Eintritt zur Ausstellung 'Zum Geburtstag viel Recht. 175 Jahre Bundesverfassung'. Foto/Photo: TES

The Constitution of Switzerland is 175 years old and dates from 1848. Switzerland was the only nation in Europe with a liberal constitution in 1848. The Federal Constitution resulted from only 51 days of negotiation between February and April 1848. After the votes and referendums in the cantons, the Tagsatzung (the assembly of the representatives of the cantons)  put the Consitution into force on 12 September 1848; although not all cantons agreed, the majority had decided.

The National Council or First Chamber (Nationalrat) and the Council of States, Second Chamber or Senate (Ständerat) were elected, and the first government  (Bundesrat) was chosen. Switzerland became a democratic republican island amidst monarchies.

Facsimile of the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation, Bern, 12.9.1848. The original is in the Federal Archives in Bern.

In the autumn of 1847, Switzerland was still a loose republic in a civil war. What followed was no miracle but the result of pragmatism, realism, a willingness to compromise, centuries of federal cooperation, confrontation, conflict and solutions. International orientation was also important: the Declaration of Human Rights of the French Revolution (1789) and the American Constitution (1786). Moreover, Europe was in turmoil in 1848, and the interventionist monarchies of Prussia and Austria were preoccupied with themselves.

Bettina Eichin (1942). The human rights, 1998 – 2000. The Bronze Virginia Bill of Rights of 1776, the Franse Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen of 1789 and the Déclaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne of 1791, written by Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) © Schweizerisches Landesmuseum. Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, Bundesamt für Kultur.  Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, Bundesamt für Kultur

At the same time, the Federal Constitution was constantly being developed by the citizens and the cantons after 1848. They are the sovereigns of the country. Social change and political conflicts led to several constitutional revisions.

While the federal state was still a representative democracy in 1848, it became a direct democracy with the introduction of the optional referendum in 1874 and the right of initiative in 1891. In 1971, women were also granted full civil rights.

Since 1974, the European Convention on Human Rights has significantly influenced Swiss law. More recent fundamental rights, such as the protection of privacy or the right to a fair trial, found their way into the Federal Constitution with the total revision of 1999.

The exhibition ‘Happy you have rights day. 175 Years of the Federal Constitution’ (Zum Geburtstag viel Recht. 175 Jahre Bundesverfassung) takes visitors on a tour of 175 years of the Federal Constitution, focusing on fundamental and civil rights.

In four interactive parts, visitors can explore the path to citizenship, the limits of freedom of expression, the protection of privacy or the right to a fair trial. The Federal Constitution is more than a document: it is part of the Swiss way of life.

The exhibition starts with the bronze sculpture ‘Menschenrechte’ (Human Rights) by Bettina Eichin and the animated film ‘Constituzia’ (Constitution) about the time before 1848, followed by the founding period 1848-1891, fundamental rights in the present and contemporary history 1971-1999.

(Source: Landesmuseum Zurich and the publication 175 Jahre Bundesverfassung. Zum Geburtstag viel Recht. This publication is also available in French, Italian and Romansh (Landesmuseum Zürich, Sandstein Verlag, 2023).

PS: See also The Landsgemeinde and the exhibition in the Nidwalder Museum: Ja, Nein, Weiss nicht. Musterdemokratie Schweiz ?

National Celebration Day after 1848. Collection: Landesmuseum Zurich