James H. HutsonSwiss and American States

2.18 James H. Hutson, Swiss and American States Constitutions, excerpt, in The Sister Republics, Switzerland and the United States from 1776 to the Present, Library of Congress, Washington DC, 1991, p. 58 – 65

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 exhibition in the Library of Congress was shown in 1992 in the Schweizerische Landesbibliotehk (Swiss National Library)in Bern and later on in Geneva, Basel and Zurich. On that occasion, the book was translated into German with the title The Sister Republics: Die Schweiz und die Vereinigten Staaten von 1776 bis heute. Lucky are those, who could get hold of the original english text over the internet. The chapters of the book represented in the Anthology are Swiss and the American Revolution (text 2.1, Swiss and the American Constitution (2.5), Americans and the Swiss Constitution of 1848 (2.28), Swiss and the American Civil War (2.12), Swiss-American Peacemaking: The Alabama Affair and the League of Nations (2.16), and Swiss and American State Constitutions (2.18).

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.

This text may be read in conjunction with the text of William E. Rappard, the Initiative (text 2.17). The text of James Hutson partially is based on that text, which he frequently cites.

The text at hand deals with the great dissatisfaction with and the contempt for the politicians of the Gilded Age which was shared by millions of Americans after the Civil War. Americans believed that their elected representatives had sold them out to big business and political bosses, who together were corrupting the nations soul. This, according to James Hutson, in the 1880s led to a groundswell and a popular movement in a number of western states of the United States. James Hutson cites a statement of a reformer “it is fair to say“,“that there would be no modern revival of the initiative and referendum had it not been for the Swiss examples”. He further cites the president of the Peoples Rule League of America”The influence of the Swiss example under the developmence of democracy in the United States in this area is beyond words to express.”

James Hutson in the text at hand tries to shed light, why the Swiss example came to Americas attention, which he terms “something of a mistery”. He describes various possible routes of travels such as the sending of the Library of Congress of an official to Switzerland with the instruction to collect “everything relating to the history of the Sister Republic”. He cites the book on the Swiss political system of an English diplomat residing in Bern, describes Harvard professors systematically studying the Swiss political systems and the travelling of interested Americans to Switzerland to obtain first hand information on the initiative and the referendum. Apparently writer after writer made the same point: Once Americans learned to use the Swiss tools of direct democracy, they could save their countries political soul. In the 1890s the interest in the initiative and the referendum was the keenest, where the conditions of American life were the worst, that is in the factories and on the farms. As succesful though the movement for the initiative and the referendum was in the States, according to James Hutson, it fared poorly on the national level; Congress listened to various reports but took no action. Between 1913 and 1918 five more states adopted either the initiative or the referendum. The first World War and the return to “normality”, according to Hutson, in the 1920s suffocated the reforming spirit and took the wind out of the sails of the direct legislation movement. According to James Hutson this obituary was premature. He points at the success of Californias Proposition 13.

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.18_HUTSON_Swiss and American States Constitutions


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

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