to Mr. Fish.
Berne, October 14, 1874. (Received November 7.)
Sir: The session of the federal assembly was resumed on Monday, the 5th instant, and will probably continue until the opening of the next regular session, on the first Monday of December.
The present session will be almost exclusively devoted to the consideration of measures rendered necessary by the adoption of the revised constitution. Among these are bills for the re-organization of the army; regulating the exercise of the right of suffrage by Swiss citizens; providing for military pensions; a uniform law respecting the keeping of the civil registers and in relation to marriages; a general banking law; a law concerning prosecutions for debt and in relation to bankruptcies; a law regulating the transmission of freights by railways; and a law respecting the responsibilities of railway companies and other common carriers in cases of injury to passengers by accidents.[Page 1279]
It is probable that it will be found necessary to postpone the consideration of a part of these measures until the winter session. The military-organization bill, as it is considered the most important, takes precedence of all the others. A large part of the session is likely to be occupied in its consideration. The problem which it presents is how, in view of the present state of military science, to organize a federal army adequate to the defense of the national territory, and yet not imposing an intolerable burden on the national budget. The president of the council of states, M. Kœchlin, in opening the session of that body, on the 5th instant, referring to this measure, said that when, in 1870, Switzerland asked, in confidence, through its minister at Berlin, to what extent it might count upon respect for its neutrality, the present chancellor of the German Empire replied: “To the extent to which you yourselves respect the device of the Scottish Order of the Thistle: Nemo me impune lacessit.” Therefore, continued M. Kœchlin, a well-trained army, always ready to march, and provided with the best of arms, will be the surest guaranty of our neutrality.
The past year has been marked, in Switzerland, by an unusual degree of political activity. The winter months were occupied by the discussions, in the national assembly, upon the revision of the federal constitution. The submission of that instrument to the popular approbation and its adoption by the people followed. Then came the task of readjusting and placing in harmony with the new constitution, not only the federal laws, but the constitutions and the legislation of the cantons. As might be anticipated, among a people long habituated to republican institutions and to the free discussion of all public measures, many diversities of opinion have arisen. Those favorable to a strong central government have sought to give the broadest interpretation to such provisions of the new constitution as enlarge the field of federal authority, and to regain, if possible, by construction, some of the ground they were obliged to surrender when the compromises were effected by which a majority was obtained for the revision. On the other hand, another class, jealous of every encroachment upon the traditional prerogatives of cantonal power, are not less active in attempting to restrict and narrow the limits of federal action.
In the main, however, as far as I have been able to observe the conduct of the government and of the various parties, associations, and interests which are taking an active part in this remodeling of the political fabric, I have been most favorably impressed by the sound, healthy, normal, upright, vigorous, republican character which it reveals. The greatest care is observed in the preparation of important legislative measures. A bill like that for the re-organization of the army, or that providing for a uniform law in relation to prosecutions for debt and proceedings in bankruptcy, is first carefully drawn up, either by the federal council, or by a commission appointed by that body. In the latter case great pains are taken in the selection of competent persons to act on the commission. Among its members will be found both practical men and men of theory, experienced lawyers, men versed in legislation, and one or more leading professors from the Swiss universities. In case of a bill relating to military affairs, experienced officers will of course have a place in the commission. In the case of the bill concerning prosecutions for debt and bankruptcy, the federal council addressed circulars to each of the cantonal governments and to the judges of the cantonal courts asking for suggestions. When the bill, thus prepared, is finally drawn up, it is published, accompanied by a message from the federal council explaining its provisions in detail, and giving reasons [Page 1280] for their adoption. The people then, in their turn, subject it to criticism. All who are interested have an opportunity to consider it and to make their opinions known before it is taken up in the legislative chamber. Popular associations, which are almost innumerable in Switzerland, meet and pronounce upon it if it relates to any subject that especially concerns them. Law societies, teachers’ societies, commercial unions, the Turners, the great popular association of the Yolks Verein, which embraces all classes; some or all discuss it, and perhaps suggest amendments or modifications. Thus, when the bill is presented for the action of the legislature it is pretty certain to be already a well-digested measure, and public opinion in regard to it is very thoroughly known. In the chambers it is again submitted to a careful scrutiny. After receiving the sanction of the two houses, however, and becoming a law, as far as representative action can make it such, it is not yet a law. If, within a given period, thirty thousand voters, or the governments of eight cantons unite in making the demand, it must be submitted to and approved by the popular vote before it becomes a law.
The procedure may be a little cumbrous and complicated, but it affords a strong security against the evils of hasty legislation. Moreover it occupies parties and politicians with the consideration of measures in detail. It enlists popular interest in legislation and gives to the individual citizen a deeper sense of his influence and his responsibilities in connection with the government. Minorities are expected to present their views and to disclose their programmes. It is not enough for them to hold aloof and reticent until a measure is passed, and then to assail it in general terms. If they neglect or fail to present something more acceptable, their subsequent censures have little weight. Expressions of opinion respecting public affairs have accordingly the great merit of being generally definite and unambiguous.
The interest manifested in the legislative changes now taking place extends to all classes. The country appears to have the hearty co-operation of its best and wisest citizens, and these seem to be moved not by a mere desire to till a conspicuous place in the eyes of the public, or to associate their names with some prominent measure, but by a sincere wish to aid in determining and achieving what is really for the true welfare of the State.
At a time when, in some European countries, very anomalous forms of government have assumed the republican name, it is gratifying to observe that there is at least one European state in which republicanism is both properly understood and properly practiced, and where a government of the people, by the people, unites, with as large a measure of individual liberty as exists in any organized community, all the advantages of order and stability, of careful and judicious legislation, of economy in the administration and justice in the execution of the laws, to as high a degree as can be found in any country upon the earth.
I have, &c.,