American major and Swiss Federal Councillor: Emil Frey.
American major and Swiss Federal Councillor: Emil Frey. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Dual citizen on the Federal Council

Emil Frey fought in the American Civil War as an army major. In 1890 he became a Federal Councillor. His dual citizenship didn’t bother anyone.

Pascale Meyer

Pascale Meyer

Historian and curator at the Swiss national museum

Emil Frey was born into a wealthy family in Arlesheim, Canton of Basel-Landschaft, in 1838. All his life he was proud of his distinguished origins, and of the military successes of his forebears. But his academic achievements left much to be desired – the young Frey was too unruly and rebellious.  He abandoned his agricultural studies in Jena without completing his degree, and returned home. However, he didn’t stay long. The 22-year-old decided to move to the USA to study farming. But soon after he got there, the Civil War broke out – a bloody and brutal conflict between the Confederates, the southern states, and the northern states of America. The war was fought over the abolition of slavery. Lured by the Republican ideas but also by the prospect of ‘a good, cheery war’, Frey decided to join the northern states’ army fighting for the abolition of slavery, against the southern states. He joined the regiment of the German Colonel Friedrich Hecker. Hecker was no mere unknown; in 1848, the Baden revolutionary leader and his forces had marched against Karlsruhe to overthrow the government. After his heavy defeat he left Germany, and found his new vocation as a freedom fighter in the USA. Emil Frey joined his army, in which scores of German and Swiss soldiers were already fighting.
Portrait of Emil Frey, taken between 1861 and 1865.
Portrait of Emil Frey, taken between 1861 and 1865. Wikimedia

Captivity as a prisoner of war in Richmond

Promoted to the rank of major, Frey was taken prisoner in 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg, the biggest and bloodiest of the Civil War battles. He spent the next year and a half as a prisoner of war in the notorious Libby Confederate prison in Richmond – the worst time of his life, spent under inhumane conditions, as he described them in his letters. After his release from prison and shortly before he returned to Switzerland, Frey was granted American citizenship. The man from Basel took the oath proudly. He was now a dual citizen. Back in his old homeland, Frey launched an unprecedented political career, first as a Landschreiber, a type of provincial civil clerk, in his home canton of Basel-Landschaft. From 1866 he was a member of the governing council, where he lived up to his reputation as a reformer, pushing through a progressive law on factories, among other things. Six years later he resigned in order to become editor and co-proprietor of the Basler Nachrichten newspaper. But it wasn’t long before the impending complete revision of the Federal Constitution reignited Emil Frey’s political ambitions, and he was elected to the National Council as a radical. He made several bids for a seat on the Federal Council, but was unsuccessful each time. Frustrated, he left Switzerland again. He spent the next six years as Swiss envoy in Washington. After his return, he went back to working for the Basler Nachrichten. But he was drawn back into politics, and in 1890 he rejoined the National Council. And Emil Frey finally achieved his goal: at the end of that year, he was elected to the Federal Council. His dual citizenship was no obstacle.
The Libby prison in Richmond, 1891.
The Libby prison in Richmond, 1891. Wikimedia

Dual citizenship not a problem

In line with his own interests – he was a colonel in the Swiss army – he was put in charge of the Military Department. Frey worked energetically, though not always successfully, on building up the army; his projects included strengthening the Gotthard fortifications. After leaving the Federal Council in 1897, the dual citizen was director of the office of the International Telegraph Union in Bern for almost 25 years, and Switzerland benefited from his important international contacts. Frey died in 1922 – the passing of a charismatic politician whose political work (he is regarded as one of the pioneers of the social welfare state) and outstanding international connections were quite remarkable for the time. The fact that Emil Frey had dual citizenship and had fought in a foreign army didn’t bother anyone at that time. Even now, there’s no rule that would prohibit dual citizenship – but it would be frowned upon. For that reason, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis renounced his Italian citizenship before the election even took place. Emil Frey, on the other hand, remained an American citizen for the rest of his life.
Portrait of Federal Councillor Emil Frey.
Portrait of Federal Councillor Emil Frey. Museumsverbund Baselland

Federal Councillors since 1848 

23.01.2021 07.11.2021 / National Museum Zurich
Since 1848, Switzerland has been governed by the Federal Council. But who are the people who direct the fate of the Swiss Confederation? Photographs, film clips, documents and clothing take visitors on a fascinating journey back in time to meet the 119 members of the nation’s government. At the centre of the exhibition, visitors can look around a replica of a Federal Council chamber. Another section of the exhibition showcases gifts received by the Swiss government from all over the world.

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