Unbekannter Maler, Die Versammlung in Uster am 22. November 1830. Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Graphische Sammlung

The Uster Day, the new Constitution and Democracy

In the Late Middle Ages, the city of Zurich acquired vast surrounding countryside areas. The canton’s rural population was under the political and economic control of the city’s rulers.

Although the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) proclaimed freedom and equality in 1798, the old city oligarchy enacted 1814 a new constitution that restored their power (called Die Restauration).

However, the rural population became aware of their rights and founded  associations and educational institutes. The press was also able to familiarise people with new ideas. They brought criticism out into the open. The canton Tessin introduced Europe’s first liberal and democratic Constitution already in June 1830, one month before the July-Revolution in France!.

Stefano Francisini (1796-1857), the driving force behind the new Constitution of June 1830

Around 10,000 to 12,000 inhabitants of canton Zurich marched on 22 November 1830 to Uster and demanded democratic reforms. The event proceeded peacefully and without incident. The people had spoken, and on December 6, the new members of the Grand Council (Grosse Rat) were elected; two-thirds of the members were from the countryside. The new liberal constitution came into force as early as March 1831.

In the cantons of  Thurgau, Aargau, Lucerne, St Gallen, Freiburg, Vaud, Solothurn, Bern, and Schaffhausen, the old elites were also peacefully replaced, and liberal cantonal constitutions were introduced. (called the period of die Regeneration)

However, the 1831 revolution in canton Neuchâtel failed and did not succeed until February 1848. The revolutionary movement in Basel caused the separation of the canton into canton Basel-Stadt and canton Basel-Landschaft (1833).

There followed 17 more years of polarisation and the Sonderbund War (1847) in the old Confederation after 1831. Still, on September 12 1848, there was a new Swiss constitution and a new democratic and liberal confederation.

On November 16 1848, the parliament (the Bundesversammlung) elected the first seven members of the government (Bundesrat): Jonas Furrer (Zurich), Ulrich Ochsenbein (Bern), Henri Druey (Vaud), Jozef Munzinger (Solothurn), Stefano Francini (Tessin), Friedrich Frey-Herosé (Aargau) and Wilhelm Näff (St Gallen).

The Bundesrat (member of the seven-member government) Ignazio Cassis (from Tessin) said in his speech at the Uster Day commemoration ceremony on November 19 2023 in the church of Uster:

“…….The Uster Day reminds us of the liberal revolution as a decisive step in the history of our country. Before this liberal revolution came to Uster, it ignited in Ticino! Ticino was the first canton with a constitution that enshrined liberal values such as equality before the law, separation of powers and democracy.

This liberal revolution was a turning point on the way to the foundation of the modern federal state (in 1848). However, it was still a rocky road before the first Swiss constitution could come into force. The revolution was followed by polarisation and a civil war (1847)…..” (Source: www.admin.ch).

A historian recently wrote:  “Regeneration: Rückgriff auf ältere Widerstandstraditionen. Der politische Umbruch von 1830 und die Einführung von liberalen Verfassungen in elf Kantonen sind die Folge von Volksbewegungen, die an die alteidgenössische Befreiungstradition, an die Widerstandbewegungen im Ancien Régime und an die Bewegungen von 1814/15 anknüpfen.

Ein Mittel der Massamobilisierung sind die den Landsgemeinden nachempfundenen Volkstage oder Volksversammlungen. Als wichtigste Erreignis glit der Volkstag von Uster vom 22. November 1830”.

(Rolf Graber, Demokratie und Revolten. Die Entstehung der direkten Demokratie in der Schweiz, Zürich 2017).