“The Swiss Federation,” The Globe (2 August 1864)

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Date: 1864-08-02
By: The Globe
Citation: “The Swiss Federation”, The Globe [Toronto] (2 August 1864).
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Switzerland affords an illustration of the federal form of Government which it may just not be instructive for the Canadian people to understand. Switzerland is a federation of 22 “cantons,” or (as three of the cantons are divided into two independent half-cantons,) of 25 separate states. As in our own country, the people come of different races, speak different languages, and profess different religions. The German language prevails in the norther, north-eastern, and central portions of the country; the French in the western; and the Italian in a couple of the southern cantons; and in a small section in the south, a corrupted Latin dialect is spoken. Nearly three-fourths of the whole population of 2,584,240 speak the German language, and of the remainder more than half a million speak French. Rather more than a million of the people are Roman Catholics, and very nearly a million and a-half are Protestants. The Roman Catholics are the more numerous in 11 cantons and one half-canton; and the Protestants in 8 cantons and 5 half-cantons. In some cantons the people are nearly all Roman Catholics; in others they are nearly all Protestants. IN some of the Protestant cantons more than nine-tenths of the people are of that faith; while in one extreme case; on the other side, there is not one Protestant to every thousand of the population. The area of the county is given at 15,747 square miles – a vastly smaller extent of territory than our federation will cover, even if the Maritime Provinces do not at present consent to join us. Extent of territory, however, is not our strongest argument for federation – though it is an argument in our case which was wanting in the case of those who framed the Swiss constitution. They found the reasons for adopting the federal principle in the differences of race, language and creed which prevailed within their country, with the additional reason that we have a vastly more extended country, that we must, in consequence, have a greater diversity of local interests of a material character – and that we have to benign with a more numerous population than has Switzerland at the present time. In 1860, the latter country had some third thousand more inhabitants than Canada had in the year following. The ration of increase in Switzerland is only six per cent. In ten years – in Canada it is about six times as rapid – so that Canada has undoubtedly by this time outstripped Switzerland in population. As the Swiss people adopted the federal form of Government more than five hundred years ago, and then with a less extensive territory, than they now possess, we can understand that they must have begun with a small population. Those who croak about the littleness of a Canadian federation may, if they will learn something from this.

The federal government of Switzerland manages all matters of a national concern, as well as some matters which are not elsewhere subject to government supervision at all.

The liberty of the press, the right of petition, and the equality before the law of all Swiss citizens, of whatever religious belief, are guaranteed by the constitution, although the Jesuits and the religious orders affiliated to them are prohibited. There are no “privileges of place or birth” recognized by the constitution. The federal legislature consists of two branches – A National Council and a Council of States. The former consists of 120 deputies, elected by the people in the ration of about one deputy for every 20,000 inhabitants. Each canton or independent half-canton, however, has the right to elect at least one deputy. The Council of states consists of 44 members – each canton sending two, and each half-canton sending one. The largest canton, with nearly half-a-million of people, sand the smallest, with only about fifteen thousand, are thus equally represented in the one branch of the federal legislature. This is very like the system in the United States, where the Federal Senate consists of two members from each State, though the largest State has thirty times the population of the smallest; while representation in the other branch of the federal legislature is as in Switzerland, apportioned on the basis of the numbers. With the reservation that each State must have at least one. The National Council chooses the president and vice-president of the Confederation at every session, regular or otherwise, and the president at one session cannot be re-elected at the next regular one. The federal Executive Council consists of seven members chosen by the National Council and Council of States in joint sessions. After being chosen the Executive Councillors divide among themselves various departments of the public service – each member being at once the head of one department and the substitute in a second. The federal court is chosen in the same way as the executive council. The term of office for these different bodies is three years, but the president and vice-president are chosen annually., The federal legislature has the power of revising the constitution – though if the two branches of the legislature disagree, or if 50,000 citizens demand it, the question of revision has to be submitted to the people. In that event a majority of the people, and of the cantons as well, must adopt any amendment before it becomes part of the constitution. Every male citizen over twenty years of age may vote, and is eligible to be elected to the federal legislature.

By the federal constitution, the constitution of every canton is guaranteed to it, provided it is republican in form, has been adopted by the [text illegible] contains provisions for its revision on the demand of the majority of the citizens. In six or the small States, (two of the cantons and four of the half cantons) the local government is a “pure” democracy – that is, the right of passing local laws, fixing the taxes, and electing the officials of the canton, is vested directly in the people. The general assembly of all the citizens is held for these purposes once a year. The executive in these cantons consist of the “cantonal” officers and elective councillors. This system, to a certain extent, resembles the “town meetings” system of municipal government in practice in New England, and formerly in practice in Upper Canada. It is democracy in its purest and most primitive form. The other cantons are representative democracies. The people elect a legislature assembly called the “grand” council, which in turn chooses from its own members a “little” or executive council. In most catons the people have the right of vetoing any bill which may be passed by the grand council or legislature of the canton.

We have recounted the details of the Swiss form of Government – not that they are essential to our general argument on behalf of federation – but as interesting to the student of theories of government. We may learn, indeed, from the varied systems which prevail in different countries, that one of the beauties of federation is the facility which it allows for local self-government in its fullest sense. The people of a little canton of a few thousand inhabitants find that they can manage their local affairs without a legislature at all, and by the means of an annual assemblage of the citizens themselves. The only public servants which such a canton will need to have are executive officials. The larger cantons, and some of the small ones, too, find that they can suit themselves better with inexpensive local legislatures to make local laws, and they do so. Some of the cantons, indeed, are fortunate enough to get law-makers to serve them without pay. All their little differences exist without the slightest harm to the general government, and serve to give the people in the various sections the means of managing their local matters just as they please. The result is political content, and the utmost practical success in the working of the constitution. How infinitely better is this than that a country like Switzerland should have only its general legislature, and should put all local questions under its protection as if for the express purpose of securing contention and sectional jealousies. How much better is it in [text illegible]… by a rational system of government, than by an irrational one to put a premium upo strife and warfare.

The Swiss federation, or rather the nucleus of it, was formed about the beginning of the fourteenth century. Additions have from time to time been made, until the original league of three states is now increased to twenty-five. Switzerland had many wars – sometimes with some of the most powerful nations of Europe – but the valour of her people has preserved her independence, and more than one treaty of peace has secured her substantial advantages. She has, it is quite true, had her internal broils. The uprising of the Reformation rent her people for the time into two hostile camps. Wars and invasions have disturbed her internal government, but peace ever brought her back to the old form of government, so far as least as the principle which forms its basis is concerned. As the world has advanced, and as more liberal ideas of government have become prevalent, the Swiss system has been liberalised. The laws have been made tolerant towards all creeds. Oligarchies in the various cantons have given place to systems of self-government. Other changes have been made. In some cases catons have been subdivided as a mode of quieting religious strife. But the fundamental idea of the government has for five centuries and a half been the same. For that time, among all the changes, all the difficulties, and all the disturbances which they have seen, the federal principle has, in the estimation of the Swiss people, stood the test of all trials. Under it the country has been prosperous. Under it the people have been as martial as any people in Europe. They have become intelligent, comparing most favourably in that respect with the people of the surrounding countries. They maintain their general and local government at little cost, and at the same time maintain a most efficient militia system. Though they have had many wars, they seem to have no considerable public debt. But these points, as to the present position of Switzerland after so long an experience of federation, we shall leave for another article.

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