Geneva was not in this century a canton in the federation; it was a separate republic—city and hinterland—with French speech and Calvinist faith. In his article on Geneva in the Encyclopédie, d’Alembert described it admiringly as he had seen it in 1756:
It is remarkable that a city having hardly 24,000 inhabitants, and with a territory containing less than thirty villages, has kept its independence, and is among the most flourishing communities in Europe. Rich by its freedom and its commerce, it sees all around it on fire, without ever feeling the effect. The crises that agitate Europe are for it only a spectacle, which it enjoys without taking part in it. Attached to France by freedom and trade, to England by commerce and religion, Geneva pronounces with justice on the wars that these powerful nations wage against each other, but it is too wise to take sides. It judges all the sovereigns of Europe without flattery, injury, or fear.21
The emigration of the Huguenots from France was a boon to Geneva; they brought their savings and their skill, and made the city the watchmaking capital of the world. Mme. d’Épinay reckoned six thousand in the jewelry trade.22 Swiss bankers had a reputation for wisdom and integrity; so Jacques Necker and Albert Gallatin, both Genevans, became respectively finance minister to Louis XVI and treasury secretary of the United States under Jefferson.
Government in Geneva, as elsewhere, was a class privilege. Only those male inhabitants who had been born in Geneva of citizen parents and grandparents were eligible for public office. Below this patrician class came the bourgeoisie—manufacturers, merchants, shopkeepers, guild masters, and members of the professions. Annually, in the Cathedral of St.-Pierre, the patricians and the bourgeoisie, seldom over fifteen hundred in number,23 assembled to elect a Grand Conseil, or Great Council, of two hundred members, and a Petit Conseil of twenty-five. These councils chose four syndics, each for a year, as the executive heads of the state. Quite unfranchised were a third class, the habitants, residents of foreign parentage, and a fourth class, the natifs, born in Geneva of non-native Genevans. The natifs, forming three fourths of the population, had no civic rights except that of paying taxes; they could not engage in business or the professions, nor could they hold office in the army or mastership in a guild. The political history of the little republic revolved around the struggles of the bourgeoisie to be admitted to office, and of the lower classes to be allowed to vote. In 1737 the burghers took up arms against the patriciate, and forced it to accept a new constitution: all voters were made eligible for election to the Grand Conseil; this was to have the final decision over war and peace, alliances and taxes, although legislation could be proposed only by the Petit Conseil; and the natifs, though still voteless, were admitted to some professions. The government continued to be oligarchic, but it was competently administered, and relatively immune to corruption.
Next in influence to the patriciate was the Consistory of the Calvinist clergy. It regulated education, morals, and marriage, and allowed no secular interference with its authority. There were no bishops here, and no monks. The philosopher d’Alembert praised the morals of the Genevan clergy, and described the city as an island of decency and sobriety, which he contrasted with the moral riot of upper-class France. Mme. d’Épinay, after several liaisons, applauded the “strict manners of … a free people, enemy of luxury.”24According to the clergy, however, Genevan youth was going to the devil in cabarets, and family prayers were being scrimped; people gossiped in church, and some blasé worshipers in the rear puffed at their pipes to help the sermon go down.25 The preachers complained that they could inflict only spiritual penalties, and that their exhortations were increasingly ignored.
Voltaire was delighted to find that several members of the Genevan clergy were rather advanced in their theology. They came to enjoy his hospitality at Les Délices, and privately confessed that they retained little of Calvin’s dour creed. One of them, Jacques Vernes, advised in his Instruction chrétienne (1754) that religion be based on reason when addressing adults, but that “for the common people … it will be useful to explain these truths by some popular means, with proofs fit to … make a greater impression upon the minds of the multitude.”26 Voltaire wrote to Cideville (April 12, 1756): “Geneva is no longer the Geneva of Calvin—far from it; it is a land full of philosophers. The ’reasonable Christianity’ of Locke is the religion of nearly all the ministers; and the adoration of a Supreme Being, joined to a system of morality, is the religion of nearly all the magistrates.”27 In the Essai sur les moeurs (1756), after denouncing Calvin’s role in the execution of Servetus, Voltaire added: “It seems that today an amende honorableis made to the ashes of Servetus; the learned pastors of the Protestant churches … have embraced his [Unitarian] sentiments.”28D’Alembert, after visiting Geneva and Les Délices (1756), talking with some ministers, and comparing notes with Voltaire, wrote for Volume VII (1757) of the Encyclopédie an article on Geneva in which he lauded the liberalism of its clergy:
Several of them do not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, of which their leader Calvin was so zealous a defender and for which he had Servetus burned.… Hell, one of the principal points in our belief, is today no longer one for many of Geneva’s ministers; it would, according to them, insult the Divinity to imagine that this Being, full of goodness and justice, was capable of punishing our faults by an eternity of torments.… They believe that there are punishments in another life, but for a time; thus purgatory, which was one of the principal causes of the separation of the Protestants from the Roman Church, is today the only punishment many of them admit after death; here is a new touch to add to the history of human contradictions.
