Swiss Confederation Is Formed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The formation of the Swiss Confederation under a new federal constitution marked the modern Switzerland’s beginning as a democracy and helped Switzerland preserve its political cohesion through turbulent European conflicts.

Summary of Event

The Swiss Confederation of 1848 brought democratic federalism to a small multiethnic region, the only area in Europe where such a venture was successful. Before confederation, twenty-two Swiss cantons that differed in language, religion, and customs—according to their nearness to France, Germany, and Italy—had been separate sovereign states, united only by security alliances under a weak confederation originally formed in 1291. Switzerland had no centralized government, no national army, no national treasury, and no effective national law. It was a loose association of cantons and territories that were variously governed by autocratic rulers, hereditary oligarchies, and popular assemblies. The system led to constant internal friction over inequities of status and power. Swiss Confederation Switzerland;confederation Switzerland;constitution Constitutions;Swiss [kw]Swiss Confederation Is Formed (Sept. 12, 1848) [kw]Confederation Is Formed, Swiss (Sept. 12, 1848) [kw]Formed, Swiss Confederation Is (Sept. 12, 1848) Swiss Confederation Switzerland;confederation Switzerland;constitution Constitutions;Swiss [g]Switzerland;Sept. 12, 1848: Swiss Confederation Is Formed[2650] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 12, 1848: Swiss Confederation Is Formed[2650] Dufour, Guillaume-Henri Furrer, Jonas Metternich [p]Metternich;and Switzerland[Switzerland] Salis-Soglio, Johann Ulrich von Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and Switzerland[Switzerland] Canning, Sir Stratford

Switzerland Switzerland;neutrality traditionally took a neutral position in European wars—a stance that allowed Swiss mercenaries to fight for all the courts of Europe. However, Switzerland was, in reality, economically and politically dependent upon France. France;and Switzerland[Switzerland] Switzerland;and France[France] In May, 1777, a renewal of the 1516 Treaty of Perpetual Peace with France attempted to preserve Swiss neutrality without weakening the confederation’s ties with France. The treaty provided, in part, that if Switzerland were attacked by a foreign power, France would intervene at its own cost and with its own forces, but only if requested to do so. It also provided that if France were attacked, Switzerland’s only obligation was to allow the French government to recruit troops from within the Swiss cantons that signed the treaty. The alliance of 1777 was the last treaty of peaceful association between France and the Swiss Confederation.

In 1798, the French Revolution French Revolution (1789);and Switzerland[Switzerland] forcefully introduced liberalism into Switzerland. Less than one month after France’s invasion of Berne in March, 1798, a constitution set up under French auspices created a centralized and nominally democratic state. It provided for common Swiss citizenship and common democratic suffrage. However, the newly created Helvetic Republic Helvetic Republic actually wielded dictatorial powers and stripped the cantons of all legislative power and rights of their sovereignty. Legislative power rested in two separate and independent councils: The Senate had four deputies from each canton, and the Great Council had eight deputies from each canton. Switzerland was divided into eighteen cantons, which served as administrative, elective, and judiciary districts. The constitution of 1798 converted Switzerland to a multilingual state with equal recognition of French, German, and Italian languages. Many Swiss who clung to hereditary rights and privileges were outraged, and open conflict developed during the five years that the constitution was in effect. France;and Switzerland[Switzerland] Switzerland;and France[France]

Napoleon I Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Switzerland[Switzerland] sought to end the Swiss strife in 1803 with the Act of Mediation Act of Mediation (1803) , which constituted a unitary government under a diet. It also created six new cantons, recognized Switzerland as a multilingual nation, and sought to pacify conservative elements by introducing property qualifications for suffrage. The Swiss were dissatisfied with the act’s stipulation that their troops could be used by Napoleon, but this new constitution outlived its creator and was not changed until the allies dictated the impetuous and brutal Federal Pact of 1815. Although guaranteeing Swiss neutrality, the pact resurrected the primitive tenets of the old confederation.

For fifteen years after 1815, the Swiss lived under a conservative and tyrannical system of government. Internal dissension created serious problems for the confederation. In 1830, the repercussions of France’s July Revolution (1830);and Switzerland[Switzerland] July Revolution raised the hopes of Swiss liberals. Their demands for direct elections of the legislature, open legislative session, freedom of the press, the right of petition, and legal guarantees of personal and property rights were quickly accepted by the cantons. In November, 1832, the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Basel, Neuchâtel, Valais, and Unterwalden formed a separate federation known as the Sarnerbund, Sarnerbund or League of Sarnen League of Sarnen . The Diet responded with military action and forced the dissolution of the League of Sarnen. By September of 1833, all twenty-two cantons were reunited under the Federal Pact. In Basel, the conservatives and liberals clashed over demands for reform, and federal troops were sent in to restore order. As a result, in 1833, the canton was divided into Baselstadt and Baselland, each with its own liberalized constitution. Efforts continued to reform and revise the constitution of the Federal Pact.

