“By what wonderful policy,” asked Samuel Johnson in 1742, “or by what happy conciliation of interests, is it brought to pass that in a body made up of different communities and different religions there should be no vivid commotions, though the people are so warlike that to nominate and raise an army is the same?”5

This fascinating complex of three peoples, four languages, and two faiths had remained at peace with the outside world since 1515. By a kind of honor among thieves the powers refrained from attacking it; it was too tiny a prize (227 miles in its greatest length, 137 in its greatest breadth), too poor in natural resources, too mountainous in terrain, and its people were discouragingly brave. The Swiss continued to produce the best soldiers in Europe, but as these were costly to maintain they were leased to divers governments at so much a head. In 1748 there were sixty thousand such Reisläufer in foreign service. In some countries they became a permanent part of the military establishment; they were the favorite and most trusted guards of the popes and the French kings; all the world knows how the Swiss Guards died to a man in defense of Louis XVI on August 10, 1792.

In 1715 thirteen cantons constituted the Swiss Confederation: Appenzell, Basel, Glarus, Schaffhausen, and Zurich, which were predominantly German and Protestant; Lucerne, Schwyz, Solothurn, Unterwalden, Uri, and Zug, which were German and Catholic; Bern, which was both German and French, Protestant and Catholic; and Fribourg, which was French and Catholic. In 1803 the Confederation admitted Aargau, St. Gallen, and Thurgau (German and Protestant), Ticino (Italian and Catholic), and Vaud (French and Protestant). In 1815 three new cantons were added: Geneva (French and Protestant, now rapidly becoming Catholic), Valais (French, German, and Catholic), and the region known to the French as Grisons and to the Germans as Graubünden (chiefly Protestant, and speaking German or Romansh, a vestigial Latin).

Switzerland was republican, but not democratic in our current sense. In each canton a minority of the adult male population, usually the old established families, elected a Great Council or General Council of some two hundred members, and a Small Council of from twenty-four to sixty-four members. The Small Council appointed a still smaller Privy Council, and a burgomaster who served as chief executive officer. There was no separation of powers; the Small Council was also the supreme court. The rural cantons (Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Glarus, Zug, Appenzell) limited the suffrage to indigenous families; other residents, no matter how long domiciled, were ruled as a subject class.6 Such oligarchies were general in Switzerland. Lucerne limited eligibility for office to twenty-nine families, allowing a new family to enter the circle only when one of the old families died out.7 In Bern 243 families were eligible to hold office, but of these some sixty-eight regularly held the government. In 1789 the Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin remarked that the citizens of Zurich were “as proud of their title as a king of his crown,” since “for more than 150 years no foreigner has obtained the right of citizenship.”8 (We must remind ourselves that nearly all democracies are oligarchies; minorities can be organized for action and power, majorities cannot.)

The cantonal government tended to an authoritarian paternalism. The councils in Zurich issued laws regulating meals, drinking, smoking, driving, weddings, clothing, personal adornment, the dressing of the hair, the wages of labor, the quality of products, the prices of necessaries; these ordinances were relics of old communal or guild rules; and, indeed, in Zurich the masters of the twelve guilds automatically became members of the Small Council, so that this canton was in considerable measure a corporative state. Toward the end of the century Goethe wrote that the shores of the Lake of Zurich gave “a charming and ideal conception of the finest and highest civilization.”9

The “Town and Republic” of Bern was the largest and strongest of the cantons. It embraced a third of Switzerland, it had the most prosperous economy, and its government was generally admired as provident and competent; Montesquieu compared it with Rome in the best days of the Republic. William Coxe, a British clergyman and learned historian, described the city as he saw it on September 16, 1779:

I was much struck, on entering into Bern, with its singular neatness and beauty. The principal streets are broad and long, not straight but gently curved; the houses are almost uniform, built of a grayish stone upon arcades. Through the middle of the streets runs a lively stream of the clearest water in a stone channel, while several fountains are not less ornamental to the place than beneficial to the inhabitants. The river Aar almost surrounds the town, winding its course over a rocky bed much below the level of the streets.… The adjacent country is richly cultivated, and agreeably diversified with hills, lawns, woods, and water; … and an abrupt chain of rugged and snow-capped alps bounds the distant horizon.10

The great failure of the Bernese patriciate was in its treatment of Vaud. This earthly paradise ran along the Swiss side of the Lake of Geneva from the outskirts of the city of Geneva to Lausanne (its capital), and reached northward to the Lake of Neuchâtel. On those lovely shores and grapevined hills Voltaire and Gibbon enjoyed a highly civilized life, and Rousseau grew up and suffered, and placed his Julie’s virtuous household (at Clarens, near Vevey). The region passed under Bern’s control in 1536; its citizens lost eligibility to office, fretted under distant rule, and frequently revolted, but in vain.

