Era of change: Switzerland between 1798 and 1848

Modern Switzerland has its roots in the 18th century. The period up to 1848 is characterised by phases of continuity, but also of interruption. Sources held by the Swiss Federal Archives document historical topics from the fields of politics, law, the military, administration, foreign policy, socio-economics and sociology.

Helvetic Republic (1798-1803)

The revolutionary events in France and the later French occupation shook up the Swiss people and their cities. Many pushed for a new political order and hoped for more just cantonal constitutions.

On 28 March 1798, Commisar Le Carlier, the representative of the French government, declared the original version of the "Constitution of Paris" as binding for the Helvetic Republic. The oldest official constitution document is held by the Swiss Federal Archives in the form of a printed brochure. On 12 April of the same year, an extraordinary and hurriedly convened Tagsatzung (a kind of parliamentary hearing) of cantonal representatives held in Aarau adopted Switzerland's first constitution.

It constituted a modern state and an administration structure based on the French centralist model. The Helvetic Republic comprised 18 cantons governed by a shared legal, economic and monetary system. The central government consisted of a parliament and a directorate and was supported by Ministries of the Interior, Arts and Science, Justice and Police, Finance, War and the Exterior.

Breaking with the past was hard as the cantons had to surrender their autonomy. In retrospect, however, the political heritage of the Helvetic Republic received a positive appraisal. This is because it set new values: sovereignty of the people, liberty, equality before the law, democracy, separation of powers and a written constitution. These values were also incorporated in the Federal Constitution of 1848.

Mediation (1803-1813)

After the failure of an initial attempt at reform, Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the Helvetic Republic on 30 September 1802 and began collaborating with the representatives of the cantons on a new constitution. The so-called Mediation File was published on 19 February 1803 and lent its name to the period that followed: the Mediation lasted from 1803 to 1813.

Switzerland became a Confederation once again. Each of the 19 cantons received its own constitution and many of their respective sovereign rights from the time before 1798 were reinstated.

The central government, represented by the Landammann (chief magistrate) of Switzerland, was left with but a few competencies, mainly in the field of foreign affairs. With regard to internal affairs, the Landammann was responsible for the court of arbitration between the cantons, for military issues, customs, post and currency and for the medical police.

Tagsatzung (1814-1848)

The Tagsatzung succumbed to pressure from the victorious European powers and put an end to Mediation on 29 December 1813. The Congress of Vienna recognised a confederate association forged on 7 August 1815 and Switzerland's neutrality. Three new cantons – Neuchatel, Valais and Geneva – joined the Confederation.

The Federal Treaty ensured the return of the cantons to self-rule; cantonal citizenship was reintroduced. The only centralist state structure was the assembly of cantonal representatives, the so-called Tagsatzung: it made decisions on military matters and foreign policy that were valid for the entire Confederation. Every decision required an absolute majority, i.e. the consent of 12 of the 22 cantons.

This political decentralisation is documented in the Archives of the Tagsatzung. However, they also contain evidence of a gradual harmonisation in other areas, including the creation of a cartography of Switzerland, the standardisation of weights and measures and comprehensive statistics for all of Switzerland.

During the 1840s, the old conflict between the liberal forces close to the French revolution and the conservatives who resisted every amendment to the Federal Treaty flared up once more and took on a religious character. The catholic cantons formed their own alliance called the Sonderbund that was supported by foreign military. In 1847, the liberal majority of the Tagsatzung decided to dissolve the Sonderbund and appointed Group Captain Henri-Guillaume Dufour as General of the confederate troops. This was the start of the Sonderbund civil war. Switzerland's national unity remained intact thanks to the victory of the liberal cantons. On 27 June 1848, the Tagsatzung appointed a revision commission and assigned it the task of drafting a new Federal Constitution.

The charters with the cantonal and confederate constitutions from 1798 to 1848 can be found in the Swiss Federal Archives. Additionally, contemporary private archives provide valuable supplementary material, for instance the fonds containing private diaries, letters and individual documents (1733-1918). There are also copies of documents on Switzerland from foreign archives (collection of transcription (ger) (PDF, 141 MB, 28.09.2012)), sources relating to National Defence and the Swiss representation in Paris (1798-1939).

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Last modification 15.11.2017

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