Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXVII: the people and their history - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XXVII: the people and their history - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the people and their history
Among the modern democracies which are true democracies, Switzerland has the highest claim to be studied.1 It is the oldest, for it contains communities in which popular government dates farther back than it does anywhere else in the world; and it has pushed democratic doctrines farther, and worked them out more consistently, than any other European State. Moreover, being a Federal State, it contains within its comparatively narrow limits a greater variety of institutions based on democratic principles than any other country, greater even than the Federations of America and Australia can show.
To understand Swiss institutions and their working one must know something both of the physical character of the country and of the history of the small communities, diverse in race and speech, which have grown into the Swiss nation. The natural conditions might seem most unfavourable to the creation of a State or even of a nation. The Swiss people, as they are to-day, dwell on both sides of a gigantic mountain mass, those to the north on a high plateau traversed by a series of ridges, the rest in deep valleys separated from one another by craggy heights and widespreading snow-fields. No natural boundary marks them off from the Germans to the north and east, from the French to the west, and from the Italians to the south. Ethnologically they belong some to one, some to another, of those three racial stocks, and have no common language. It is a remarkable series of events, reaching back over more than six hundred years, that has brought men of these three stocks together, and made them not only a united people, but one of the most united, and certainly the most patriotic, among the peoples of Europe.
Towards the end of the thirteenth century three small Teutonic communities dwelling in secluded valleys to the south and south-east of the Lake of Luzern, entered into a league of mutual defence to protect themselves against the encroachments of the land-owning nobles of the lower country to the north, to whose exactions, based on more or less doubtful feudal rights, they would not submit. Turning to account the strength of their mountain fastnesses, they repelled the repeated attacks of the Counts of Habsburg, though never disputing the ultimate sovereignty of the Emperor, having indeed received favours from the great monarchy of the house of Hohenstaufen. Like the Englishmen who in the same age were wresting from the Crown a recognition of English liberties, they proclaimed no abstract principles of freedom, but stood on the foundation of their ancient rights. They lived off the produce of their own fields and woods and pastures, governing themselves by gatherings of the people in which every householder was the equal of every other. This was the beginning of democracy. After a time other rural communities and a few cities, some which, like Zürich and Luzern, may have come down as trading centres from Roman times, some which, like Bern, had grown up as hill fortresses in the welter of the Dark Ages, entered into alliance with these stalwart mountaineers, and by degrees fresh communities were added, all being allied to the original three, but not necessarily to each of the others. In 1353, when Bern joined, the League came to number eight cantons. In 1513 the accession of Appenzell raised it to thirteen, at which figure it remained down till the changes induced by the French Revolution. Before the end of the fifteenth century it had become a power in Central Europe. The religious dissensions of the Reformation put a severe strain upon its cohesion, for half the cantons embraced Protestantism and half clung to Rome, but it survived the strain, for the supreme interest of common defence held its members together. In 1648 the Confederation was recognized by the Treaties of Westphalia as an independent State, the theoretical suzerainty of the Empire having by that time become obsolete. The internal political institutions of the allied communities varied greatly. The rural cantons were pure democracies, governing themselves by meetings of the people. Of the cities, some, like Bern, were close oligarchies of nobles: in others oligarchy was more or less tempered by a popular element. As the Confederation bound them together only for offensive and defensive purposes, each canton had control of its domestic affairs. The Diet met to deal with external policy and divers matters in which the cantons were jointly interested, and the delegates who sat in it acted on the instructions given by their respective cantons. There was, as in the United States between 1776 and 1789, no Central Executive. Some cantons had by conquests in war acquired territories whose inhabitants they ruled as subjects, and to whom they granted none of the freedom they claimed for themselves.
The French Revolution ushered in a period of storm and confusion. In 1798 French armies entered Switzerland. Much fighting followed. The old system was completely overthrown.1 A centralized Helvetic Republic was created, and vanished when a Federal system, far closer than that of the old League, was established by Napoleon in 1803. Change followed change. A new and larger Confederation was set up in 1815; and even thereafter unrest and dissensions continued till, after the short Sonderbund2 war of 1847 between the Protestant and Catholic cantons had ended by the victory of the former, a new Constitution was created in 1848, which turned what had been a League of States into a Federal State, modelled in many respects upon the lines of the United States Constitution. This frame of national government was. after long debates, further amended in 1874, and it is by the Constitution of that year (altered subsequently in certain points) that Switzerland is now governed. The territories formerly subject to particular cantons, as Vaud was subject to Bern and as the Italian districts now forming Ticino were to the three oldest Forest Cantons (Uri, Schwytz, and Unterwalden), were in 1803 raised into autonomous cantons, and all Swiss citizens now enjoy equal political rights under cantonal constitutions, and under the Constitution of the Confederation.