The cantons were watchfully jealous of their autonomy. Each considered itself a sovereign state, free to make war and peace and enter into foreign alliances; so the Catholic cantons associated themselves with France throughout the reign of Louis XV. To reduce strife among the cantons each sent delegates to a Swiss Diet meeting in Zurich. But this federal congress had very limited powers: it could not impose its decisions upon any unwilling canton; its resolutions, to be valid, required the consent of all. Free trade was accepted in principle, but was violated by intercantonal tariff wars. There was no common currency, no joint administration of intercantonal roads.

The economic life flourished despite natural obstacles and legislative barriers. Serfdom had disappeared except in a few districts along the German or Austrian border; nearly all peasants owned the soil they tilled. In the “Forest Cantons” (Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Lucerne) the peasants were poor because of geographical conditions; around Zurich they prospered; in the Bernese several peasants accumulated fortunes through careful and resolute husbandry. Long winters and difficulties of transport forced many Swiss to combine agriculture and industry; the same family that spun cotton or made watches planted gardens or cultivated the vine. Fribourg was already famous for its Gruyére cheese, Zurich for its lace, St. Gallen for its cotton, Geneva for watches, Neuchâtel for lace, all Switzerland for wines. Swiss finance was even then the envy of Europe, and Swiss merchants were active everywhere. Basel throve on trade with France and Germany, Zurich on trade with Germany and Austria. Basel, Geneva, and Lausanne rivaled Amsterdam and The Hague as centers of publishing. After Haller and Rousseau had celebrated the gleaming beauty of Swiss lakes and the imposing majesty of the Swiss Alps, tourism provided a growing support for the federal economy.

The level of morals was probably higher in Switzerland than in any other European land except Scandinavia, where similar conditions produced similar results. The peasant family was a model of industry, sobriety, unity, and thrift. In the cities there was some corruption of politics and selling of offices, but even there the austerity generated by a hard climate, a mountainous terrain, and a Protestant ethic made for moral stability. Dress was modest in the rich as well as in the poor. In Switzerland sumptuary laws were still severe and well observed.11

Religion was half the government and half the strife. Regular attendance at church was obligatory, and the towns were too small to let rebels find refuge in the anonymity of the crowd. Sunday was a day of almost unrelieved piety; we are told that in Zurich the taverns trembled with psalms on the Sabbath.12 But the rival religions—Calvinist and Catholic-gave the worst example of behavior, for they liberated hatred and chained the mind. Some Catholic cantons forbade any but Catholic worship, some Protestant cantons forbade any but the Protestant.13 Separation from the state church and the formation of independent sects were prohibited by law. In Lucerne in 1747 Jacob Schmidlin was tortured and then strangled for trying to organize a Pietist movement independent of the Church. An oath of Calvinist orthodoxy was required for eligibility to hold political, ecclesiastical, or educational positions in the Protestant cantons.14 Censorship was severe by both Church and state. In the Forest Cantons the poverty of the peasants, storms, landslides, avalanches, blights, floods, and awe of the encompassing mountains combined to generate a superstitious fear of evil spirits in glowering peaks and whirling winds. To frustrate their supernatural foes the harassed rustics begged for priestly exorcisms and ceremonious blessings of their flocks. Burning for witchcraft ended in Geneva in 1652, in Bern in 1680, in Zurich in 1701, in the Catholic cantons in 1752; but in Glarus a woman was beheaded in 1782 on a charge of having bewitched a child.15

