Constitution and Democracy

The hat of Bailiff Gessler, replica. Photo: TES, Swiss National Museum Prangins.

William Tell and the Congress of Vienna


When the Habsburg rulers of the areas in central Switzerland failed to maintain peace and protect the roads, three rural communities acted and concluded a peace alliance in 1291.

These alliances were rather common in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and they reflected the interest of local elites, whether rural, urban, or nobility.

The alliance covered a (rural or urban) territory or a network of cities and communes. The allies agreed to help each other against aggressors, to maintain the peace and to settle (trade, business, territorial) disputes.

The short-lived Swabian-, Rhenish- or Lombard leagues are a few other examples. The successful Hanseatic league of trading cities existed for more than four centuries., but disappeared in the end as well.

The alliance of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden gradually led to the Swiss Eidgenossenschaft and finally to the sovereign nation-state,  in a process that lasted for centuries.

The oath was a common symbol to ratify treaties and alliances and “Eidgenossenschaft” means a confederation by oath. No one wanted to separate from the (divine) Habsburg lords or from the Habsburgs, but it is a fact that these communities established an Alliance.

Rudolf I of Habsburg (1217-1291) became German king in 1273 but was already lord of the valleys Uri, Schwytz, and Unterwalden and other territories and cities of present-day Switzerland.

The extinction of the former lords (the dukes of Zähringen), led to the Habsburg jurisdiction over these valleys, which controlled the St. Gotthard Pass, opened in 1230.

Rudolf developed new structures by establishing jurisdictions called “Landvogteien” (bailiwicks) to oversee the towns and rural communities. The bailiff (Vogt) was selected from loyal aristocracy and knights who were charged with safeguarding royal (tax) prerogatives and upholding peace and within their jurisdictions.

The famous story of William Tell (Wilhelm Tell) who refused to greet the hat of the bailiff and who became the national hero took place in this period. It is not relevant whether this really happened: it is a lovely story and describes the context.


Two alternatives for organizing local political life had emerged across Europe around 1350 and in Switzerland. The bottom-down approach was the administration by lords who used new bureaucratic methods to build up effective peace-keeping, judicial and tax systems.

The Swiss grassroots approach was a network of semi-autonomous rural, ecclesiastical and urban communities linked by alliances, while each ally managed its own internal affairs.

The Confederation or Eidgenossenschaft was regarded as a distinct nation after the Swabian war (Schwaben- or Schweizerkrieg) in 1499, regardless of its internal struggles, divisions and lack of central institutions or confederal Constitution.

The thirteen cantons were still part of the Holy Roman Empire in 1513, however, although with complete exemption from imperial law and judiciary (with the Reichskammergericht in Speyer/Wetzlar and the Reichshofrat in Vienna as supreme imperial courts).


The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 (24 October) was silent about the sovereignty issue, making no explicit mention of it. The (Latin) text (Art VI just mentioned the “Völlige Freiheit und Exemtion“  , i.e. full freedom and exemption (from taxes and jurisdiction).

Many cities kept using imperial symbolism until late into the eighteenth century. Coats of arms (the double-headed eagle) were not removed from buildings.

Six cities — Basel, Zurich, Bern, Schaffhausen, Solothurn and Luzern — formally announced their sovereign status ( “ein freyer souveräner Stand zu sein”)  in the seventeenth century.

A contemporary theoretical approach to sovereignty and the acts of a sovereign entity were only relevant from the perspective of the protocol. The Swiss, contrary to the formally sovereign Dutch Republic of the (Seven) United Provinces (1648), did not have a Prince-Stadholder, a united standing army or a States-General with real powers.

The Confederation was de facto sovereign and formally exempted from imperial jurisdiction and taxes, but it would take another 150 years (after the Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna) for its sovereignty (and neutrality) to be recognized.

A continuing and difficult development of nation-building, begun at the time of William Tell as an open-end story,  reached its zenith with the Constitution drawn up in 1848

(Source: P.H. Wilson, Heart of Europe. A History of the Holy Roman Empire, Cambridge (MA), 2016; C.H. Church, R.C. Head, A Concise History of Switzerland, Cambridge 2017; B. Marquardt, Die alte Eidgenossenschaft und das Heilige Römische Reich (1350-1798), Zürich 2007).