Around the Heartland



THIS blessed land felt the tremors of the French upheaval with all the intimacy of a neighbor. Swiss liberals welcomed the Revolution as an invitation to Freedom—Johannes von Müller (1752–1809), the most famous current historian, pronounced July 14, 1789, the best day in the history of Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. When the Jacobins took charge he wrote to a friend: “Doubtless you share my regret that in the National Assembly eloquence is more effective than good sense, and you may perhaps apprehend that owing to their wish to become too free they will not become free at all. Yet there will always be something to show, for these ideas are lodged in every heart.”1

Frédéric-César de La Harpe, who had returned in 1796 to his native Switzerland after inoculating Czarevich Alexander with liberalism, joined with Peter Ochs and other Swiss rebels to form the Helvetic Club, which labored to overthrow the oligarchies that ruled the cantons. Napoleon, passing through after his first Italian campaign, noted these sparks, and advised the Directory that it would find many allies if it chose to act against the antirevolutionary activities of French émigrés who were being harbored and helped by the Swiss aristocracy. The Directory saw the strategic value of Switzerland in the conflict between France and the German princes; it sent an army into the cantons, annexed Geneva, deposed the oligarchs, and, with the enthusiastic support of native revolutionaries, set up the Helvetic Republic under a French protectorate (1798).

The new government divided into Jacobin “Patriots,” Moderates, and Federalists. They quarreled and plotted rival coups d’état until, fearing chaos and war, they asked Napoleon (then consul) to give them a new constitution. In 1801 he sent them the “Constitution of Malmaison,” which, “in spite of its imperfections, was the best that the country could hope for at the time,”2 though it kept Switzerland under French tutelage. After more internal quarreling the Federalists overthrew the republican government, organized a new army, and proposed to renew the oligarchy. Napoleon intervened, and sent an army of thirty thousand men to reestablish French control of Switzerland. The warring parties again asked Napoleon to mediate. He formulated an “Act of Mediation,” which all major factions accepted. It ended the Helvetic Republic, and initiated the Swiss Confederation essentially as it exists today, except for a continuing obligation to contribute an annual quota of men to the French Army. Despite this burden it was a good constitution,3 and the cantons gave Napoleon the title of Restorer of Liberty.

Switzerland, however magnificent its scenery, gave only a small theater and audience to genius, and several of her authors, artists, and scientists sought the range and stimulus of larger lands. Johann Füssli went to England to paint; Augustin de Candolle (1778–1841) went to France and advanced the description and classification of plants. Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827) remained, and caught European attention for his experiments in education. In 1805 he founded at Yverdun a boarding school that operated on the principle that, at least for the young, ideas have meaning only when connected with concrete objects, and that the education of children works best through group activities and recitations. The school drew visiting teachers from a dozen countries, and influenced primary education in Europe and the United States. Fichte made it an element in his plan for national rejuvenation.

Johannes von Müller spent twenty-two years (1786–1808) on his voluminous Geschichten Schweitzerischer Eidgenossenschaft, and, even so, brought this History of the Swiss Confederation only to 1489; but it remains a classic in both substance and style. Its excellence earned him the title of the Swiss Tacitus; its idealization of the medieval cantons shared with martial victories in building up the national pride; and its story of the legendary William Tell gave Schiller the outline of a famous play. In 1810, at the age of fifty-eight, Müller began a general history, Vier und zwanzig Bücher allgemeiner Geschichten. Drawn to Germany by his readers, he served the Catholic Elector of Mainz, moved to the Imperial Chancellery in Austria, and ended as the director of education in Jérôme Bonaparte’s Westphalia. When he died Mme. de Staël wrote of him: “We cannot conceive how the head of one man could contain such a world of facts and dates. … It seems as if more than one man were taken from us.”4

Only next to him in historiographic industry was one of Madame’s cavalieri serventi, Jean-Charles-Léonard de Sismondi (1773–1842). Born in Geneva, he fled to England to escape revolutionary violence, then to Italy, then back to a recalmed Geneva. He met Germaine in 1803, accompanied her to Italy, and later frequented her salon at nearby Coppet. Meanwhile he wrote prodigiously, yet with conscientious scholarship. His sixteen-volume Histoire des républiques italiennes au moyen âge (1809–18) shared in inspiring Manzoni, Mazzini, Cavour, and other leaders of the Risorgimento. For twenty-three years he labored on his thirty-one-volume Histoire des français (1821–44), which for a time rivaled Michelet in acclaim.

He visited England again in 1818, and was moved by the mercilessness of its economy to write and publish (1819) a remarkably prophetic book, Nouveaux Principes d’économie politique. The basic cause of the English depression, he argued, was the lag of public purchasing power behind production that was rapidly rising with invention; and this lag, he argued, was due chiefly to underpayment of the workers. Similar crises of under-consumption would recur as long as the economic system remained unchanged.

Sismondi’s recommendations were alarmingly radical. The well-being of the population should be the chief object of government. The laws against labor unions should be repealed. The workers must be cushioned against unemployment, and be protected against exploitation. The interests of the nation or of humanity should not be sacrificed “to the simultaneous action of all cupidities;… the rich must be protected against their own greed.” Despite this pre-Marxian Marxism, Sismondi rejected socialism (which was then called communism); it would put both economic and political power into the same hands, and would sacrifice individual liberty to an omnipotent state.5

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