The Report of John Bowring on Switzerland
5 April 2022
The Report on the Commerce and Manufactures of Switzerland by John Bowring was presented to both Houses of Parliament in 1835 and published in 1836.
Bowring (1792-1872) visited Switzerland and most of its cantons in 1835. He wrote this Report based on his impressizons and visits and meetings with politicians, industrialists, manufacturers, traders, citizens, farmers, and labourers. The summary is made by the editor and is still topical.
“When I was directed to inquire into the commercial relations of Switzerland, it could not, indeed, but excite the attention of any reflecting person, that the manufacturers of Switzerland, almost unobserved, and altogether unprotected, had been gradually, but triumphantly, forcing their way into all the markets of the world, however remote, or seemingly inaccessible.
That such a remarkable result was not the consequence of geographical position is evident, for Switzerland neither produces the raw material which she manufactures nor when manufactured, has a shiny outlet port, except on the conditions her maritime neighbours impose upon her. No one of her fabrics owes its prosperity to protecting or interposing legislation.
Her progress has been almost unexampled in manufacturing prosperity. In most of the manufacturing cantons of Switzerland, the power of legislation is not only indirectly but directly in the hands of the whole body of the people. Were their commercial economy opposed to the common interest, it could not exist for a day. It has the sanction of universal experience and universal approbation.
Activity is visible everywhere, like in the trading and agricultural districts. There is no national debt in many of the cantons, and some of them nearly discharge their government’s expenses out of the interest of that capital which has been accumulated from the surplus revenues of many years.
But Switzerland is far away from all the great outlets of trade. The cotton she manufactures must be conveyed hundreds of miles from the Mediterranean and a greater distance from the Atlantic Ocean.
The silks she imports from Italy and France, and her wool from Germany. It must find its way over the Jura or the Alpine mountains; be conveyed down the irriguous rivers or on the inland lakes; yet, despite all impediments, the manufactured products of Switzerland are found in all the great markets of the universe; and the reason is simple, but unmistakable: Industry has been left to itself.
Wealth has not been diverted by legislative interference from its natural tendencies. There has been no foolish struggle encouraged by the government between the protected monopoly of the few and the unprotected interests of the many.
It might be expected that the prohibitory system with which surrounding States have fenced their frontiers would alarm the manufacturers of Switzerland, and induce them to seek commercial alliances among neighbouring countries by adopting similar legislation, falsely called protective.
But such has not been the tendency of Swiss opinion nor the recommendation of Swiss experience. Many of the most enlightened manufacturers assured me that they were convinced that the free trade and the free-transit policy are the wisest, the most prosperous, and the best.
Notwithstanding the natural disadvantages of the geographical position of the Swiss cantons, I am persuaded there does not exist in the world a manufacturing industry more sound, healthy, and elastic than that of Switzerland.
While, on the one hand, it is an object of alarm to those who represent the interests of the protected portion of the manufacturers of France, while the markets of Germany and Italy are becoming less and less accessible to the produce of Swiss industry, that industry, on the other, is constantly making its way to new regions of demand.
That of the transatlantic states far exceeds the consumption it formerly found in Europe, and Switzerland has already, by courageous perseverance, in an intelligent and successful commercial policy. In travelling through the different districts, I constantly found merchants and manufacturers who had established connexions with the remotest countries of the globe.
The cantonal independence has been singularly preserved. Revolutions which have entirely changed the constitution and the laws of one district have had little or no influence upon another. The boundary of a canton has bounded the most marked and violent political commotions. The civil war has not spread beyond the narrow sphere of local interests. No other example exists in the long continuance of separate adjacent communities so small yet wholly independent. Switzerland is a federation of large political self-governed families.
In some of the cantons, publicly assembled, the direct approval of a majority of the whole people is necessary to give any act of the legislature the form and sanction of law. In almost all, electoral suffrage is widely diffused and, in most instances, universal.
The independence of the different cantons has prevented the settlement of any general law of transit, the want of which is very sensibly felt. A significant proportion of the cantons receive a large part of their revenues from a Droit de péage, and the collection of tolls at the different frontiers necessarily impedes the transport of merchandise.
Merchants have made many attempts to equalise the transit duty and remove the charges and embarrassments of so many local administrations by some general plan. Still, the local influences have been hitherto invincible.
I had the satisfaction frequently of hearing discussions on trading and manufacturing interest. I was invariably struck with the calm and quiet good sense, the sobriety, order, and intelligence with which all such matters were debated.
It very frequently happens that, without local or personal influence, individuals are nominated by the electors solely on the grounds of their virtues or their talents. I am well aware this is not the place for those general details as to the improved condition of the labouring population of Switzerland.
I doubt whether any country has made the same comparative progress in prosperity. In the mountains of the Jura and Appenzell, along the borders of the lakes of Zurich and Constance, everywhere where the operatives are settled, I found in their habitations a mass of enjoyments, such as are possessed by few of similar stations in other countries.
If there be any ground for anxiety, it is in the gradual intrusion of machinery upon manual labour, an intrusion everywhere felt, and which menaces Switzerland more immediately and more alarmingly since so significant a portion of her manufactures is produced by domestic labour.
In December 1833, the Swiss confederation appointed a committee to report on the foreign commercial relations of Switzerland. The reports boast of the fact that the various industry of Switzerland has developed itself without protection or privilege for articles produced at home, as without prohibitions or duties on those imported from abroad, and it strongly recommends, in the fiscal and custom house struggle which is going on in Europe, that Switzerland should preserve a strict neutrality.
They declare that their political and commercial well-being demands perseverance in liberal legislation, which is the groundwork of their social policy.
The political character of the Prussian League—the interests of other countries, France, England, and Russia, which Switzerland is bound not to disregard — require that Switzerland should not be a party to a question likely to divide Europe into two opposing sections.
They state that however strong the motives for adhesion may be among the German cantons, opposed motives are far more vital in the Southern and Eastern districts, and, as the establishment of a different system between the North and South would destroy the unity of Switzerland, the Committee recommend that participation in the good or evil of the Prussian Commercial League should be declined.
Conclusion and recommendations
The Committee concludes the Report with the following resolutions: I. The Swiss confederation shall adhere to its established free trade and manufacturing system. II. Under no circumstances and conditions shall it form a part of the French custom-house system of the Prussian Commercial League or the custom-house line of any foreign nation. III. It shall use every effort to establish and extend the principles of free trade. IV. As far as possible, it shall discuss and establish conventions with the neighbouring states for maintaining the daily, reciprocal, economic, neighbourly and border traffic and market transactions. V. Wherever a free trade is not obtainable, it shall endeavour to remove all prohibitions, lower duties, and secure transit power on the most favourable terms.”