Paul Widmer Der Einfluss der Schweiz auf die amerikanische Verfassung von 1787

2.2 Paul Widmer, Der Einfluss der Schweiz auf die amerikanische Verfassung von 1787, in Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte, 1988, S.359-389, full text

[The Influence of Switzerland on the American Constitution of 1787]

a) Background

The text at hand is a scholarly article published in Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte (Swiss Journal for Historical Studies) in 1988. It was written during diplomatic postings in New York and in the Swiss Embassy in Washington DC. Paul Widmer’s text recalls the longstanding and special relationship between the United States and Switzerland in legal matters. The text is an example of the phenomenon of “how ideas travel”. It identifies the potential influences of Switzerland and Swiss law and legal culture on the formation of the constitution in 1787 at the time of the creation of the United States. The subsequent influence of the American constitution on Switzerland up to 1848 was by far greater than the areas of influence of Switzerland on the American constitution in 1787.

Nevertheless, the influence is remarkable and interesting. Two factors played a major role: the writings and actions of founding father John Adams, later President of the United States, and the incontestable influence of the antifederalists – federalists according to Swiss terminology – in favour of a confederation. Switzerland had a parliamentary assembly in the 18th century composed of governmental representatives of the different sovereign Cantons. It had considerable visibility and influence on then emerging doctrines of democratic federalism. Whoever was about to draft and adopt a republican, federalist constitution was well advised to look at the republics in the Alps. In the early United States certain groups diligently undertook this effort. Three positions came simultaneously to the attention of the founding fathers. Among the federalists – the centralists according to Swiss terminology – Madison and Hamilton for instance studied the Swiss confederation in detail.  The antifederalists left the Swiss confederation aside and considered it unusable for a nation like the United States, in particular due to the size of the territory. The federalists studied it but were imprecise in their study of the Swiss circumstances. They adored the spirit of the inhabitants of the Alps. They used Switzerland as crown witness against centralisation and advocated the leaving of powers to the individual states. In contrast John Adams, the first vice president and second president of the United States, did not care for Switzerland as a whole. He used the parliamentary organisation of the individual Cantons to find in them arguments for a separation of powers. John Adams, above all, was responsible for the timely introduction of Swiss thinking to the American constitutional dialogue and discussion among the delegates to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia.

b) Summary

Paul Widmer expounds that those interested in finding the republican-federalist model in the 17th century in Europe could only turn to the Netherlands and to Switzerland. The Netherlands was discarded because of the American distrust of a strong aristocratic element. For federalists, the Dutch and the Swiss Confederation were too weak. The only democratic-aristocratic republic of some weight to which the United States could turn to was the Swiss Confederation. The Swiss influence was manifest on two levels: Indirectly by publications of Swiss individuals and directly by the nature of the Swiss Confederation. Among the Swiss individuals and persons at the time, Calvin, Rousseau, Burlamaqui and Emer de Vattel were widely read in North America. The effective influence of their writings was inferior to those of the British writers Hobbes, Locke and Blackstone. With regards to John Adams, according to Paul Widmer, it is not only known what he read but also what he thought about what he read about the Swiss Confederation. He had a different view of the persons cited.

The federalists, who set the tone in Philadelphia were against the Swiss model, because it had too weak a structure The antifederalists who criticized the draft of the new constitution from a radical democratic perspective looked to Switzerland, in particular to the Urschweiz, as well as to the texts of Rousseau as testimony of a free Alpine republic. John Adams who was neither federalist nor antifederalist was looking for arguments to defend his favourite project, the constitution of Massachusetts. He used elements of separation of powers and elements of a bicameral system on the level of federate states. In his main work, he carefully analysed the Swiss constitutional structure. In doing so, he drew attention to Switzerland and introduced her model into the US constitutional debate.

The proponents of a loose Swiss model always lost in the constitutional debates of the emerging United States. Yet, the testimony of Switzerland brought valuable arguments into the discussion of federalism. It is interesting to note that there is a marked influence of Switzerland on the issue of introducing and including a “Bill of Rights” into the constitution. George Mason, an admirer of the republican elements and the spirit in Switzerland, was the driving force and the author of these important amendments. The symbolic and methodological contribution in that field was important, partly democratic and motivated by the spirit of the inhabitants of Switzerland. This darig view of George Mason by Paul Widmer is critically commented by James Hutson in text 2.5.

c) Texts

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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