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In Swiss history, the Helvetic Republic (1798–1803) represented an early attempt to impose a central authority over Switzerland, which until then consisted mainly of self-governing cantons united by a loose military alliance, and conquered territories such as Vaud. Its name was taken from the Helvetian people.

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


Strategic Situation of Europe in 1796

During the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s, the French Republican armies expanded eastward. The French Republican armies enveloped Switzerland on the grounds of "liberating" the Swiss people, whose own system of government was deemed as feudal, especially for annexed territories such as Vaud.

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 Old Swiss Confederation collapsed. On 12 April 1798, 121 cantonal deputies proclaimed the Helvetic Republic, "One and Indivisible". On 14 April 1798, a cantonal assembly was called in the Canton of Zurich, but most of the politicians from the previous assembly were re-elected. Exactly 6000 days later on 18 September 1814 began the Congress of Vienna. 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.

Alois von Reding led Central Swiss troops against the French

In response, the Cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden 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 Napf to Rapperswil. Reding besieged French-controlled Lucerne and marched across the Brünig pass into the Berner Oberland to support the armies of Bern. At the same time, the French General Balthasar Alexis Henri Antoine of Schauenburg marched out of occupied Zürich to attack Zug, Lucerne and the Sattel pass. Even though Reding's army won victories at Rothenthurm and Morgarten, Schauenburg's victory near Sattel allowed him to threaten the town of Schwyz. On 4 May 1798, the town council of Schwyz surrendered.[1]

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 Nidwalden 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, Austrian and Imperial Russian 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 Bourla-papey uprising and the Stecklikrieg civil war of 1802. By then it was 12 million francs in debt having started with a treasury of 6 million francs.[2] This together with local resistance caused the Helvetic Republic to collapse, and its government took refuge in Lausanne.

At that time Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul of France, summoned representatives of both sides to Paris 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 Diets.[3]

The constitution of the Helvetic Republic came mainly from the design of Peter Ochs, a magistrate from Basel. 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.[3] Under the Old Swiss Confederacy, citizenship was granted by each town and village only to residents. These citizens enjoyed access to community property and in some cases additional protection under the law. Additionally, the urban towns and the rural villages had differing rights and laws. The creation of a uniform Swiss citizenship, which applied equally for citizens of the old towns and their tenants and servants, led to conflict. The wealthier villagers and urban citizens held rights to forests, common land and other municipal property which they did not want to share with the "new citizens", who were generally poor. The compromise solution, which was written into the municipal laws of the Helvetic Republic, is still valid today. Two politically separate but often geographically similar organizations were created. The first, the so-called municipality, was a political community formed by election and its voting body consists of all resident citizens. However, the community land and property remained with the former local citizens who were gathered together into the Bürgergemeinde.[4]

After an uprising led by Alois von Reding in 1798, some cantons were merged, thus reducing their anti-centralist effectiveness in the legislature. Uri, Schwyz, Zug and Unterwalden together became the canton of Waldstätten; Glarus and the Sarganserland became the canton of Linth, and Appenzell and St. Gallen 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.[3]


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 present-day executive.

The period of the Helvetic Republic is still very controversial within Switzerland.[5] 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 Bern, Schwyz and Nidwalden it was a time of military defeat followed by occupation and military suppression. In 1995 the Federal Parliament chose not to celebrate the 200 year anniversary of the Helvetic Republic, but to allow individual cantons to celebrate if they wished.[5]

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:

  • Aargau (without Baden and Fricktal)
  • Baden
  • Basel
  • Bellinzona
  • Bern (without Oberland)
  • Fribourg
  • Fricktal, added in 1802
  • Léman (corresponding to Vaud)
  • Linth
  • Lugano
  • Lucerne
  • Oberland
  • Raetia (corresponding to Graubünden/Grisons)
  • Säntis
  • Schaffhausen
  • Solothurn
  • Thurgau
  • Waldstätten
  • Valais
  • Zürich

Predecessor states

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

Associate states

  • Valais-coat of arms old.svg Republic of the Seven Zenden
  • Coa Abbey Saint Gall.svg Imperial Abbey of St Gall
  • 20px Imperial City of St Gall
  • Free state of the Three Leagues
    • Wappen Gotteshausbund.svg League of God's House
    • Wappen Grauer Bund1.svg Grey League
    • Wappen Zehngerichtebund1.svg League of the Ten Jurisdictions


  • Coat of arms of Baden AG.svg County of Baden
  • Stemma Bellinzona.svg Vogtei of Bellinzona
  • Blenio-coat of arms.svg Vogtei of Blenio
  • Freiamt blason.png Freie Ämter
  • Wappen Gams.png Vogtei of Gams / Hohensax
  • Grandson-coat of arms.svg Lordship of Grandson
  • Leventina-coat of arms.svg Vogtei of Leventina
  • Locarno-coat of arms.svg Landvogtei of Locarno
  • Lugano-coat of arms.svg Landvogtei of Lugano
  • Mendrisio-coat of arms.svg Landvogtei of Mendrisio
  • Murten-coat of arms.png Vogtei of Murten
  • Orbe-coat of arms.svg Echallens district coa.png Vogtei of Orbe-Échallens
  • Wappen Pfaefers.png Imperial Abbey of Pfäfers
  • Wappen Vogtei Rheintal.svg Vogtei of Rheintal
  • Vogtei Riviera wappen.svg Vogtei of Rivera
  • Wappen Grafschaft Sargans.svg County of Sargans
  • Wappen Grasburg.svg Schwarzenburg / Grasburg
  • Wappen Vogtei Thurgau.svg Landgraviate of Thurgau
  • Wappen Uznach.svg County of Uznach
  • Vallemaggia-coat of arms.svg Landvogtei of Valmaggia
  • Wappen Vogtei Windegg.svg Vogtei of Windegg


  • Engelberg-coat of arms.svg Engelberg Abbey
  • Wappen Gersau.svg Republic of Gersau
  • Rapperswil CoA.svg City of Rapperswil
  • Wappen Sax.svg Barony of Sax-Forstegg
  • Wappen Werdenberger1.svg County of Werdenberg

Unassociated territories

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

  • Coat of arms of the archduchy of Austria.svg Fricktal, a part of the Breisgau, within the Habsburg Further Austria, retained by Aargau
  • Konstanz Bischofswappen.jpg Konstanz, a part of the Bishopric of Constance, later restored to the Grand Duchy of Baden

See also


  1. The French Invasion in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  2. Hughes, Christopher, Switzerland (London, 1975) p.98
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Histoire de la Suisse, Éditions Fragnière, Fribourg, Switzerland
  4. Bürgergemeinde in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Helvetic Republic, Historiography and Remembrance in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.

External links

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