 memorials at Stäfa (Zürich)
 :   1795 petitions of Wil (St. Gallen) and popular meeting.
 :   1797: the countryside population of Basel demanded for liberty and equality (26).

            French revolutionaries, threatened by the European monarchs trying to reestablish the kingdom in France, tried to gain buffer around themselves to be functioned as a shield. The target immediately became Switzerland; France began to occupy the swiss territories starting with the part of the bishopric of Basel in 1793 (27). In 1797, Napoleon incorporated Graubünden's subject territory of Valtellina into the new Cisalpine Republic (28). France annexed Geneva, Neuchatel, Bienne, and Mulhouse. Valtellina, Bormio and Chiavenna had declared independence of Graubünden already in June 1797.
            Starting from 1797 the serious impact of French Revolution is observed; the aggressive intervention began. In 1797 revolutionaries in Vaud, led by Frederick-Cesar of Laharpe, called for French help to their independence from Bern; French forces entered Confederate territory. Bern resisted with armed force against the French, but was finally defeated in March at the Battle of Fraubrunnen and Grauholz. The city of Bern was occupied. The fall of Bern marked the end of Old Swiss Confederacy (29).

II.10 The Establishment of the Helvetic Republic
            121 representatives of the territories Aargau, Basel, Berne, Fribourg, Leman (Vaud), Lucerne, (Bernese) Oberland, Schaffhausen, Solothurn and Zurich met in Aarau on April, 12th 1798. They proclaimed the Helvetic Republic and confirmed its new constitution (30). The constitution of the Helvetic Republic was similar to the constitution of the French Republic, with a parliament (two chambers), a government (called board of directors) and a Supreme Court of Justice. The federalist tradition of Switzerland was eliminated (31).

III. Economic Aspects

III.1 The Economic Landscape
            Switzerland, located in mountainous regions, agriculture could not flourish; dairy industry was practiced. It mainly lived on the inn industry or mercenary trade. The living in rural areas was harsh; often cases was neglected the opinion of rural people. The rural dissatisfaction accumulated and it exploded in such rural uprisings as the one in 1653. Often economic policy of the ruling class imposing high taxes or devaluating the currency were the main cause of the problem.
            Unlike most rural cantons, some city cantons such as Zurich and Bern developed urban industry in which guilds dominate the market and even politics. The cities had much different economic structure from rural cantons.
            Since the 16th century Switzerland pursued the policy of free trade (32). However in some part of countries, it was practically the same as other European countries; liberty of commerce was unknown.

III.2 18th Century : Overall Prosperity and Scientific Development
            18th century Switzerland saw general prosperity throughout the federation. Most notably in the scientific field, there was great achievement that led to progress of industry and agriculture (33). Many scientists contribute to the development of scientific knowledge; such people include swiss mathematicians John Bernoulli (1667 - 1748), Daniel Bernoulli (1700 - 1782) and Leonhard Euler (all from Basel) as well as the naturalists Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672 - 1733), Horace de Saussure (1740 - 1799), and Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) (34).

III.3 18th Century : Development and Expansion of Industry
            18th century saw much development in overall economy and society especially the field of industry. The achievement in scientific knowledge further accelerate the industrial development, undergoing an industrial revolution. However the development functioned as a disadvantage to some sections of the society (35).
            In rural areas, the population rose from 1.2 to 1.6 million during the 18th century (36). Agriculture began to be practiced as more of a commercial activity run on economic lines (37). Poor peasants were the victim in the process of agricultural development as they were squeezed out as common land was gradually divided up, losing their jobs. At the time textile industry developed in the northern and eastern parts of Switzerland, work at home in which owners provided tools and raw materials and workers brought those to home and did the work (putting-out system). The jobless people flew into those industries. The spinning and weaving cotton, printing cloth (calico), the manufacture of silk ribbons and material, embroidery flourished (38). The watch- and clock-making industry were especially flourished around Geneva, in Neuchatel and the Jura (39).
            Significant achievement in industrial development made Switzerland to play active role in the transatlantic economic system as a part of triangular trade. It was the most highly industrialized country. Renowned Swiss bankers benefited by financing overseas commerce in the process as well (40).

IV. Social Aspects

IV.1 17th Century Society
            After the treaty of Westphalia, the formal independence of Swiss federation became clear. Furthermore Switzerland went through the 30 Years War in which the federation as one unit tried hard to defense the security of the federation. Therefore during Ancien Regime period, consensus that the unity among the Confederate members should be respected and preserved despite the obvious differences among themselves. The members fully recognized that their interest is best protected from other European nations with this method (41).

IV.2 17th Religious Conflicts
            The fact that Switzerland has not been through the 30 Years War did not prevent the religious conflict within. The tension between Catholic and Protestant sides that exploded into the 30 Years War elsewhere in Europe were more deepened in Switzerland because it could not be revealed in such an obvious way as 30 Years War. The religious tension often caused conflicts in other domains of Switzerland.
            The tension led to two Vilmergen Wars in 1656 and 1712. Zürich tried to improve the situation of Protestants in Catholic-ruled countries, and it fired up the tension between the two sides and caused the first Vilmergen War in 1656; it finally ended in defeat for the Protestants. In 1712 the Second Vilmergen War was flared up by a dispute of between the Reformist population of Toggenburg and the Catholic St Gallen monastery over the construction of a road linking the central cantons with southern Germany. The Protestant cantons, Zürich and Bern supported the Toggenburgers and defeated the Catholic side. The Catholics no longer were dominant in power as a result of the peace treaty after the second war (42). In each case of the two wars, the Catholics were tempted to be allied with Catholic France, however, Catholics reluctantly agreed to the religious freedom.

