James H. HutsonSwiss and the American Revolution

2.1 Swiss and the American Revolution, excerpt, in The Sister Republics, Switzerland and the United States from 1776 to the Present, Library of Congress, Washington DC, 1991, p.13 – 23

a) Background

Before entering into further details on the various chapters selected for this Anthology in the book The Sister Republics, Switzerland and the United States from 1776 to the Present, the following general informations: It is interesting to refer to the forword of the book to the long history of collecting works by Swiss authors of the Library of Congress. The Library aquired Thomas Jeffersons library in 1850, it received copies, annotated by Jefferson himself, of the works of two Swiss authors much admired by the Ex-president: The natural law theorists Emmerich de Vattel and Jean Jacques Burlamacqui. After the acquisition of Jeffersons books the library continued to collect Swiss books as well as maps and descriptions of Switzerland. According to the foreword official contacts between the library and Switzerland began in 1884 while the Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford commissioned George H. Böhmer as a special agent to visit European countries to arrange a publications exchange program. Böhmer reached Berne, the Swiss capital on 20th October 1984, and, according to the forword was buoyed in conversations with Swiss officials. They not only shared the eagerness of other European governments to exchange official publications; they also proposed to send the Library of Congress additional books. “As regards historical publications” Böhmer reported, “The government of Switzerland stands preeminent in her promise to supply as complete the collection as can be obtained – a library in itself – of the historical works of that republic”. The historical works about Switzerland were especially welcome in the United States during the 1880ies because many Americans were becoming interested in new instruments of direct political democracy, the initiative and referendum which have been developed by Swiss. The reciprocal borrowing between the United States and Switzerland, according to the foreword continued to the First World War evidencing awareness of a common heritage of resistance to foreign tyranny. This was the background of the book of James Hutson The Sister Republics.. “There is no better time, the Library of Congress believes, to revive that venerable phrase and to illustrate the fruitful relationship which it described than on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Swiss Independence and Freedom. The Library will celebrate with an exhibit opening in may 1991.” … “Since 1975 Switzerland and the United States have contributed much to each other, so much that we expect that readers of this publication and viewers of the exhibit will be surprised to find that so little of the story is known in this country.”

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 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.

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).

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 in the Library of Congress opening in may 1991 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Switzerland.

The chapter Swiss and the American Revolution starts with the following statement:

“The Swiss made a significant contribution to the creation of the American Republic. They furnished intellectual weapons to American statesmen and troops and ordnance to Washington’s armies. So little is known, however, about their military contribution to the patriot cause that the Swiss can be considered the invisible men of the American Revolution, as anonymous as black Americans were until the scholarship of the past two decades uncovered their substantial participation in the achievement of American independence.”

According to the chapter at hand the invisibility was due to the complexities of the immigration and due to the fact that the German speaking Swiss often were counted as “Germans”. Many Swiss apparently came to the United States via other countries. According to Bernard Bailyn the mobility was “endemic in Southwestern Germany; throughout Rhine Valley and in parts of Switzerland“during the late 17th and the early 18th century. Swiss emigrants were preliminary Mennonites and members of other pacifist seats. The text argues that large numbers of Swiss were among the German speaking population in America. This was taken for granted since the most influential German –language newspaper at the time was published by Henri Johann Heinrich Miller (who was Swiss). Scholars consider Miller to be the single most influential person in enlisting Americas “Germans” in support of the independence of the United States. Miller had no scrouples against participation in parties against politics or against baring arms. He frequently used heroic man and events from Swiss history to generate support for the American cause. In connection with the mobilisation in 1768 of Sons of Liberty, Miller used William Tell as the principle Swiss son of liberty (Schweizerische Erz-Freiheitssohn) He, according to the text at hand, in his newspaper published a sentimental war story Das hölzerne Bein (the wooden leg) by the Swiss writer Salomon Gessner (1730-1788), in 1775 Miller formed a partnership in patriotic propaganda with a fellow Swiss, the reverend John Joachim Zubly, who has come to Philadelphia to represent Georgia at the Continental Congress. The text at hand testimates that among the allegedly particpitaing 30’000 “Germans” in baring arms for the United States during the revolutionary war as many as 10’000 must have been Swiss. The point made in the text is not that Germans and Swiss “won” the war for independence, only that the role in that conflict can not be overlooked. The text describes the skills of Swiss of making arms; in particular the activities of the Swiss artist and entrepreneur John Jakob Faes is extremely well documented. Faes was producing high quality iron products at Mount Hope. He made iron chains to obstruct the Hudson River and produced various kinds of ammunition, shells, casings and canons for Washingtons army. Faes armaments according to the text were far superior to Pennsylvania – made ordnance; Washington himself was interested in Faes operation, visiting him in Mount Hope on several occasions.

“The Swiss furnished American Revolutionary leaders with intellectual weapons every bit as potent as the products of Faesch’s forges. The best known Swiss thinker of the Revolutionary period, Jean Jacques Rousseau, had little impacts on American statesmen. They were acquainted with some of his books, but his favourite topics were not relevant to their concerns. Rousseau’s “celebration of primitive simplicity”, a recent scholar has stressed, was “uncongenial for societies that throughout their histories had been trying desperately to escape from exactly that condition” Two other Swiss savants, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui and Emmerich de Vattel known today only to academic specialists, had substantial influence on American statesmen. Burlamaqui (1694-1748) was, like Rousseau, born in Geneva, but never deserted his native city. He was a respected member of the Geneva Council of State and a professor of ethics and natural law at the city’s university. Vattel (1714-1767), a native of Neuchàtel, was a pupil of Burlamaqui. His major work, Principles of Natural Law, was published in French at Geneva in 1747 and translated into English the next year. Vattel’s The Law of Nations, or the Principles of Natural Law … was published in French in 1758 and then quickly translated into English.”

Americans quoted Burlamaqui and Vattel frequently in the pamphlet warfare with British partisans which began in the 1760s. Thomas Jefferson according to James Hutson admired Burlamaqui in particular.

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.1_HUTSON_Swiss and American Revolution

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


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