Gotthardbahn-Gesellschaft 1882. Foto: Wikipedia.

The Constitution of 1848

The Constitution of 1848 marked the beginning of a rapid development of the new Swiss Confederation in almost all areas.


The confederation of sovereign cantons became a federal state of three political layers: the federal level, the cantons and the municipalities.

The principle of sovereign cantons remained unchanged with one important difference: unless the cantons (and the People) transferred powers to the federal level (see Swiss Spectator, A Brief History of the Constitution and The Cantons).

Until 1848, Switzerland was a predominantly agricultural society with industrial and commercial centres of excellence in publishing, trade, science, chocolate, textiles, watches, machinery and turbines for ships and an incipient tourism and financial services industry.

However, there was no industrial revolution or railway construction yet. In many (mountainous) regions, there was great poverty. Switzerland was an emigration country, like most European countries.

The country had no unity of weights, measures of length and width, coins or even the measurement of time. Tolls were levied between the cantons, and the infrastructure was underdeveloped.

Nor did Switzerland have any raw materials (coal, iron ore). With one important exception: water and granite, which played an important role after 1848.

There was no political stability, as, for example, the division of Basel into the cantons Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft (1833) show, the kind of undeclared civil war in the canton Valais (between Haut-Valais and Bas-Valais) and the Sonderbundskrieg in 1847.

The country was surrounded by monarchies and aristocratic systems. Thousands of political opponents of Habsburg, the Russian tsar, the French and German kings and dukes acted against them from Swiss soil.

The modernisation and political stability after 1848 were made possible by this Constitution and the existing entrepreneurial and export networks.

Great statesmanship

This Constitution was a masterpiece of statesmanship at the right time in the right place in a country that in 1847 had experienced the Sonderbundskrieg, a short civil war.

The state immediately entered into trade agreements, and entrepreneurs traded with the world. The United Kingdom became one of the most important partners. The Swiss franc was introduced, the toll between the cantons disappeared, and the country became an internal market.

Railways, chemicals, food, engineering, tourism, financial services, (electrical) engineering and other infrastructural projects changed the country in one generation.

The country was one of the most modern nations in 1875 and was called a laboratory of progress. This Confederation of 1848 was based on centuries-old political, economic, personal, cultural and linguistic relationships, exchanges, experiences and systems. The conditions for the modernisation and industrial revolution à la Suisse were already present in 1848; the Constitution was the final touch.

This Constitution was a well balanced political system and a ‘bottom up’ creation.

The main consideration was:  what is possible, sustainable and feasible in this multicultural, multireligious and multilingual country.

The role and function of the municipalities, cantons and federal level, the two chambers of the parliament, democracy, the relationship between business and government, international politics, the organisation and financing of education, hospitals, social systems or defence were taken into account

Direct democracy, federalism, subsidiarity

The strongest assets of the Constitution are direct democracy, federalism, subsidiarity and the adaptation to new societal circumstances, step by step, but always in consultation and communication with the citizens, entrepreneurs and the cantons and never as a measure imposed from above, top-down.


The Constitution of 1848 created the foundations for present-day prosperity, political stability, and the will and capacity to reform and change.

Source: J. Jung, Das Laboratorium des Fortschritts. Die Schweiz im 19. Jahrhundert (Basel, 2019).