From Geneva to Stockholm

I. THE SWISS: 1754-98

THOSE of us who have enjoyed peace amid the scenic paradise of Switzerland, and inspiration in the courage and integrity of its people, find it difficult to realize that beneath the calm character, patient husbandry, and steady industry that Europe admired then, and does now, there lay the natural conflicts of race against race, language against language, creed against creed, canton against canton, class against class. On their modest scale the Swiss had very nearly realized the ideal pictured by the Abbé de Saint-Pierre and dreamed of by Rousseau and Kant: a confederation of states independent in their internal affairs but pledged to united action in their relations with the surrounding world. In 1760 the Helvetic Union (Helvetische Gesellschaft) was formed to promote national rather than cantonal dedication, and to unite the scattered movements for political reform.

Voltaire, living close by, estimated the population of Switzerland in 1767 at 720,000.1 Most of them tilled the soil or trained the vine, terracing the slopes almost to the mountaintops. The textile industry was growing, especially in the province of St. Gallen and the canton of Zurich; other manufacturing centers were taking form in Glarus, Bern, and Basel; and Geneva and Neuchâtel were the great centers of watchmaking. Agents spreading over Europe from London to Constantinople (which had eighty-eight of them) developed for Geneva an export trade that rapidly enriched the city on the Rhone. Banks multiplied, for the Swiss financiers had won an international reputation for fidelity.

As everywhere, the majority of abilities was contained in a minority of men, and led to a concentration of wealth. Generally the cantons were ruled by oligarchies, which behaved like any ruling class. The patricians were generous patrons of literature, science, and art, but they resisted every move to extend the franchise. Gibbon, dwelling in Lausanne, accused the Bernese oligarchy of discouraging industry in their dependent provinces, and of keeping down the standard of living there, on the principle that “poor and obedient subjects are preferable to rich and recalcitrant ones.”2 Societies for the abolition of economic or political privilege were repeatedly organized, but were kept in check by state and church allied.3 Class war agitated Geneva, on and off, throughout the eighteenth century. Relative peace prevailed there from 1737 to 1762, but the burning of Émile by the municipal council (1762) set off an agitation for widening the franchise. Rousseau and Voltaire both aided this movement, and after much controversy the patriciate yielded to the middle classes a minor share in the government.

This left quite voteless three fourths of the population—the natifs, persons born in Geneva but of non-native parents. These were excluded also from most of the professions, from military office, and from mastership in the guilds; and they were forbidden to address petitions to the Grand Conseil and the Petit Conseil that ruled the republic. But they were heavily taxed. On April 4, 1766, a delegation of natifs went to Ferney and asked Voltaire to help them secure the franchise. He told them:

My friends, you constitute the most numerous class of an independent, industrious community, and you are in slavery. You ask only to be able to enjoy your natural advantages. It is just that you be accorded so moderate a request. I shall serve you with all the influence I have; … and if you are forced to leave a country which prospers through your labor, I shall be able to serve and protect you elsewhere.4

Aristocracy and bourgeoisie united to resist the appeal of the natifs, and all that Voltaire could do was to welcome into his industrial colony as many of the discontented artisans as came to him (1768). In 1782 the natifs rose in a revolt that overthrew the patriciate and established a representative government. But the aristocrats appealed to France, Bern, and Sardinia; these powers intervened, the rebellion was put down, the oligarchy was restored. The natifs had to wait for the French Revolution to bring them freedom.

The cantons produced in this third of a century some personages of international renown. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was one of those rare individuals who take the New Testament as a guide to conduct. He agreed with Rousseau that civilization had corrupted man, but he felt that reform could come not through new laws and institutions, but through the remaking of human conduct by education. All through his life he welcomed children, especially the poor and, above all, the homeless; he gave them shelter and schooling, and in their instruction he applied the libertarian principles of Rousseau’s Émile, along with some ideas of his own. He expounded his views in one of the most widely read books of that generation. The heroine of Lionhard und Gertrud (1781-87) reforms an entire village by trying to deal with people as Christ would have done, and by educating her children with patient consideration of their natural impulses and aptitudes. Pestalozzi proposed to give the children as much freedom as the rights of others would permit. Early education should begin by example, and should teach by objects, the senses, and experience rather than by words, ideas, or rote. Pestalozzi practiced his methods in various Swiss schools, chiefly at Yverdon. There Talleyrand, Mme. de Staël, and others visited him, and thence his theories spread through Europe. Goethe, however, complained that Pestalozzi’s schools were forming insolent, arrogant, and undisciplined individualists.5

Angelica Kauffmann, born in the Grisons canton, rivaled Mme. Vigée-Lebrun as the most renowned woman artist of their time. Even at the age of twelve, besides being a good musician, she painted so well that bishops and nobles sat to her for their portraits. At the age of thirteen (1754) she was taken by her father to Italy, where she continued her studies and was everywhere feted for her accomplishments and her personal charm. Invited to England in 1766, she made a stir by her portrayal of Garrick. Sir Joshua Reynolds became very fond of “Miss Angel,” painted her portrait, and was painted in turn. She joined in the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts, which in 1773 appointed her, with others, to decorate St. Paul’s. In 1781 she retired to Rome, where (1788) she numbered Goethe among her devoted friends. She died there in 1807; her funeral, arranged by Canova, was one of the events of the age; the entire art community followed her to her tomb.

The outstanding Swiss of the generation after Rousseau was Johann Kaspar Lavater. Born at Zurich in 1741, he became a Protestant pastor, and retained throughout his life the most fervent attachment to orthodox Christianity. We have seen his attempts to convert Goethe and Mendelssohn. But he was not dogmatic; he maintained friendships across religious and national boundaries, and all who knew him respected him; many loved him.6 He wrote works of mystical piety, expounded the Book of Revelations fancifully, believed in the miraculous powers of prayer and Cagliostro, and gave his wife hypnotic treatments on prescriptions by Mesmer. His most characteristic claim was that character can be judged from the features of the face and the contours of the head. He interested Goethe and Herder in his views, and they contributed articles to his book Physiognomische Fragmente (1775-78). He studied the looks, heads, and figures of prominent individuals, and correlated cranial and facial features with specific qualities of mind and character. His analyses and conclusions were widely accepted but are now generally rejected; his general principle, that psychological qualities share (with air, environment, diet, occupation, etc.) in molding the body and the face, retains a substantial measure of truth. Every face is an autobiography.

Lavater was part of a Swiss efflorescence which included Rousseau, the poet and scientist Albrecht von Haller, the poet and painter Salomon Gessner, the historian Johannes von Müller, and Horace de Saussure, who started the sport of mountain climbing by scaling Mont Blanc in 1787 after twentyseven years of trying. Meanwhile the cantons felt the winds of revolution blowing across the border from France. In 1797 Frédéric César de Laharpe, who had tutored the grandchildren of Catherine the Great, joined with Peter Ochs, a guild merchant of Basel, in calling upon the French Revolutionary government to help them establish a democratic republic in Switzerland. Local revolts in Bern and Vaud (January, 1798) paved the way; a French army crossed the frontier on January 28; most of the Swiss population welcomed it as a liberator from oligarchy; on March 19 the “One and Indivisible Helvetic Republic” was proclaimed, abolishing all privileges of canton, class, or person, and making all Swiss equal before the law. Zurich resisted longest, and in the turmoil that ensued honest old Lavater was shot (1799). He died in 1801 as the slow effect of the wound.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!