To sum up in a word, many of Geneva’s pastors have no religion other than a complete Socinianism, rejecting all those things which are called mysteries, and imagining that the first principle of a true religion is to propose nothing to belief which offends reason.… Religion has been practically reduced to the adoration of a single God, at least among all those not of the common classes.29
When the Genevan clergy read this article they were unanimously alarmed—the conservatives to find such heretics in Calvinist pulpits, the liberals to find their private heresies so publicly exposed. The Company of Pastors examined the suspects; they warmly repudiated d’Alembert’s allegations, and the Company issued a formal reaffirmation of Calvinist orthodoxy.30
Calvin himself was part cause of the unseemly enlightenment praised by d’Alembert, for the academy that he had founded was now one of the finest educational establishments in Europe. It taught Calvinism, but not too intensely; it gave excellent courses in classical literature, and it trained good teachers for Geneva’s schools—with all expenses borne by the state. A library of 25,000 volumes lent books to the public. D’Alembert found “the people much better educated than elsewhere.”31 Coxe was astonished to hear tradesmen discoursing intelligently on literature and politics. Geneva, in this century, contributed to science the work of Charles Bonnet in physiology and psychology, and of Horace de Saussure in meteorology and geology. In art it literally gave Jean Étienne Liotard to the world: after studying in Geneva and Paris he went to Rome, where he portrayed Clement XII and many cardinals; then to Constantinople, where he lived and worked for five years, then to Vienna, Paris, England, and Holland, buttering his bread with portraits, pastels, enamels, engravings and paintings on glass. He drew a remarkably honest portrait of himself in old age,32 looking more simian than Voltaire.
Geneva did not do well in literature. Alert censorship of print stifled literary ambition and originality. The drama was outlawed as a nursery of scandal. When Voltaire in 1755 first staged a play—Zaïre— in the drawing room at Les Délices, the clergy grumbled, but tolerated the crime as the private foible of a distinguished guest. When, however, Voltaire organized a company of actors from among the young people of Geneva, and projected a series of dramatic performances, the Consistory (July 31, 1755) called upon the Grand Conseil to enforce “the decrees of 1732 and 1739 forbidding all representations of plays, as well public as private,” and it bade the pastors to forbid their parishioners to “play parts in tragedies in the home of the Sieur de Voltaire.” Voltaire professed repentance, but staged plays in his winter home at Lausanne. Probably at his suggestion, d’Alembert introduced into the aforesaid article on Geneva a plea for removal of the prohibition:
It is not because Geneva disapproves of dramas [spectacles] in themselves, but because (they say) it fears the taste for finery, dissipation, and libertinage which theatrical companies spread among the young. However, would it not be possible to remedy these disadvantages by laws severe and well enforced? … Literature would progress without increasing immorality, and Geneva would unite the wisdom of Sparta with the culture of Athens.
The Consistory made no response to this appeal, but Jean Jacques Rousseau (as we shall see) replied to it in a famous Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758). After buying the seigniory of Ferney Voltaire by passed the prohibition by building a theater at Châtelaine, on French soil but close to the Genevan border. There he produced plays, and secured for the opening Paris’ leading actor, Henri Louis Lekain. The Geneva pastors forbade attendance, but the performances were so popular that on those occasions when Lekain was to appear the pit was filled hours before the program began. The old warrior at last won his campaign; in 1766 the Grand Conseil ended the Genevan prohibition of plays.