The American Role model

The Restaurant zum Äusseren Stand – Sixth stop on my guided tour through Switzerland’s history of democracy

In 1848, Switzerland was a republic. Today, this term is uncommon in Switzerland, but then, it was omnipresent, since it distinguished Switzerland from the monarchies surrounding it, above all from Austria, the purest monarchy, and least of all France, which had shifted between a republican and monarchical regime since 1792.

Since the enlightenment, ¨republic“ meant „separation of powers“: those who made laws did not enforce them. A constitution regulated the tasks of parliament, government and courts, and it guaranteed civil rights in and against the state. Laws had to protect the individual from arbitrary action – the idea of the rule of law was born.

The federal state of 1848 that was a result of the European revolution was influenced by American ideas. Cantons and the federal state were to share the tasks of the state. Elections were to include direct as well as indirect elements. The National Council and the Council of States were to be elected by popular vote according to the first-past-the-post principle with male suffrage only, whereas the Federal Council and the Supreme Court were to be elected by the national assembly, i.e. the Council of States and National Council together.

Elections were to take place every four years; the number of national councillors was to be fixed according to the population of Switzerland and the different cantons. The number of councillors of state was to be limited to two representatives for each canton, i.e. 44 in total. The Federal Council was to have seven members and be led by the President, who was to represent Switzerland externally. The government was to function as a collective, and every federal councillor was to lead one of the seven departments.

The first Federal Council convened at the Erlacher-Court, where we have already been today. The first National Council convened at the University; the buildings are no longer standing today. At the historical site of the former university, the Casino is now situated. Where we are standing now was the place where the first Council of States convened: at the Restaurant zum Äusseren Stand, roughly translated „the youth parliament of the old patrician families“.

The new federal leadership came from the winning side of the Sonderbund-war. The free democrats („Freisinn“) rallied the different liberal and radical forces which had replaced the conservative federalists. However, it was not yet a party as such – more an extended family of different liberal movements, which political scientists were to study later.

Elections according to the principle of first-past-the-post benefitted the free democrats. They were the dominant force both in the National Council as well as in the Council of States. The different conservative forces were in the minority. Even in some of the special-alliance cantons they were unprepared for the elections and had poor results. The Federal Council was composed accordingly only of free democrats. Three of them came from Zurich, Berne and Vaud, while the other 19 cantons had to take turns in being represented among the remaining four members of the Council. For reasons of national integration however, five Federal Councillors had to be from German-speaking Switzerland, and one each French- and Italian-speaking. Five had to be protestant, and only two catholic. Since there was only male suffrage, there was of course no quota for women.

Berne only became seat of the federal authorities in the course of negotiations in the Councils that provisionally met in the town. Zurich had claimed the title “capital”, and it was reckoned that the Federal Council, National Council and Council of States would convene there. However, in 1848, Zurich only had the honour of providing the first President.

Berne surprisingly became the capital of Switzerland. Its position as a “bridge” between the language regions was decisive. However, this excited envy in other cantons, and so one had recourse to a typically Swiss artifice: Switzerland wasn’t to have a “capital” at all. The parliament decided that since all cantons were sovereign states that had joined a federation, Switzerland didn’t need a capital, only a “federal city” as the seat of the federal government and parliament. Until today, Berne only is the “federal city”, not the capital.

This decision once more reflected ‘faint-heartedness’, however, in 1848, ‘stout-heartedness’ asserted itself: The foundation of the federal state as a sovereign republic was a historical achievement. There were no role-models in Europe, and the democratic idea had been underdeveloped until the mid-19th century. The idea of popular sovereignty had been defeated over and over again by the established and newly rich classes of disappearing feudalism and up-and-coming capitalism.

In 1848, the idea of popular sovereignty prevailed. Switzerland now was a representative democracy. The constitution of September 12, 1848, was accepted by a more or less well ordered referendum.

However, the Swiss political system was not fully developed yet. We’ll discuss the further developments at the next stop.

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.

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert