The Constitution of the United States with its famous preamble ‘We the People’ (left), and an excerpt from the Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848.
The Constitution of the United States with its famous preamble ‘We the People’ (left), and an excerpt from the Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848. Wikimedia / Swiss National Museum

Switzerland and the USA: sister republics

At first glance, the USA and Switzerland seem like two very different countries. But a look back at their shared history springs a few surprises. It shows how closely the political systems of the two nations are related to one another.

René Roca

René Roca

René Roca has a PhD in history and is a secondary school teacher and Director of the Research Institute for Direct Democracy (www.fidd.ch).

Ever since the Swiss Confederation started operating as a sovereign federation of states in 1648 and Great Britain established its colonies on the east coast of North America, figures from politics, business and culture on both sides of the Atlantic have been swapping ideas back and forth. If we take a look at these links from the 17th century to the present day and relate them specifically to philosophical and constitutional concepts, we can identify an ‘Atlantic cycle of modern conceptions of the state’. The famous Swiss constitutional historian and expert in constitutional law Alfred Kölz (1944-2003) coined this term, and it is astonishing how consistently the give and take between Switzerland and what would soon become the USA has been carried on. It is only in the past few decades that the relationship has cooled.
To mark the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation in 1991, the US postal service and Swiss Post issued a joint postage stamp. The stamp depicts the Capitol in Washington and the federal parliament building, the Bundeshaus, in Bern.
To mark the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation in 1991, the US postal service and Swiss Post issued a joint postage stamp. The stamp depicts the Capitol in Washington and the federal parliament building, the Bundeshaus, in Bern. Swiss National Museum

Scepticism towards Rousseau’s sovereignty of the people

For the American intellectual elites in the 17th and 18th centuries English tradition, such as the idea of relative freedom and the parliamentary system, was the guiding principle. In addition to the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) and the Frenchman Montesquieu (1689-1755), as political debates took shape other classic figures of the European Enlightenment and natural law gained in significance; this was especially true for representatives of francophone Switzerland’s school of natural law (‘École romande du droit naturel’) such as Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748) and Emer de Vattel (1714-1767). But the influence of the Genevan Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), with his concept of the sovereignty of the people, was limited. This scepticism towards the will of the people and too much equality later became apparent in the federal Constitution of the USA, with the introduction of the system of electors (panel of presidential electors) for the election of the president. The founding fathers were generally wary of ‘the people’. The system they envisaged therefore provided that the electors were able to overturn the results of a direct presidential election, in case the masses were carried away by their emotions and wanted to install the wrong president, such as a devious seducer of the people, on the presidential chair.
John Locke, 1697.
John Locke, 1697. The State Hermitage Museum
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Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, 1728.
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, 1728. Château de Versailles
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Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, around 1799.
Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, around 1799. ETH Library Zurich
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Emer de Vattel, around 1760.
Emer de Vattel, around 1760. Bibliothèque publique et universitaire de Neuchâtel
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, around 1763.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, around 1763. Musée d’art et d’histoire Genève
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Thomas Jefferson, 1800.
Thomas Jefferson, 1800. The White House Historical Association
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John Adams, around 1792.
John Adams, around 1792. The White House Historical Association
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James Madison, 1816.
James Madison, 1816. The White House Historical Association
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The American Revolution as the fruit of the Swiss Enlightenment

The representatives of francophone Switzerland’s school of natural law were concerned primarily with the struggle for a modern form of natural law, a term which means in essence that every person has certain natural rights from birth. These ideas sowed the seeds of the Age of Enlightenment in Switzerland, and culminated in fundamental debates about human rights and civil rights, as well as a democratic basic order. The teachings of francophone Switzerland’s school of natural law played an important role in the North American independence movement and the American Revolution. The American constitutional fathers, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams, studied the works of representatives of the school and adopted modern principles of natural law, as well as what was known as the ‘personal idea of man’. This was expressed in the Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776
The reference to modern natural law and the personal idea of man also informed the world’s first written declaration of fundamental rights, the Virginia Bill of Rights of 12 June 1776. In the first section, it says: ‘That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.’ It was during the late 18th century, during its war of independence against the British, that the USA first spoke of ‘Sister Republics’ in relation to Switzerland. The USA was comparing its own war of independence against the British crown with the existence – at the time, admittedly, idealised – of a federal republic in an otherwise monarchical Europe.
The Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776, depicted in the painting by John Trumbull (1756-1843), 1819. The painting is 5.5 m wide and now hangs in the Capitol.
The Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776, depicted in the painting by John Trumbull (1756-1843), 1819. The painting is 5.5 m wide and now hangs in the Capitol. Wikimedia

