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In Swiss history, the Helvetic Republic (17981803) represented an early attempt to impose a central authority over Switzerlandmarker, which until then consisted mainly of self-governing canton united by a loose military alliance, and conquered territories such as Vaudmarker. Its name was taken from the Helvetii people.

A constitutional arrangement imposed by Frenchmarker military might, the Republic existed as a state for only five years but failed to achieve widespread popular support among its citizens. However, some aspects of it have survived into Switzerlandmarker.


During the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s, the French Republican armies expanded eastward, enveloping Switzerlandmarker on the grounds of "liberating" the Swiss people, whose own system of government was deemed as feudal, especially for annexed territories such as Vaudmarker. Some Swiss nationals, including Frédéric-César de La Harpe, had called for French intervention on these grounds. The invasion proceeded largely peacefully, since the Swiss people failed to respond to the calls of their politicians to take up arms.

On 5 March 1798, French troops completely overran Switzerland and the Swiss Confederation collapsed. On 12 April 1798 121 cantonal deputies proclaimed the Helvetic Republic, "One and Indivisible". The new régime abolished cantonal sovereignty and feudal rights. The occupying forces established a centralised state based on the ideas of the French Revolution.

Many Swiss citizens resisted these "progressive" ideas, particularly in the central areas of the country. Some of the more controversial aspects of the new regime limited freedom of worship, which outraged many of the more devout citizens.

In response, the Cantons of Urimarker, Schwyzmarker and Nidwaldenmarker raised an army of about 10,000 men led by Alois von Reding to fight the French. This army was deployed along the defensive line from Napfmarker to Rapperswilmarker. Reding besieged French-controlled Lucernemarker and marched across the Brünig passmarker into the Berner Oberlandmarker to support the armies of Berne. At the same time, the French General Balthasar Alexis Henri Antoine of Schauenburg marched out of occupied Zürichmarker to attack Zugmarker, Lucerne and the Sattel pass. Even though Reding's army won victories at Rothenthurm and Morgarten, Schauenburg's victory near Sattelmarker allowed him to threaten the town of Schwyzmarker. On 4 May 1798, the town council of Schwyz surrendered.

On the 13th May, Reding and Schauenburg agreed to a cease-fire, the terms of which included the rebel cantons merging into a single one, thus limiting their effectiveness in the central government. However, the French failed to keep their promises in respecting religious matters and before the year was out there was another uprising in Nidwaldenmarker which the authorities crushed, with towns and villages burnt down by French troops.

No general agreement existed about the future of Switzerland. Leading groups split into the Unitaires, who wanted a united republic, and the Federalists, who represented the old aristocracy and demanded a return to cantonal sovereignty. Coup-attempts became frequent, and the new régime had to rely on the French to survive. Furthermore, the occupying forces insisted that the accommodation and feeding of the soldiers be paid for by the local populace which drained the economy. The treaty of alliance with France also broke the tradition of neutrality established by the Confederation. All this made it difficult to establish a new working state.

In 1799, Switzerland became a virtual battle-zone between the French, Austrianmarker and Imperial Russianmarker armies, with the locals supporting mainly the latter two, rejecting calls to fight with the French armies in the name of the Helvetic Republic.

Instability in the Republic reached its peak in 1802–03 — including the Stecklikrieg civil war of 1802. Together with local resistance, financial problems caused the Helvetic Republic to collapse, and its government took refuge in Lausannemarker.

At that time Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul of France, summoned representatives of both sides to Parismarker in order to negotiate a solution. Although the Federalist representatives formed a minority at the conciliation conference — known as the "Helvetic Consulta" — Bonaparte characterised Switzerland as federal "by nature" and considered it unwise to force the country into any other constitutional framework.

On February 19, 1803, the Act of Mediation restored the cantons. With the abolition of the centralized state, Switzerland became a confederation once again.


Before the advent of the Helvetic Republic, each individual canton had exercised complete sovereignty over its own territory or territories. Little central authority had existed, with matters concerning the country as a whole confined mainly to meetings of leading representatives from the cantons: the Diet.

The constitution of the Helvetic Republic came mainly from the design of Peter Ochs, a magistrate from Baselmarker. It established a central two-chamber legislature which included the Grand Council (with 8 members per canton) and the Senate (4 members per canton). The executive, known as the Directory, comprised 5 members. The Constitution also established actual Swiss citizenship, as opposed to just citizenship of one's canton of birth.

After an uprising led by Alois von Reding in 1798, some cantons were merged, thus reducing their anti-centralist effectiveness in the legislature. Uri, Schwyzmarker, Zugmarker and Unterwaldenmarker together became the canton of Waldstätten; Glarusmarker and the Sarganserland became the canton of Linth, and Appenzell and St. Gallenmarker combined as the canton of Säntis.

Due to the instability of the situation, the Helvetic Republic had over 6 constitutions in a period of 4 years.


The Helvetic Republic did highlight the desirability of a central authority to handle matters for the country as a whole (as opposed to the individual cantons which handled matters at the local level). In the post-Napoleonic era the differences between the cantons (varying currencies and systems of weights and measurements) and the perceived need for better co-ordination between them came to a head and culminated in the Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848.

The Republic's 5-member Directory resembles the 7-member Swiss Federal Council, Switzerland's executive.

The period of the Helvetic Republic is still very controversial within Switzerland. It represents the first time that Switzerland existed as a unified country and a step toward the modern federal state. For the first time the population was defined as Swiss, not as members of a specific canton. For cantons like Vaud, Thurgau and Ticino the Republic was a time of political freedom from other cantons. However the Republic also marked a time of foreign domination and revolution. For the cantons of Berne, Schwyz and Nidwalden it was a time of military defeat followed by occupation and military suppression. In 1995 the Federal Parliament chose to not celebrate the 200 year anniversary of the Helvetic Republic, but to allow individual cantons to celebrate if they wished.

Administrative divisions

Provisional constitution of 15 January 1798
Constitution of 12 April 1798
Constitution of 25 May 1802

The Helvetic Republic reduced the formerly sovereign cantons to mere administrative districts, and in order to weaken the old power-structures, it defined new boundaries for some cantons. The act of 1798 and subsequent developments resulted in the following cantons:

Predecessor states

As well as the Old Swiss Confederacy, the following territories became part of the Helvetic Republic:

Associate states



Unassociated territories

The Helvetic Republic also annexed two territories not previously part of Switzerland:

See also


  1. Histoire de la Suisse, Éditions Fragnière, Fribourg, Switzerland

External links

This article incorporates material translated from the German-language Wikipedia

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