My job requires that I travel, a lot, and its sort of a sport to try to find a tie into the places I go and the Colonial American experience. Some places are easy, Benedict Arnold in Quebec, the 43rd Rgmt of Foot in Devon, John Adams in the Netherlands… but what about Switzerland. This week I wen to Baden (on business) and, of course posed the question: What was the impact of the Swiss on the American Revolution?
It is important to understand that unlike the “superpowers” of the 18th Century (England, France, and Spain), the cantons of Switzerland did not encourage emigration to America. The wholesale migration of Swiss to the new world was seen as a potential drain on the countries’ military and economic infrastructure (there were 4 leagues at the time roughly corresponding to the language districts of modern Switzerland). Of course, there were the Auslanderin (others or foreigners) that many wished to rid themselves so petitions were made to Queen Anne (Habsburg), proposing a Swiss settlement in Pennsylvania or Virginia of the homeless (Landsassen), as well as Baptists, Anabaptists, or Mennonites (Wiedertaufer or Tiiufer). It’s pretty easy to see where the Swiss Americans came on the issue of established national religion. But there is more…
Since the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1291, the Swiss preserved their independence by defeating the invasions of the great monarchies of Europe. A poor country, her militia armies of all able-bodied men armed with pike and halberd prevailed against far-larger standing armies equipped with armor and horse. On the eve of the American Revolution, John Zubly — a Swiss-born pastor, planter, and delegate from Georgia to the Continental Congress in 1775 — published The Law of Liberty: A Sermon on American Affairs (1775). A native of St. Gallen (near Zurich), Zubly emigrated to America, where he was elected to the Continental Congress as a delegate from Georgia and became a spokesman for American rights. Zubly denounced “all those who stand up for unlimited passive obedience and non-resistance.” In this sermon he recounts the Struggles of the Swiss for liberty and compares America’s resistance against Britain with Switzerland’s historic struggles against Austria. Noting that “liberty, which is the birthright of man, is still confined to a few small parts of our earth.”
He goes on to retell the familiar saga of William Tell. Governor Grisler of Uri, an Austrian, “placed a hat on a pole at Altdorff, and gave strict orders, that everyone should pay that hat the same honor as if he were present himself.” When Tell repeatedly passed without taking off his hat, he was condemned to shoot an apple off the head of his six-year old son at 120 yards (an impossible distance for a crossbow!). The alternative was death to both father and son. When Tell succeeded, Grisler asked why he had another arrow in his quiver. Tell responded that had he injured his child, “he was determined to send the next arrow to the heart of the tyrannical governor.”
There is also the story of Emer de Vattel. Swiss by birth but mostly employed in the Holy Roman Empire, he was an authority on the “law of nations,” the 18th-century term for international law. Vattel’s ideas came out of his mountainous homeland, a multilingual confederation of towns and duchies surrounded by bigger and stronger states. His desire to preserve Swiss liberties led him to embrace the treaties and borders that made Europe a patchwork of different nations — a larger version of Switzerland, in some respects.
The idea of keeping a balance of power was nothing new. But Vattel rejected the corollary assumption that the world was a jungle where only the strong deserved to survive. According to Vattel, people were made to join for safety and happiness. Society was their natural habitat. And in the more enlightened age he saw around him, where violence and tyranny seemed to be waning, modern nations made up a “great society” in which every country, like every man, was “naturally equal.”
In 1775, Benjamin Franklin turned to Vattel’s book as a kind of beginner’s guide for countries. He even secured a copy for the Continental Congress, reporting in December that it was “continually in the hands of the members” as they scrambled to set up a working government. Jefferson almost certainly consulted it while drafting the Declaration in June of 1776; some of its most famous lines paraphrase Vattel – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
Americans of the early republic read Vattel because they wanted to believe in the world he described: a society of nations, not a Hobbesian jungle. They embraced international law as a duty and privilege of nationhood. In a republic, one of the first Supreme Court justices opined in 1790, “the law of nations is the law of the people.”