James H. HutsonSwiss and the American Civil War

2.12 James Hutson, Swiss and the American Civil War, excerpt, in The Sister Republics, Switzerland and the United States from 1776 to the Present, Library of Congress, Washington DC, 1991, p. 42 – 50

a) Background

A Special focus of this part of the Anthology is on the cultural exchanges and cultural encounters between Switzerland and the United States. According to James Hutson it is not immodest to say that we are talking about a special relationship. He writes in the introduction to the book at hand, that in 1776 the government of Switzerland known to its citizens as Eidgenossenschaft (community of the oath) had existed for almost 500 years. The Eidgenossenschaft was a Confederacy of 13 states called Cantons, which where republics of various sizes, some democratic, others aristocratic”. Republics were rare in 1776 and had little company in 18th century Europe. As the introduction states, therefore, many Swiss welcomed the Declaration of Independence of the United States “since it ushered a soulmate into the community of nations.” Republicanism was not the only bond between Switzerland and the United States. From 1776 on, political developments in one country often paralleled those in the other, and on important occasions served as a constitutional model for the others. First, according to James Hutson, the Amercian national constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was constructed on the Swiss model of a confederacy of some over sovereign states. Then, Americans repudiated confederal government in 1787 as impotent and unworkable and adapted a new federal constitution. The opponents of the new charter, the Anti Federalists argued that a Swiss style government was still a viable model which offered the best hope for the preservation of American liberty. The Swiss themselves repudiated confederate government in 1848 using many of the same arguments Americans had marshalled against it in 1787 and adapted a Federal constitution modelled after the American constitution of 1787. After the Civil War many American state and local governments adapted constitutional reforms borrowed from the Swiss. The initiative and referendum – which continues to this hour to give the politics of California and other influential states their distinctive tone. The institutional borrowing, according to James Hutson, between the United States and Switzerland ceased after the first World War. Not long afterwards Swiss and Americans ceased referring to each others countries as sister republics.

The editor has divided the book in various chapters, following the chronological order of the book and parallelizing it with the chronological and topical order of the part of the Americanization of Swiss law and legal culture of the Anthology. The book is a welcome addition to the views of the legal relationship between the United States and Switzerland by an American view. The book is vividly written and contains pictures. It is addressed to a broader public and contains a number of footnotes for further research. It is a short and coherent “red thread” (Roter Faden) of the history of the relationship from 1776 to about the first World War.

The author of the book James H. Hutson received his PhD in history from Yale University in 1964. He has been a member of the history department in Yale and William and Mary. Since 1982 he has been chief of the Libraries manuscript division. Dr. Hutson is the author of several books (see biography). We particularly draw the attention to a text written after World War II on the bombing of the Swiss city of Schaffhausen in April 1944 by American airplanes.

b) Summary

The text at hand is a chapter of the book The Sister Republics, Switzerland and the United States, from 1776 to the present, which accompanied an exhibition of the Library of Congress opening in May 1991 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Switzerland. It deals with the period of the American Civil War.

At the outset Hutson states: “In 1862 the Swiss Consul General at Washington estimated that 6000 Swiss-born soldiers were fighting in the Union Army. Since as many as 2’300’000 men served in northern armies during the Civil War, Swiss participation was statistically small. A larger – probably much larger percentage of Swiss marched with George Washington than with McClellan or Grant. Yet, paradoxically, we know much more about the Swiss who fought in the Civil War than we do about their brethren who served in the Continental Army.”

The text at hand summarizes Swiss findings on military units and identifies certain personalities involved in the Civil War. The only thing we know that only a handful served in the Confederate Army. Notorious was Major Henri Wirz of Zurich, who emigrated to the United States at the age of 26 – settling in Louisianna, Wirz became an enthusiastic supporter of secession, joined the Confederate Army and was subsequently wounded at the battle of Seven Pines in 1962. In 1864 he was an appointed commander of the prisoner – of war-camp at Andersonville, Georgia. After the Civil War based upon what today would be called war crimes he was hanged (see text 2.14 and 2.15).

