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The constitutional debate in the Helvetic Republic in 1800-1801: Between French influence and national self-government

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2020

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Summary

Though the historiography of the Helvetic Republic has been re-evaluated over the last decades, one must admit that its outlines have long been influenced by the traditional interpretations of nineteenth-century historians. They mostly considered the Helvetic Republic a parenthesis in a long history of independence which had started in the fourteenth century. This observation might appear to be too sharply drawn, but it can be exemplified by three assumptions shared by most standard Swiss historiography.

First, the stay of the French army until 1803 was interpreted as proof that La Grande Nation regarded the Helvetic Republic far less as a sovereign state and an ally than as an occupied country. Second, this period was thought to be marked by internal disorder, as shown by the confrontation between the political parties. And finally, although the main narrative of this time was constructed in a context of nation-building by historians close to the Swiss Radical Party who did not consider the Helvetic Era to have been a time of darkness, and although several historians were convinced that this government opened a path towards modernity, they all wanted to anchor in the Swiss public opinion the fact that the modern Swiss state only began with the constitution of 1848. According to this viewpoint, the state model, based on unity, which had been created by the French Directory, was inapplicable to Switzerland because of the country's cantonal tradition and the variety of religions and languages. As a consequence, the Helvetic Republic was said to have never been accepted by the Swiss people. Therefore, there was no use in examining the national dimension of the political debates of this time.

I would certainly not contest the fact that the French government applied pressure on the Helvetic Republic and its leaders. But in this context, was there any scope left for the politicians to hold a debate on national political issues? To be able to answer this, one should investigate how the values of the Helvetic Republic were considered and how the statesmen attempted to include them into a national political project. Additionally, in order to explore their national dimension, one should scrutinize the French influence in these debates.

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The Political Culture of the Sister Republics, 1794-1806
France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy
, pp. 201 - 210
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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