Early Republics Pt. 2 The Swiss Confederacy
No doubt you've heard the story of the archer William Tell and his famous shot through the apple rested on his son's head. What triggered this feat was William's refusal to bow to the Governor's hat placed upon a pike, the punishment for failure to do so would be death. William removes two arrows from his quiver, placed one in his belt, another in the bow and when he looses his first bolt and safely shoots the apple from his son's head, the Governor spares his life, then asks, "Why did you place the second arrow in your belt?" to which Tell replies, "If I were to miss the second arrow would be for you." Tell's confession of defiance earns his imprisonment and begins the outrage that ignites a revolution.
Featured prominently in the play immortalizing him is the legendary oath of the Swiss Confederacy...
The national identity is an appeal to that of fraternal peace. Later revolutions of the 1840's would be based upon ethnic identity. However, the Swiss are a somewhat unique nation among Europe as one bound by common ideals, not race, religion or ethnicity. German, French, Italian, Romansch, including dozens of local dialects are all spoken in Switzerland to this day. Only through common cooperation, respect of property, free trade, and open exchange that occurs between people as though they are brothers is one free from danger and distress.
The ideals that held the Swiss together were not entirely novel. From ancient times the Alps had been occupied by Celts, Romans, and Germans, each possessed a tradition of democratic and representative government. Even before the Roman conquest, trade and cultural exchange was frequent with the nearby Greek colony at Massilia. The rights to which they appeal are ancient rights won over millennia and eroded by the centralizing tendencies of the then Austrian led Holy-Roman Empire. While the HRE is an immensely complex and rich historical topic I want to reader to recognize that it is from it sprang forth our previous topic (but later in history) The Dutch Republic as well.
Patrick Henry is often quoted as "Give me liberty, or give me death!" but it is actually an echo of the Rütlischwur. When we below analyze the Swiss "Federal Charter of 1291" we'll see that America's founding fathers also borrowed its ideas and language in ways for the United State's founding documents. The tyranny imposed upon the people in this case was that of 'comply or die' for trivial and petty manners decided by the tyrant. They recognize that to accept his rule is to accept death anyway. To "never be afraid of human power" is a bold claim even to 21st Century ears. This is an acknowledgement that rights are above the government to grant and restrict but only for god and nature to endow.
Schützenfest, or "Marksmen's Festival" are near annual gatherings of the nation's shooters for practice, pride, and cultural unity. Historically they were and are practiced across Europe, but William Tell remains a popular hero among the participants in Switzerland. Schützenfest earliest gatherings were not just a competition and exercise for the vast militia, they were the birthplace of Swiss democracy. In the novel Das Fähnlein der sieben Aufrechten by Gottfried Keller, we see the frequent visiting of rich and poor, noble and peasant make the Swiss into one proud people...(please forgive my poor German translation from Wikipedia's plot summary):
It was through centuries of terrible warfare that true Swiss independence and freedom was won but the first charter of the Swiss Constitution was made in 1291 by the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden. It was a common law, one that was easily understood and capable of being memorized or even written on a single piece of parchment. Today it remains a strong affirmation of universal rights and individual liberty (excepting the clause regarding serfdom).
The government exists in this case purely for the protection of the people, their liberty, and their property. Rütlischwur was an oath to take up arms against tyranny and defend the ancient and natural rights of the people, and the Schutzenfest was the means by which the Swiss accomplished it. These aspects today reveal the modern Swiss republic dedicated to neutrality, peace, and the protection of it's citizens natural rights.
We can see in the direct history of the Swiss the true founding of a Republic which was formed as a reaction to plunder from a foreign warlord, how a single man can spark a revolution, and how a small nation can overcome its powerful enemies with a fervor for liberty and judicious marksmanship.