During the 1840’s, Switzerland’s liberal movement came into conflict with the conservative Roman Catholic Roman Catholics;Switzerland cantons over the issues of taxation of church property, abolition of monasteries, and the exclusion of the Jesuit Jesuits;in Switzerland[Switzerland] order. In some cantons riots and armed conflicts broke out, creating an uneasy feeling among the Catholics. To defend themselves against the liberal cantons and to suppress internal liberal movements, the Catholic cantons of Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Fribourg, and Valais formed a separate league within the confederation known as the Sonderbund Sonderbund in 1843.

When the Swiss Diet demanded that the Sonderbund be dissolved because it was acting against the law, leaders of the Sonderbund refused. At that point the Diet created an army of one hundred thousand men under Colonel Guillaume-Henri Dufour Dufour, Guillaume-Henri that clashed with the dissidents, who were led by the less capable General Johann Ulrich von Salis-Soglio. Salis-Soglio, Johann Ulrich von From November 10 to November 29, 1847, Dufour routed the conservative forces with little loss of life.

The Diet’s quick military action saved Switzerland from foreign intervention. The Austrian foreign affairs minister, Prince Metternich, Metternich [p]Metternich;and Switzerland[Switzerland] who feared a liberal upheaval, wanted to send troops into Switzerland but was prevented by general European developments and by British foreign secretary Viscount Palmerston Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and Switzerland[Switzerland] . Palmerston opposed intervention and sent Stratford Canning Canning, Sir Stratford , a diplomat attached to the British foreign office, to Switzerland in the cause of peace. The interventions by foreign powers in Switzerland’s affairs was brought to an abrupt end by the European revolutions of 1848. Revolutions of 1848;and Switzerland[Switzerland]

Switzerland’s victorious liberals saw that the Pact of 1815 was obsolete and did not give them security, economic stability, or political freedom. They needed a new constitution. A committee was appointed that consisted of twenty-three men who were elected by colleges within the Diet or were appointed for the recalcitrant cantons by the chairman. When Metternich Metternich [p]Metternich;and Switzerland[Switzerland] spoke against such a development, Jonas Furrer, Furrer, Jonas the burgomaster of Zurich, defended the Swiss action. Most of the committee members were constructive statesmen characterized by their youth, legal backgrounds, and experience in governing in their own cantons.

After thirty-one sessions, the members of the committee wrote a constitution made up of 104 articles. By September 1, 1848, fifteen and one-half cantons with 1,897,887 votes had backed the constitution, while six and one-half cantons with 293,371 votes were against it. The majority prevailed. On September 12, 1848, the Swiss Confederation was formed and started to function.

A series of compromises made Switzerland’s constitution basically different from those of other European systems. It created a bicameral legislature after the American model. An American-type executive was not adopted because the liberals feared tyranny and instead chose a collegiate executive of seven men. A high court without judicial review was established with one federal court. The cantons themselves were to take care of judicial matters. The cantons were explicitly denied the right to secede from the federation or to conclude political treaties and alliances among themselves.


The new Swiss constitution has endured into the twenty-first century. Since 1848, it has had only one general revision. In 1874, the federal government was given additional power over military matters, anticlerical provisions were reinforced, the economic system was improved, and the federal legislative referendum was added. The constitution united the cantons by compromise and liberalism, and it was able to solve some of the difficult ethnic problems facing this small nation.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonjour, E. H. S. Offler, and G. R. Potter. A Short History of Switzerland. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1952. A political history that views the Swiss Confederation as a unified federation of independent states.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, David. Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1846-1855. New York: Palgrave, 2002. An analysis of the conditions in Great Britain that influenced Palmerston’s foreign policy, including his intervention in Switzerland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Codding, George A. The Federal Government of Switzerland. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961. A brief survey of the land and its people, followed by a history of the development of the Swiss government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilliard, Charles. A History of Switzerland. Translated by D. L. B. Hartley. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. A history specifically dealing with the origins and chronology of the Swiss Confederation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luck, John Murray. A History of Switzerland. The First 100,000 Years: Before the Beginnings to the Days of the Present. Palo Alto, Calif.: Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship, 1985. A detailed history of Switzerland and the Swiss Confederation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinberg, Jonathan. Why Switzerland? 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Thoughtful essay on the special characteristics of the Swiss that includes an examination of Switzerland’s various experiments in government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thürer, Georg. Free and Swiss: The Story of Switzerland. Translated by R. P. Heller and E. Long. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1972. A short social history of Switzerland from the thirteenth century forward.

Organization of the German Confederation

German States Join to Form Customs Union

Italian Revolution of 1848

Paris Revolution of 1848

Prussian Revolution of 1848

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Categories: History