IV.3 18th Century : Unity, Peace and Enlightened Philosophy
            18th century Switzerland saw general peace and prosperity within societies. Swiss intellectuals formed new culture of scientific and philosophical discussion. They also promoted Swiss national awareness, going beyond narrow cantonal boundaries (43). At the center of Enlightenment existed several reforms needed according to the new philosophers - education, the penal system, the powers of the churcn, an overreglemented economy and the existence of serfdom (44).
            Newly came philosophy was responded with strong enthusiasm. Throughout the federation, Enlightenment affected the way people think and see the world thus politics, economy and society as a whole. Therefore a Court and Salon culture prevailed among urban Swiss enlightened thinkers such as Lavater (45). Debating clubs, reading circles and other societies also sprang up. They helped spread the subversive ideas of thinkers like Diderot ("No man has received from nature the right to give orders to others"), Voltaire and Rousseau ("Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains"). (world) Most noted example of such is the Helvetic Society.

IV.4 The Helvetic Society
            People absorbed in new Enlightenment philosophies founded Helvetic Society in 1761 to promote "Friendship and love, association and harmony among the confederates." Both Reformed and Roman Catholic participated. The members included Johann Jabob Bodmer, Johann Jakob Breitinger, Isaak Iselin of Basel, Salomon Hirzel, Salomon Gessner and Johann Heinrich Schinz. Each year discuss the history and future of Switzerland bringing up new political perspectives. The sense of unity and "Swissness" was emphasized. In 1777, Johann Georg Stokar of Schaffhausen pleaded in his presidential address for a united national state of Switzerland with equal rights for all the citizens of Switzerland instead of a loose confederacy (46).

IV.5 1790s : Revolutionary Ideas Spread
            In 1790s, the revolutionary fervor flared up in France. The ideas of liberty gradually spread to the Swiss territory especially the subject territories. Followed the several revolts with the revolutionary ideas from France. In history Paris has been influencing Switzerland in philosophical ways as a cultural center. Retrospectively many Swiss people took an active role in revolutionary movement which took place in France. The best known Swiss participant was Jean-Paul Marat who founded radical newspaper "L'Ami du Peuple" and was a member of the French National Convention (47).

IV.6 1790s : The Issue of the Witches
            As did in many European countries, Switzerland also had a resentment against "witches." The perceived witches were often tortured and burnt. However, The persecution of perceived witches declined sharply in the 18th century; the last ' witch' was executed in 1782 (48).

IV.7 Education
            Education was generally the responsibility of church; therefore the subjects and curriculum were mostly religious. As Enlightenment comes to the age, the perception of education has considerably changed in the sense of subjects such as modern language and non religious subjects. The educational experiments and writings of Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) who tried to implement enlightenment concepts of education by founding educational institutions and by working as a teacher won renown far beyond Switzerland's borders (49).

V. Conclusion
            Ancien Regime Switzerland saw changes that would affect the society in general. The political structure remained in the form of oligarchy but it later was challenged by revolts and influenced by Enlightenment and revolutionary ideas. The economy significantly saw the changes with industrial and scientific development. Although social structure had considerable gaps between the ruling and the ruled, society saw more emphasis on unity, and the idea of Enlightenment prevailed. Ancien Regime Switzerland marks the end of Old Swiss Confederacy and the foundation of modern Switzerland.

VI. Notes

(1)      Wikipedia : Early Modern Switzerland
(2)      WHKMLA : Historical Atlas, Switzerland
(3)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(4)      Wikipedia : Early Modern Switzerland.
(5)      WHKMLA : Switzerland 1740-1798
(6)      Geschichte Schweiz : History of Switzerland
(7)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(8)      Geschichte Schweiz : History of Switzerland
(9)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(10)      WHKMLA : Switzerland 1740-1798
(11)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(12)      ibid.
(13)      ibid.
(14)      WHKMLA : Switzerland 1740-1798
(15)      Wikipedia : Early Modern Switzerland; Swiss World : Swiss History
(16)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(17)      ibid.
(18)      Geschichte Schweiz : History of Switzerland
(19)      ibid.
(20)      ibid.
(21)      WHKMLA : Switzerland 1740-1798
(22)      ibid.
(23)      ibid.
(24)      Geschichte Schweiz : History of Switzerland
(25)      ibid.
(26)      ibid.
(27)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(28)      ibid.
(29)      ibid.
(30)      Geschichte Schweiz : History of Switzerland
(31)      ibid.
(32)      WHKMLA : Switzerland 1740-1798
(33)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(34)      Geschichte Schweiz : History of Switzerland; Swiss World : Swiss History
(35)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(36)      Swiss Genealogy on the Internet : Swiss History
(37)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(38)      Swiss Genealogy on the Internet : Swiss History
(39)      ibid.
(40)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(41)      ibid.
(42)      ibid.
(43)      ibid.
(44)      WHKMLA : Switzerland 1740-1798
(45)      ibid.
(46)      Geschichte Schweiz : History of Switzerland
(47)      Swiss World : Swiss History
(48)      WHKMLA : Switzerland 1740-1798
(49)      ibid.; Swiss Genealogy on the Internet : Swiss History


Note : websites quoted below were visited in October 2007.
1.      Article Switzerland, from Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol.11 pp.449-450
2.      Article Switzerland, from Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol.28 pp.353-354.
3.      Article Early Modern Switzerland, from Wikipedia,
4.      World History at KMLA, Switzerland 1740-1798, by Alexander Ganse,
5.      Swiss History, from Swiss Genealogy on the Internet,
6.      Swiss History, from Swiss World,
7.      History of Switzerland : Swiss Revolution and Helvetic Republic 1798-1802, Mediation 1803-1815 Geschichte Schweiz
8.      World History at KMLA, Historical Atlas Switzerland Page, by Alexander Ganse,

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