Regeneration and the Swiss liberal movement

The Erlacher-Court – Fourth stop on my guided tour through Switzerland’s history of democracy

We are currently standing in front of the Erlacher-Court, built in the 18th century in the French-style and still the most beautiful Palais in the town of Berne. After first being the seat of the cantonal government, it now is the seat of the government of the town of Berne. In 1798, the French generals resided here when French troops occupied Berne.

The Federal Treaty of 1815 that was issued at the Congress of Vienna led to a number of changes in Switzerland: Firstly, the French-speaking region was strengthened by Valais, Geneva and Neuchatel becoming new cantons of Switzerland, and by Jura becoming part of the canton of Berne. For the first time, the borders were guaranteed by international law. Secondly, new internal tensions were avoided by making Switzerland a neutral state. Thirdly, the position of the cantons was strengthened, and all cantons were sovereign and had equal rights. Only where a common interest existed, they formed alliances in the form of so called concordats. Within the cantons, however, the old authorities were back in power. The main towns had regained their privileges, and the old elites governed them.

The period of „Regeneration“ started after the second French revolution in Paris. In 1830, the July-revolution brought Louis Philippe to the throne as the „roi citoyen“ (citizens’ king), and with him the liberal bourgeois upper classes ascended to power. Soon, the revolution spread to Belgium, Poland and Italy – and also to Switzerland.

However, contrary to France, the liberal movement in Switzerland was not upper-class bourgeois, and it did not ask for a roi citoyen. Instead, it was comprised of the middle-classes, and it wanted to see change. Lawyers from the towns, publicans from the villages, craftsmen, farmers, they all were part of the Swiss liberal movement of 1830.

One particular aim was freedom of speech and an end to press censorship, another demand was freedom of trade.

Civil rights that the enlightenment had prepared and that were proclaimed by the French revolution were demanded, the Restauration was to be reversed, and Swiss politics was to be „regenerated“ – hence the term „Regeneration“.

At the end of the year 1830, the old regime in Berne gave in to popular pressure. On the 6th of December, the government called for petitions from citizens and farmers, which it agreed to address until the end of the year. On the 7th of January, a report on these petitions was submitted, and on the 16th of January, the Mayor of Berne asked the Great Council to dismiss the patricians from the government, since they were no longer accepted by the people.

In a hurry, a constitutive council was formed with the task of creating a new, liberal legal basis for the canton of Berne. The new constitution was that of a representative democracy with separation of powers. The peaceful revolution was over.

This achievement cannot be overestimated: For the first time, the Bernese people had given themselves a constitution, it was not given to them by a king or mayor, it wasn’t enforced by the military, and it wasn’t negotiated by diplomats.

However, in the town of Berne, opposition stirred: In the cellar of the Palais behind me, young officers of the old patrician families hid weapons and conspired, here was the centre of the counter-revolution – until their cover was blown.

The liberal movement resulted in many lasting changes in the Bernese state, of which I want to mention but two: the formation of communities and the introduction of general primary education.

Until 1831, the canton had been ordered in the tradition of bailiwicks („Landvogteien“). Since the 14th century, the patricians had ruled over the bailiwicks, oversaw husbandry and tillage, and enforced conscription. To this tradition the revolution put a stop now. The most important measure against the power of the bailiffs was the division of the bailiwicks. Every settlement was to become a community, and every community was to function like the canton: a republic governing itself! This idea was put into practice – and the canton of Berne, re-established in 1831, was split into almost 400 communities in the course of these decentralisation efforts.

With the communities, primary schools were established, the idea of which was to educate the cantons sons and make liberal citizens out of them who were capable of making informed decisions during elections, and of governing their own communities. In 1834, the Bernese University was founded, replacing the academy that had existed since the Reformation. It did not only educate and train future theologists, but also medical doctors for the task of ensuring public health, and lawyers for the new administration and the cantonal court of justice. Berne’s constitutional law was particularly affected by the new spirit. At the next stop, we’ll see its headquarters.

Claude Longchamp, Historian/Town-Rambler of the Town of Berne
1.10.2007, Translation by Bianca Rousselot, PhD-Candidate


ich bin der berner stadtwanderer. ich lebe in hinterkappelen und arbeite in bern. ich bin der felsenfesten überzeugung, dass bern burgundische wurzeln hat, genauso wie ich. also bin ich immer wieder auf der suche nach verästelungen, in denen sich die vergangene kultur in meiner umgebung versteckt hält.

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