Early Republics Pt. 2 The Swiss Confederacy

'Wilhelm Tell 1307' William Tell is the common hero of the Swiss, his story is of a single man's struggle against a tyrant which sparks a revolution.

'Wilhelm Tell 1307' William Tell is the common hero of the Swiss, his story is of a single man's struggle against a tyrant which sparks a revolution.

No doubt you've heard the story of the archer William Tell and his famous shot through the apple rested on his son's head. What triggered this feat was William's refusal to bow to the Governor's hat placed upon a pike, the punishment for failure to do so would be death. William removes two arrows from his quiver, placed one in his belt, another in the bow and when he looses his first bolt and safely shoots the apple from his son's head, the Governor spares his life, then asks, "Why did you place the second arrow in your belt?" to which Tell replies, "If I were to miss the second arrow would be for you." Tell's confession of defiance earns his imprisonment and begins the outrage that ignites a revolution.

Featured prominently in the play immortalizing him is the legendary oath of the Swiss Confederacy...

We want to be a single People of brethren,
Never to part in danger nor distress.
We want to be free, as our fathers were,
And rather die than live in slavery.
We want to trust in the one highest God
And never be afraid of human power.
— The Rütlischwur, 1307 A.D.

The national identity is an appeal to that of fraternal peace. Later revolutions of the 1840's would be based upon ethnic identity. However, the Swiss are a somewhat unique nation among Europe as one bound by common ideals, not race, religion or ethnicity. German, French, Italian, Romansch, including dozens of local dialects are all spoken in Switzerland to this day. Only through common cooperation, respect of property, free trade, and open exchange that occurs between people as though they are brothers is one free from danger and distress.

The ideals that held the Swiss together were not entirely novel. From ancient times the Alps had been occupied by Celts, Romans, and Germans, each possessed a tradition of democratic and representative government. Even before the Roman conquest, trade and cultural exchange was frequent with the nearby Greek colony at Massilia. The rights to which they appeal are ancient rights won over millennia and eroded by the centralizing tendencies of the then Austrian led Holy-Roman Empire. While the HRE is an immensely complex and rich historical topic I want to reader to recognize that it is from it sprang forth our previous topic (but later in history) The Dutch Republic as well.

Patrick Henry is often quoted as "Give me liberty, or give me death!" but it is actually an echo of the Rütlischwur. When we below analyze the Swiss "Federal Charter of 1291" we'll see that America's founding fathers also borrowed its ideas and language in ways for the United State's founding documents. The tyranny imposed upon the people in this case was that of 'comply or die' for trivial and petty manners decided by the tyrant.  They recognize that to accept his rule is to accept death anyway. To "never be afraid of human power" is a bold claim even to 21st Century ears. This is an acknowledgement that rights are above the government to grant and restrict but only for god and nature to endow. 

A Schutzenfeste poster depicting an ancient militia-man clutching a bolt while the modern Swiss militia-man holds his K31 service rifle.

A Schutzenfeste poster depicting an ancient militia-man clutching a bolt while the modern Swiss militia-man holds his K31 service rifle.

Schützenfest, or "Marksmen's Festival" are near annual gatherings of the nation's shooters for practice, pride, and cultural unity. Historically they were and are practiced across Europe, but William Tell remains a popular hero among the participants in Switzerland. Schützenfest earliest gatherings were not just a competition and exercise for the vast militia, they were the birthplace of Swiss democracy. In the novel Das Fähnlein der sieben Aufrechten by Gottfried Keller, we see the frequent visiting of rich and poor, noble and peasant make the Swiss into one proud people...(please forgive my poor German translation from Wikipedia's plot summary):

The narrative in the sound of folk and calendar is played in Zurich, but the Happy End is Aarau, where in 1849 the “Swiss Confederation” took place, in the year after the founding of the modern Swiss federal state, on which the liberals celebrated the victory of their cause. The “upright”, a friendships of seven Zurich artisans and innkeepers, all veteran freedom fighters, decide to partake, for the first time under their own flag. The two spokesmen of the association, the rich carpenter Frymann and the poor tailor Hediger, are in dire straits. The right words of greetings for the thousand-headed assembly do not fall into one. At the last minute she rescued Karl, the youngest son of the tailor, with a lively, cheerful speech, which in no time won the hearts of the crowd. What inspires him is his love for Hermione, the only daughter of the carpenter. The two would like to marry, but their fathers are against it, the rich from business interests, the poor out of pride. When Karl, fueled by Hermione, acquired further laureates in the course of the festival, the resistance of the ancients melts and the story ends with an engagement.
— https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_F%C3%A4hnlein_der_sieben_Aufrechten

It was through centuries of terrible warfare that true Swiss independence and freedom was won but the first charter of the Swiss Constitution was made in 1291 by the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden. It was a common law, one that was easily understood and capable of being memorized or even written on a single piece of parchment. Today it remains a strong affirmation of universal rights and individual liberty (excepting the clause regarding serfdom).

For the common good and proper establishment of peace, the following rules are agreed :

In view of the troubled circumstances of this time, the people and communities of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden promise to assist each other by every means possible against one and all who may inflict on them violence or injustice within their valleys and without.
Each community shall help the other with every counsel and favour and at its own expense in the event of any assault on persons or goods within and without the valleys and to this end have sworn a solemn oath to uphold this agreement in confirmation and renewal of a more ancient accord.
Every man shall continue to serve his overlord to the best of his abilities.
The office of judge may not be obtained for any price and may only be exercised by those who are natives or resident with us.
Any dispute amongst the Confederates shall be settled by the most prudent amongst us, whose decision shall be defended by all.
Those who commit murder shall themselves be put to death. A murderer who flees may never return. Those who protect him shall themselves be banished from the valley until they are recalled by the Confederates.
Those who maliciously injure others by fire shall lose their rights as fellow countrymen, and anyone who protects and defends such an evil-doer shall be held liable for the damage done.
Any man who robs a Confederate or injures him in any way shall be held liable to the extent of his property in the valleys.
The property of debtors or sureties may only be seized with the permission of a judge
Every man shall obey his judge and must if need be indicate the judge in the valley before whom he must appear.
Any man who rebels against a verdict and thereby injures a Confederate shall be compelled by all other Confederates to make good the damage done.
War or discord amongst the Confederates shall be settled by an arbiter and if any party fails to accept the decision or fails to make good the damage, the Confederates are bound to defend the other party.
These rules for the common good shall endure forever.
Done with the seals of the three aforementioned communities and valleys at the beginning of August 1291.
— https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/federal-council/history-of-the-federal-council/federal-charter-of-1291.html

The government exists in this case purely for the protection of the people, their liberty, and their property. Rütlischwur was an oath to take up arms against tyranny and defend the ancient and natural rights of the people, and the Schutzenfest was the means by which the Swiss accomplished it. These aspects today reveal the modern Swiss republic dedicated to neutrality, peace, and the protection of it's citizens natural rights.

We can see in the direct history of the Swiss the true founding of a Republic which was formed as a reaction to plunder from a foreign warlord, how a single man can spark a revolution, and how a small nation can overcome its powerful enemies with a fervor for liberty and judicious marksmanship.

"IN ARMS LIBERTY AND PEACE" -Schutzenfest Prize coin with William Tell

"IN ARMS LIBERTY AND PEACE" -Schutzenfest Prize coin with William Tell