Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 December 2020
On 12 April 1798, 121 deputies gathered for the constitutive session of the first parliament in Swiss history in the small town of Aarau – a meeting place which was equally accessible from all regions of the country. To proclaim Aarau as the provisional capital of the new republic and as the seat of the first Helvetic parliament, however, had a highly symbolic significance, too. Only a few weeks before, the Federal Diet – a congress assembling representatives of the old power elites from the 13 sovereign republics of the Swiss Confederation – had met for the last time in the same town of Aarau without being able to prevent the dissolution of the Swiss ancien régime. The meeting of two fundamentally different representative assemblies convened in Aarau in such a short space of time marked the transition from premodern polity to a modern parliamentary system. Thus, within a few weeks Aarau had not only served as the burial ground of the Old Confederation, it also became the birthplace of the new Helvetic Republic.
The proclamation of the Helvetic Republic took place under circumstances that foreshadowed the serious problems the young republic was to encounter during its short lifetime. The new Helvetic state was the subject of great controversy among the population. Its constitution had not originated from a transparent and coordinated political process in the country. During the collapse of the old order in the first weeks of 1798, and before French troops had gained control over most parts of the Swiss territory in March 1798, dozens of small heterogeneous states had emerged from a domestic revolutionary process that led to the political emancipation of the former subject territories in the Swiss Confederation. Some of them had adopted the representative constitution elaborated by Peter Ochs, a sympathizer with the French Revolution and enlightened representative of the old Basel elite, during his stay in Paris around the beginning of 1798. Ochs had considered his constitution an interim arrangement, to be referred to until a Swiss constitutional assembly came into operation. In January 1798, Philippe Antoine Merlin de Douai and Pierre Claude François Daunou, the constitutional experts of the French Directory, adapted Ochs’ draft to the French constitution of 1795.