For centuries the Swiss, situated at the very crossroads of northern and southern Europe, have defied tyrants and maintained their independence and neutrality against threats from whatever direction. Switzerland is a small nation, about twice the size of New Jersey, with a population of 6.5 million. Her land boundaries total 1,171 miles, and include borders with Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein. Switzerland's geographic position, astride the communications lines between NATO's central and southern regions is evidence of an importance to the West far beyond what its physical size would suggest.
The limited size of the country reduces each canton to a single family. There is no ambition to make conquests, but there is ever apprehension of being conquered. This suspicious jealousy lest one district should seek to assume undue authority over another, scarcely permits forming an imperfect alliance or confederation with other branches of country; an alliance in which the union is wanting that constitutes force. A king would appear as a tyrant; even a republic with too much federal power would consider insupportable. Municipal government is the only authority that is recognized, by a people who wish to be ruled by habits rather than laws.
Some of the Swiss, in the midst of their mountains, won their freedom from Austria in the Middle Ages, and joined together in a confederation. After first defending themselves successfully, they presently became renowned as the best mercenary soldiers in Europe, fighting in most of the great wars for pay. The government was a federation of smaller units, or cantons. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Switzerland and the United Provinces (Holland) were the only two important republics in the world. They were also two of the principal places of refuge for the oppressed and those who desired freedom of thought. During the French Revolution Switzerland was first penetrated by the new ideas and then overrun by French soldiers, and in 1798 the Helvetic Republic was established. During the Napoleonic period other cantons were added, and still more were joined to the Confederation in 1815 when the Congress of Vienna reestablished it and guaranteed its neutrality. The cantons remained, as they had been for a long time before the French Revolution, united in a loose confederacy, each with complete local autonomy, much as were the American commonwealths before the adoption of the Constitution of the United States.
In the first half of the nineteenth century the cantons, which had so long remained in partnership, developed a division which, after a while, threatened to disrupt the Confederation. Some of the cantons were Catholic and agricultural and were under clerical influence; others were Protestant, they contained large cities, and in 1830 they liberalized their governments and tended toward newer ideas. Thus Switzerland, like the United States of America about the same time, was split into two parts, in which the people had different ideals and purpose, and seemed unwilling to continue in the old association. In 1840 the radical party triumphed in an election in Aargau. The clericals revolted, and when they were suppressed their opponents proceeded to dissolve the monasteries of the canton. Then in 1843 the Roman Catholic cantons formed a Sonderbund, or separate league, to protect clerical interests wherever they should be attacked. This was much like the establishment of the Southern Confederacy in America in 1861. In 1847 the federal diet of the Confederation ordered the Sonderbund to dissolve.
In the contest that followed the separatist movement was crushed. The triumphant party now remodelled the constitution, and what had before been a loose confederation became a federal republic, with a constitution something like that of the United States. By this constitution of 1848 a federal assembly of two houses was established: an upper house, the Council of States, consisting of two delegates from each canton, chosen by the legislature of the canton; the lower house, the National Council, consisting of representatives elected by voters in electoral districts, all adult males having the franchise. The executive was vested in a Federal Council of seven members and a president, chosen by the Federal Assembly. The cantons, like the states of the American Union, had their own constitutions and governments.
Thereafter the Swiss people went on in remarkable progress and prosperity. They continued, as for a long time before, to show that it was possible for men of different nationalities and religions to live side by side under the same government, each having large measure of freedom, Thereafter the Swiss people went on in remarkable progress and prosperity. They continued, as for a long time before, to show that it was possible for men of different races and religions to live side by side under the same government, each having large measure of freedom, unmolested by the others. Most of the population was German, but considerable portions were French and Italian. Some were Protestants and some were Catholics. There was no attempt to enforce uniformity of language or customs, as in Russia and Austria-Hungary, but so much freedom was left to all that the Swiss Confederation was reckoned to be the most successful democracy in the world. And while its people perfected their educational system until their schools were as good as any in Europe, and while they were developing great industrial prosperity, they continued to teach other nations the art of selfgovernment.
In attempting to work out devices by which the people might more directly control their government they perfected the Referendum and originated the Initiative. The Referendum, or referring back for popular vote measures already passed by the legislature, had been employed by some of the American States in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and afterward was put into one of the provisions of the French Revolutionary Constitution of the Year I; but its use was extended by the Swiss Constitution of 1848 and it has since been frequently employed. The Initiative, by which legislation or an amendment is brought forward by petition of a certain number of voters, was introduced in Switzerland, then established in their constitution of 1848, and since widely extended there. Both these devices were afterward copied in the constitutions of some of the commonwealths of the United States.
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