to Mr. Fish.
Berne, May 27, 1875. (Received June 18.)
Sir: The people of Switzerland have just availed themselves, for the first time, of the provision of the constitution adopted last year, which requires that any measure enacted by the Federal Assembly shall be submitted to the popular vote for acceptance or rejection, upon the demand of thirty thousand voters, or of eight cantonal governments.
Such a demand was made in April last repecting two measures enacted at the late session of the assembly, one in relation to marriage and the other concerning the elective franchise.
I have already alluded, in my dispatch No. 206, of April 2, to the formidable opposition then organizing against the proposed law, introducing obligatory civil marriage and withdrawing the keeping of the civil registers from the clergy. Instead of thirty thousand electors, over one hundred thousand united in calling for the submission of the measure in question, and at the same time of an act concerning the elective franchise, to a vote of the people.
The election held in consequence occurred on Sunday, the 23d instant. It resulted in the adoption of the law respecting marriage by a majority of about eight thousand, and in the rejection of the act respecting the elective franchise by a majority of a little more than four thousand; the aggregate vote being something over four hundred thousand.
Both measures were favored by the government and by the great majority of those who voted for the adoption of the revised constitution last year. The supporters of the proposed marriage law availed themselves of the opportunity afforded by the Pope’s encyclical letter, condemning it, to address appeals to the prejudice of the electors. Jealousy of ultramontane influences and the fear of contributing to what might be claimed as an ultramontane victory secured, without doubt, a considerable number of votes for the law, which, without such apprehensions, would have been cast against it. An important contingent of the conservative Protestant voters joined with the Roman Catholics in rejecting it. The provision of the law withdrawing the keeping of the civil registers from the clergy was objected to by many Protestants, it being alleged that in many parishes it would be difficult to find any person except the clergyman properly qualified to perform that duty. The increased facilities for divorce afforded by the law, and a provision authorizing persons who have attained the age of twenty years to marry without the consent of their parents, were strongly condemned.[Page 1288]
In the main, however, this measure undoubtedly constitutes a real and wholesome progress. It introduces a uniform regulation in the place of the diversified, conflicting, and often oppressive legislation of the cantons on the subject; and, henceforth, the marriage of a Swiss citizen in conformity with it, or, if married in a foreign country, in conformity with the local law of such country, will be recognized as valid throughout Switzerland, which hitherto has not been the case.
The act concerning the elective franchise encountered no religious prejudices, but was so bold an innovation upon the traditional views and policy of the Swiss people, that a large proportion of the conservative sentiment of the country was arrayed against it.
Hitherto, in most of the cantons, many obstacles and considerable delays have been affixed to the admission of Swiss citizens, removing from their native canton and commune, and establishing themselves in another, to a participation in cantonal and communal elections. The act in question provided that any Swiss citizen of twenty years of age, sojourning or established in a canton other than that in which he was born, should, if established, (établé,) be entitled to participate in such elections after a residence of three months, if sojourning (en séjour) in cantonal elections after a period of three mouths, and in communal elections after six months. In several of the cantons, at present, the native citizens are only entitled to vote at such elections upon attaining the age of 21, and in some of 23 years.
The federal constitution declares that a federal law shall define the difference between establishment and séjour. The National Assembly, while this act was pending before it, attempted to incorporate in it such a definition. The diversity of views as to the precise definition of the two words was so great, however, that no agreement was reached, and that section of the proposed law was stricken out. The objection was, of course, made afterward, that the local authorities would be subject to the same differences of opinion which prevailed in the Assembly, and that a variety of interpretations would be given to the two terms, until their meaning was settled by the only competent authority.
In most, if not in all of the German cantons, bankrupts are at present disfranchised. The proposed law restored the elective franchise to such persons, and provided that, in future, it should be withheld from those only who might be found guilty of fraudulent bankruptcy, and disfranchised by judicial sentence. It is estimated that this provision of the law would have added the names of 12,000 persons to the list of voters in the single canton of Berne. It further gave the franchise to paupers, except to such as were reduced to that condition by dissolute or idle habits, and annulled the local laws, which in many places exclude all but tax-payers from participation in communal elections.
The rejection of a measure proposing such brusque innovations upon the existing order of things would, doubtless, have been far more emphatic but for the operation of party feeling, which sometimes leads men to sacrifice their own opinions rather than see them carried into effect by political opponents. The same influences organized the opposition to both the marriage and the suffrage act; the same elements which, last year, opposed the adoption of the new constitution, were most ardent in their hostility to both measures; and the cry was raised, not without effect, that the rejection of either would be a triumph for the cantonal and reactionary parties.
I have, &c.,