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Home » Content » The Sonderbund War – Since a civil war in the XIX century Switzerland makes the secession of any canton virtually impossible.
On July 20, 1847, the Swiss Federal Diet voted by a narrow majority to dissolve the Sonderbund separatist league, expel the Jesuits from the country, and establish a new federal constitution. It is the culmination of a long political crisis born of the French Revolution. It will give birth to the Swiss institutions as we know them after, however, a short civil war.

Gabriel Vital-Durand – Publié ou mis à jour le : 2019-07-09 10:58:58

The Restoration

The “Act of mediation” granted by the First Consul Bonaparte in 1803 had been suspended in the fall of the French Empire, in 1814, and the cantonal constitutions restored to their former regime form, reconstituting a fragmented Switzerland between its 22 corners.

The federal pact (Bundesvertrag) adopted in 1815 sets out the new organization. Switzerland integrates some of its long-standing territories (Valais, Geneva, Neuchâtel, Graubünden, Ticino) and finds its role as arbitrator among the great powers, now guarantors of its neutrality.

The sovereignty restored to the cantons, however, would provoke growing opposition between supporters of an evolution towards a more open society (liberal party) and supporters of tradition (conservative party).

Tensions are emerging between the conservative rural cantons and the industrialized, liberal cantons of the Swiss Plateau, with the growing and prosperous population. Imitating France, the party in favor of maintaining close ties between the Catholic Church and the cantonal governments that support it is described as overseas.

In 1841, the Argovian government made the decision to close eight convents whose autonomy was guaranteed by the federal pact of 1815. As a reaction, Lucerne reminded the Jesuits and gave them cantonal schools in 1844.

With the conservative cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Unterwald, Zug, Freiburg and Valais, Lucerne also concluded in December 1845 a defensive alliance, immediately called Sonderbund (separatist League) by its detractors. However, the 1815 pact prohibits the formation of alliances between the cantons.

On July 20, 1847, the cantons, by a short majority of 12 out of 22, voted for the dissolution of the Sonderbund, the expulsion of the Jesuits, and the principle of a revision of the Constitution.

A federal army, under the command of General Guillaume-Henri Dufour, puts the siege in front of the city of Friborg. The city surrenders on 14 November 1847 and Dufour turns to Lucerne, occupied on 24 November, and Valais, which capitulates on 1 December.

The separatist army, composed of Catholic soldiers but commanded by a Protestant aristocrat named Johan-Ulrich von Salis-Soglio, is too small to fight back. The military operations were thus completed on November 29, causing less than a hundred deaths.

The victors impose liberal governments in the rebel cantons and set a war indemnity. New convents are closed in Lucerne.

Concerned about this development, the governments of France, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia communicate on January 18, 1848 a note that they will not tolerate a new federal constitution limiting the sovereign power of the cantons … But the threat of intervention foreigner will move away with the revolutions of February in France and March in Germany.

A Constitution that lasts

The new constitution, on the American model, retains the name of Swiss Confederation but ends with the old principle of an alliance of sovereign cantons:

– The cantons are deprived of the right to secede and to establish constitutions that are incompatible with religious freedom and freedom of expression.

– A federal state is delegated military and diplomatic powers.

– The executive power is represented by a federal Council of seven members, the legislative power by a bicameral system and the judiciary by the institution of a federal court.

The institution of the franc as a common currency, derived from the French franc and part of the Latin Union, enshrines the new order. Other innovations, such as the national flag, the federal schools (Polytechnic Zurich), the system of weights and measures, are needed in their turn.


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