Differences, however, remain between the component parts, differences so marked as to make the unity of the Swiss nation a singular, perhaps a unique, phenomenon in history. Nearly two-thirds of the population speak German, most of the others French, a few Italian, a still smaller number Romansch or Ladin.1 A considerable majority both of German-speaking and of French-speaking people are Protestants, the rest Roman Catholics. Fortunately the local boundaries of the religious confessions do not coincide with those of language, for in some Protestant cantons the people speak German; in some Catholic cantons they speak French; in some Catholics and Protestants are mixed, and both languages are spoken. Racial intermixture proceeds steadily though slowly, and the diverse elements are assimilated more through literature and migration and commercial intercourse than by intermarriage. Villages may be found in which the German-speaking inhabitants do not know French, nor the French-speakers German. Some are more advanced than others in political knowledge and experience, but all alike are devoted to Switzerland, proud of its history, resolved to maintain the liberties both of the Cantons and of the Confederation. The circumstances which detached them from the three great neighbouring peoples secured to the older cantons a freedom which they prized all the more because they alone among continental nations enjoyed it; and when the subject lands were emancipated this love of freedom and fidelity to national traditions spread from the older cantons to the newer. Thus have members of three races become one people.
But though united they are not homogeneous. Not only in language are there differences, but also in the occupations of the inhabitants, in the external conditions of their life, in religion, in character, in ideas and habits of thought; and with this diversity there is also a local pride which clings to time-honoured ways and resists the tendencies, strong as these have become, that make for uniformity. Here, therefore, are the salient features of the nation which the student of their institutions must keep always before his mind — a strenuous patriotism bracing up the sense of national unity, an abounding variety in the details of social, of economic and of political life, coupled with an attachment to local self-government, which, having been the life-breath of the original cantons, passed into the minds and hearts of the others also, making them wish to share in the ancient traditions, and contributing to the overthrow of oligarchy in the cities even where, as in Bern, it had been strongest. Thus one may say that the three Forest Cantons, the highland kernel of what was called in the sixteenth century the “Old League of Upper Germany “have, while each retaining to-day no more territory than they held in 1291, so spread out by their traditions and by the spirit they kindled as to be the creators of the new democratic State. Success in war, and the pride in common triumphs, counted for much in the earlier stages of the process, while in the latest the existence of four great States to the north, east, south, and west, had, so to speak, squeezed the Swiss together, keeping them always on their guard against dangers from abroad.
The diversity of those who inhabit this small area (15,976 square miles) has increased of recent years by the growth of manufactures. One-third of the total population (which was estimated in 1915 at 3,900,000) is still engaged in pastoral and agricultural occupations, and the number of persons owning land is given as about 500,000. Among manufacturing industries, textiles (silk and cotton) are most important, watch-making and the production of machinery coming next. There are practically no mines, except of salt. Although the country has to import its coal, and is only beginning to develop the water power furnished by many mountain torrents, the recent extension of factories and workshops has created a large working-class population in the towns, especially of the north-eastern cantons, and drawn in a crowd of immigrants, chiefly from Germany, many of whom have not become citizens.1 This has helped to diffuse socialistic principles, as the immigration of Italians into the industrial districts and of French into the West has largely increased the number of Roman Catholics.2 In Geneva, the city of Calvin, these now form a majority of the inhabitants, though not of the citizens. The growth of the urban element as compared with that of the country dwellers naturally affects political parties, and the incoming foreigners do not at once imbibe Swiss patriotism and Swiss ways of thinking. But the rural folk, with their traditions of a historic patriotism, their individualism, and their habits of local self-government, still remain the dominant element and give to the nation its peculiar character of steadiness and solidity.
There are in English several histories of Switzerland, and several useful descriptions of the constitutional system, but there does not seem to be any systematic account of the practical working of that system, presenting a picture of the current political life of the nation. The sketch which follows is based on personal enquiries made in Switzerland by myself in 1905 and 1919.
A succinct and lucid account of these events is given in Mr Coolidge's valuable article “Switzerland “in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, vol xxvi
The Sonderbund was the separate league set up by seven seceding Roman Catholic cantons.
A form of Romance speech differing a little from the Romansch which is spoken, along with German, in the Grisons (Graubunden).
In the district round Zurich there were said to be, in 1914, 50,000 Italians, the great majority of whom were not being assimilated by the Swiss. Of the total population of the Confederation 15 per cent were in that year foreigners.
The Protestants were, in 1910, 2,108,000; the Roman Catholics 1,594,000.