The text at hand further states, that we know more about Swiss fighting in the Union army. It identifies special military units as the Missouri Regiment, called the Swiss Rifles. The soldier, Hermann Lieb from Ermatingen in the Canton of Thurgau is described. Lieb was promoted to general and commanded the artillery west of the Missisippi. The even more dramatic case is Emil Frey from Basel, who studied economy in Illinois when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted in the 24th Illinois Regiment and served as a Captain. He was captured at Gettysburg, imprisoned for 18 months in Libby Prison and confined in the so called black-hole. Returning to Switzerland after the war, Frey had a successful political carreer. In 1882 he was appointed Swiss Minister to the United States and in 1984 he became President of the Swiss Confederation.

The text lists the various sensitivities of Swiss individuals for joining the Civil War as soldiers. According to Hutson, the sensitivity to the issues at stake in the Civil War was just as keen in Switzerland for a sizable band for the political spectrum there. The radical and liberal parties considered that they had a deep ideological stake in the outcome of the Civil War.. The Union, they believed, was fighting on a more massive scale the same battle they had fought fourteen years earlier against the uncompromising forces of local sovereignty in the Sonderbundskrieg. The losers and the winners in the Sonderbund War saw history repeating itself in America. The text highlights the grassroot movements and the activities of the press on both sides evidencing a deep involvement with force faught far away.

The text at hand ends with a description of the commissioning of Frank Buchser, a well known Solothurn painter and radical sympathizer, to paint a large mural in the Federal Palace at Berne of the leading figures of the American Civil War. Opposed to this mural with the Americans would be an equally large mural of the heroes of Swiss history. Thus, according to Hutson, the living sympathy and friendship between both republic nations would be commemorated by a “visible and lasting monument” Frank Buchser was sent to the United States with letters to various luminaries. He painted President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Steward and Generals Grant, Lee and Sherman. The project of the Civil War mural in the Federal Palace never materialized Buchsers. The paintings of Generals Lee and Sherman,- where are the other ones? – now hang on the walls of the Swiss ambassadors residence in Washington DC.

We add, that Frank Buchser stayed on, for some years in the United States; he travelled South and was one of the first Western painters painting blacks, in particular black women. At the time of the Civil War the eminent natural scientist Louis Agassiz, who wrote a theory of races as well (see texts 2.21 – 2.23), was an advisor to President Lincoln on racial matters. John August Sutter was still immersed in the legal proceedings to protect his properties in California after the Gold Rush (see texts 2.8 – 2.11). At that time, the Swiss involvements in various dimensions of slavery in the United States was hardly known and not researched. The issue is not mentioned in Hutsons chapter on the Civil War. This issue came back 2006 in the Swiss parliament, when an interpellation of a member of parliament asked the Federal Council to denounce Louis Agassiz’s theory of races as racist and requested to rename a mountain in Switzerland, called Piz Agassiz. (see text 2.23)
The American Civil War had a tremendous influence on American law and legal culture. Morton J. Horwitz after having written the first volume of his seminal legal history about the United States “The Transformation of American law 1680 – 1860” wrote a second volume The Transformation of American law 1870 – 1960. In the preface he writes “the reader will notice, that I have begun this book in 1870 not in 1860. Though I make many references to the Civil War. I believe that only a separate book can do justice to the profound significance of the Civil War in American legal history. I hope to write that book some day”.

Impacts of the American Civil War, on the legal relationship between Switzerland and the United States continued. The reader may consult the texts James Hutson Swiss-American Peacemaking: The Alabama Affair and the League of Nations (2.16), William E. Rappard, The Initiative, Referendum and Recall In Switzerland (2.17), James H. Hutson, Swiss and American State Constitutions (2.18) and Heinz K. Meier, Rappard, Wilson and the League of Nations. (2.19)

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.12_HUTSON_Swiss and American Civil War


© Prof. Jens Drolshammer, office@drolshammer.com,  www.drolshammer.net


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