Elections to the Federal Court. Miscellaneous

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 18 November 1848


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 8, p. 42;
First published: in Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 150, November 23, 1848.
Collection(s): Neue Rheinische Zeitung
Keywords : Switzerland, Election

Berne, November 18. Yesterday I gave you the names of the eight members of the Federal Court just elected.[1] In the course of yesterday’s joint sitting the following were also appointed: jolly from Freiburg (one of the local National Councillors, whose election had been annulled), Dr. Karl Brenner, editor of the Schweizerische National-Zeitung in Basle, and the lawyer Jauch from Uri, thus bringing the membership of the Federal Court up to the full complement of eleven judges. Kern was appointed President and Dr. K. Pfyffer Vice-President.

As you know, the National Council annulled the elections in the Freiburg canton because only those electors who were prepared to swear allegiance to the new Federal Constitution were allowed to vote.[2] The next day it confirmed its decision by rejecting almost unanimously (73 against 13) Funk’s motion for the matter to be decided by both Councils. Apart from the local gossip which this decision evoked in Berne, it gave rise also to very bitter discussions between the radicals of German and French Switzerland. The matter stands as follows: according to the Federal Constitution, the first National Council is to be elected by all Swiss citizens ‘of at least 20 years of age who are in other respects qualified to vote in their canton. For the rest, all arrangements, regulations and more detailed provisions are left to the individual cantons. The oath of allegiance demanded by the Freiburg administration is a condition for the suffrage in many other cantons as well; in these cantons every Swiss citizen who exercises his right to vote for the first time must swear allegiance to the cantonal Constitution. Clearly, the intention of the authors of the new Constitution was to ensure universal suffrage for the elections; but according to the wording of the Constitution the Freiburg administration is in the right, and in the circumstances in which it finds itself confronted by a compact hostile majority dominated by the priests, it had either to demand the oath or resign. The German radicals stand by the intention of the legislators, whereas the French, with Waadt at their head, base themselves on the letter of the Constitution in order to rescue the Freiburg administration and the five radical votes in the National Council which they so much desire. They declare the decision of the National Council to be an indirect approval of the rebellion of the Bishop of Freiburg, which — and in this they are quite correct — is bound to bring about the overthrow of the Freiburg radical administration and the establishment of a Sonderbund government in this canton.[3] They call the Berne and other German radicals “theoreticians”, “makers of empty abstractions”, “doctrinaires” etc. It is true that the German-Swiss radicals, most of whom are lawyers, often adhere too closely to their legalistic standpoint, whereas the men of Waadt and Geneva, who have been trained in the revolutionary French school, are better politicians and sometimes make light of questions of law.

The most forthright newspaper of this French-Swiss trend is the Nouvelliste Vaudois of Lausanne, the “organ of the revolution declared permanent”, as the conservatives and even the moderate liberals call it. This newspaper, which moreover is written not without wit and a light hand, hoists the banner of the red republic ,without reservation, declares its support of the June insurgents in Paris, calls the death of Latour in Vienna “a mighty act of justice of the sovereign people” and with bitter irony ridicules the pietistic-reactionary Courrier Suisse, which rolled its eyes and howled at such an abomination. Yet this Nouvelliste is the organ of a powerful party in the Waadt administration, indeed one can almost say the organ of the majority in this administration. Nevertheless in Waadt absolutely everything goes on in an orderly way, the people are calm and enthusiastically support their Government, as the elections to the National Council prove once again.

According to a semi-official report of the Revue de Genève, the decisions of the diocesan conference about the Bishop of Freiburg (you will have learnt of them long ago[4]) will be ratified by Geneva, with a few small reservations due to previous concordats. The other cantons in the diocese have already ratified them. The newspaper further reports that as soon as all ratifications have been received Bishop Marilley will be set free, since the Freiburg canton has stated that it is ready to put a stop to the criminal proceedings begun against him for participation in the recent attempt at an uprising.

People are very excited over the choice of the federal capital. If Berne is not going to be chosen — and it is regarded as a portent of this that no one from Berne has been appointed either as President or Vice-President of the Federal Council — a movement will break out here which would result in the overthrow of Ochsenbein, a majority for the radical trend (Stüpfli, Niggeler, Stockmar etc.) and the revision of the Federal Constitution which has only just been adopted. For, according to the Constitution, both Councils must be dissolved and new ones elected for a revision of the Constitution, if 50,000 enfranchised Swiss citizens demand it. Berne by itself can easily collect this number of signatures, without counting the masses who would come from the leading Romance-speaking cantons, stimulated by the prospect of a one-Chamber system and greater centralisation. However, all suppositions about the votes of the Swiss Councils are guesswork; the unlimited fragmentation, that inevitable consequence of the historical federative republic, the indescribable confusion of interests, and the inconceivable medley of determining motives must render futile all talk about probabilities and possibilities.

  1. This report did not appear in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. In accordance with the new Constitution of the Swiss Confederation adopted on September 12, 1848, members of the Federal Court were elected at a joint sitting of the two Chambers of the Federal Assembly: the National Council and the Council of States. The eight members elected earlier were: Johann Kern (canton of Thurgau), Kasimir Pfyffer (Lucerne), Migy (Berne), Rüttimann (Zurich), Brosi (Graubünden), Zenrufinen (Wallis), Favre (Neuenburg) and Blumer (Glarus). The Federal Court was responsible for the speedy settlement of conflicts which the Diet (see Note 9) had formerly taken years over, and for passing sentence on persons who were charged with high treason but still remained unpunished
  2. In the Freiburg (Fribourg) and other Swiss cantons the Government made recognition of the cantonal Constitution one of the conditions for voting at the elections to the Federal Assembly. In Freiburg this measure was directed against clergymen who tried to get their deputies elected to the National Council. Many members of the National Council, however, regarded this as a violation of the universal suffrage introduced by the 1848 Constitution and managed to have the elections in the Freiburg canton annulled. Subsequently this decision was reviewed and the annulment of the Freiburg elections reversed.
  3. For the rebellion of the Bishop of Freiburg The riot which took place on October 24, 1848, in Freiburg (Fribourg) was f organised by the Catholic priests led by Bishop Marilley, and aimed at overthrowing the democratic Government of the canton. It was quickly suppressed. For the Sonderbund
    The Ur-cantons (Urkantönli) are the mountain cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden which in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries formed the nucleus of the Swiss Confederation. During the civil war of 1847 these cantons, as members of the Sonderbund, opposed the progressive forces of Switzerland.
    Separatists — members of the Sonderbund, a separatist union formed by the seven economically backward Catholic cantons of Switzerland in 1843 to resist progressive bourgeois reforms and defend the privileges of the Church and the Jesuits. The decree of the Swiss Diet of July 1847 on the dissolution of the Sonderbund served as a pretext for the latter to start hostilities against the other cantons early in November. On November 23, 1847, the Sonderbund army was defeated by the federal forces.
  4. On October 25, 1848, Bishop Marilley was arrested. On October 30, a diocesan conference of representatives of the Freiburg, Berne, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Geneva canton governments was held in Freiburg (Fribourg). It decided to set the bishop free but to prohibit his stay and activities on the territory of these five cantons. The opening of this conference was announced in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 136, November 7, 1848. Possibly Engels wrote about the conference decision in the above-mentioned report, which did not appear in the newspaper.