Light was opened into this darkness by state schools and public libraries. The University of Basel was in decline through religious fanaticism; it hardly appreciated the achievements of Johann, Jakob, and Daniel Bernoulli, and made Leonhard Euler flee to more hospitable halls. Even so, Switzerland produced scholars, poets, and scientists in full proportion to its population. We have mentioned the Zurich savants Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger; they had a lasting influence on German literature by countering Gottsched’s idolatry of Boileau and classic formulas; they defended the rights of feeling, of the mystical, even the irrational, in literature and life; they extolled English over French poetry, and introduced Shakespeare and Milton to readers of German; they resurrected the Nibelungenlied (1751) and the minnesingers. Their doctrine passed down to Lessing, Klopstock, Schiller, and the young Goethe, and opened the way for the Romantic movement in Germany and the revival of interest in the Middle Ages. A Zurich poet, Salomon Gessner, followed this lead, and issued Idyllen (1756)—idyls of such pastoral charm that all Europe translated them, and poets like Wieland and Goethe made pilgrimages to his door.

Next to Jean Jacques Rousseau, the most memorable Swiss of the eighteenth century was Albrecht von Haller of Bern, at once the greatest poet and the greatest scientist of his land and time. In Bern, Tübingen, Leiden, London, Paris and Basel he studied law, medicine, physiology, botany, and mathematics. Returning to Bern, he discovered the Alps, felt their beauty, grandeur, and lines, and broke into poetry. So, aged twenty-one (1729), he issued a volume of lyrics, Die Alpen, which the enthusiastic Coxe thought “as sublime and immortal as the mountains which are the subject of his song.”16 The book anticipated Rousseau in almost everything. It invited the world to admire the Alps both for their inspiring elevation and as a testimonial to God; it denounced cities as dens of luxury and irreligion leading to physical and moral decay; it lauded the peasants and mountaineers for their hardy frames, sturdy faith, and frugal ways; and it summoned men, women, and children to leave the towns and come out to live in the open air a simpler, saner, healthier life.

But it was as a scientist that Haller won a European renown. In 1736 George II offered him the professorship of botany, medicine, and surgery in the University of Göttingen. There he taught for seventeen years, with such distinction that Oxford and Halle invited him, and Frederick the Great wanted him to succeed Maupertuis as head of the Berlin Academy, Catherine II tried to lure him to St. Petersburg, and Göttingen wished to make him chancellor. Instead he retired to Bern, served as health officer, economist, and head of his canton, and industriously prepared one of the century’s scientific masterpieces, Elementa Physiologiae Corporis humani, which we shall meet again.

Through all these years and sciences he maintained a devout orthodoxy in religion and a strict integrity of morals. When Voltaire came to live in Switzerland it seemed to Haller that Satan had set up his standard in Geneva and Lausanne. Casanova, who rivaled Haller in the appreciation of beauty, visited both Haller and Voltaire in 1760. Let us enjoy once more Casanova’s account of the double adventure:

Haller was a big man, six feet tall, and broad in proportion—a physical and intellectual colossus. He received me with great affability, and opened his mind, answering all my questions precisely and modestly.… When I told him I was looking forward to seeing M. de Voltaire, he said I was quite right to do so, and he added, without bitterness: “Monsieur de Voltaire is a man who deserves to be known, although, contrary to the laws of physics, many people have found him greater at a distance.”

A few days later Casanova saw Voltaire at Les Délices.

“Monsieur de Voltaire,” said I, “this is the proudest day of my life. I have been your pupil for twenty years, and my heart rejoices to see my master.”

He asked me where I last came from.

“From Roche. I did not want to leave Switzerland without having seen Haller.… I kept you to the last as a bonne bouche.”

“Were you pleased with Haller?”

“I spent three of the happiest days of my life with him.”

“I congratulate you.”

“I am glad you do him justice. I am sorry he is not so fair toward you.”

“Ah ha! Perhaps we are both of us mistaken.”17

In 1775, as his final word to the world, Haller published Letters concerning Several Late Attempts of Freethinking … against Revelation, an earnest effort to offset Voltaire’s Questions sur l’ Encyclopédie He wrote a touching letter to the dreadful heretic, inviting him (then eighty-one) to recapture “that tranquillity which flies at the approach of genius,” but comes to a trusting faith; “then the most celebrated man in Europe would be also the most happy.”18 Haller himself never achieved tranquillity. He was impatient in sickness, being extremely sensitive to pain; “in his later years he took to opium, which, operating as a temporary palliative, only increased his natural impatience.”19 He suffered from fear of hell, and reproached himself for having given so much to “my plants and other buffooneries.”20 He achieved tranquillity on December 12, 1777.

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