The American Revolution as impetus for the French and Helvetic Revolutions

The French Revolution took up the message of the American Constitution’s development with its ‘Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen’ of 6 August 1789. In Article 1, it declares modern natural law to be the foundation: ‘1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.’ In Article 6, the French constitutional fathers make reference to Rousseau’s concept of sovereignty of the people: ‘The Law is the expression of the general will (volonté générale). All citizens have the right to take part, personally or through their representatives, in its making.’ During the French Revolution, draft constitutions were submitted which included instruments of direct democracy and which became important points of reference for developments in Switzerland but not, for the time being, in the USA. Fuelled by the political practice of the American and French Revolutions, the brief period of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) laid the foundations for further democratic debates in Switzerland.
The Swiss woman (standing on the rock and dressed in traditional costume) recommends the referendum to her sisters the USA, Germany, France and Great Britain (from left to right). Drawing in the magazine The Cosmopolitan, No XV/3 (July 1893).
The Swiss woman (standing on the rock and dressed in traditional costume) recommends the referendum to her sisters the USA, Germany, France and Great Britain (from left to right). Drawing in the magazine The Cosmopolitan, No XV/3 (July 1893). HathiTrust

The US Constitution as a model for Switzerland’s Federal Constitution

The Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848 went on to incorporate key elements of the US Federal Constitution of 1787/89. As in the USA (Bill of Rights), fundamental human rights were enshrined in the Swiss Federal Constitution. The Swiss Confederation also introduced the separation of powers in 1848. However, Switzerland chose not to vest extensive power in a single president; instead, executive power was distributed among seven liberal leaders. In the USA, the executive authority (the President) is still chosen indirectly by the people (and confirmed by the aforementioned electors); in Switzerland, the choice is made by the legislative authority. In terms of the composition of the Swiss Federal Council, the priority has always been integrating the various parts of the country and the different language regions. Subsequent development of the system broke through the liberals’ claim to sole representation, and brought conservative and social democrat politicians into the Executive as well. The apogee of this development was the ‘magic formula’ of 1959, which completed the Swiss concordance system and can be described as a model of success. As the legislative authority in Switzerland, the National Council and the Council of States are a copy of the US bicameral system. The real impetus for this concept came from the most important Swiss philosopher of the 19th century, Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler (1780-1866). When the Swiss Constitution was revised in 1848, Troxler took a decisive hand in the discussions on the federal institutions. He had long advocated the federal state concept with a bicameral system modelled on the USA. The paper he had written on the subject, ‘Die Verfassung der Vereinigten Staaten Nordamerikas als Musterbild der schweizerischen Bundesreform’ (The Constitution of the United States of North America as a Model for Swiss Federal Reform), probably found its way into the deliberations of the relevant committee through one of his former students. The idea became reality, and Troxler thus left his mark on the Swiss federal state system based on the US model. With the introduction of proportional voting rights for the National Council, from 1919 onwards Switzerland strengthened the pluralism of the parties; in the USA this step has not yet been taken.
Propaganda postcard for the introduction of the proportional representation system, around 1910.
Propaganda postcard for the introduction of the proportional representation system, around 1910. Swiss National Museum
The members of the US Supreme Court, that is, the judiciary, are appointed by the President with the approval of the Senate. Appointed for life, the members of the judiciary thus end up, time and again, little more than political pawns. Switzerland took a different approach, and lets the United Federal Assembly appoint the members of the Federal Supreme Court based on party proportional representation. As already noted, the American constitutional fathers were sceptical of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and rejected his concept of sovereignty of the people. For that reason, they were wary of any forms of further participation in decision-making by the population within the framework of the principle of democracy. Lockean liberalism thus gained greater significance in the USA, because it took up the English utilitarian tradition more directly. But in the late 19th century, Switzerland once again became an important source of ideas for the USA, namely in terms of direct democracy.
The political system of the USA (thin arrows indicate rights of confirmation or veto).
The political system of the USA (thin arrows indicate rights of confirmation or veto). Illustration: Swiss National Museum, according to Wikimedia/111Alleskönner
Switzerland’s political system
Switzerland’s political system. Illustration: Swiss National Museum, according to Wikimedia/WufiCH

The Populist Movement calls for a direct democracy as in Switzerland

After Switzerland had also introduced the referendum (1874) and the constitutional initiative (1891) at federal level, this direct democratic model became the subject of intensive discussion in the USA as well. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Populist Movement in the USA highlighted the close constitutional development of Switzerland and the USA, and called for more direct democracy based on the Swiss model. The ‘populists’ in the USA at that time were mainly representatives of the predominantly agricultural Midwest, who sought to curb the increasing power of big business and banks. In 1892 a political party was established: the ‘People’s Party’. With its demands for greater political involvement and weakening of ‘big business’, the party’s policies aligned with the interests of many Americans. In the 1892 elections the party achieved considerable success, and threatened to dismantle the two-party system in the USA which was based on the majority voting right. However, when the party decided in 1896 to form a coalition with the Democrats, it quickly lost influence. As an important result of the debate about direct democracy in Switzerland, in the next few years nearly half of the 50 states of the USA introduced some form of the referendum and the initiative. However, the introduction of more direct democracy at federal level has still not been achieved.
Campaign poster for a California referendum on legalising cannabis, 1972.
Campaign poster for a California referendum on legalising cannabis, 1972. Library of Congress
For the democratic culture of the USA it would make perfect sense to revive the old relationships with the country’s ‘Sister Republic’ of Switzerland, and to reinstate the mutually beneficial back and forth of ideas. The two republics owe each other a great deal, and the learning process is still ongoing.

Further posts

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