“The Misfortunes of Another Republic”: Ferdinand Lecomte and the Swiss Sonderbund War

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

“Sonderbund War, Switzerland, 1847: Scene from the Battle of Airolo,” Wikimedia Commons.
“Sonderbund War, Switzerland, 1847: Scene from the Battle of Airolo,” Wikimedia Commons.

Switzerland is, and was, not a state comparable to many others in Europe—especially most of the other states who observed the Civil War. Unlike states such as France, Prussia, and Great Britain, Switzerland was not a major world power in 1861, nor even a monarchy as most of Europe was. A small landlocked mountain nation about half the size of the state of South Carolina, Switzerland had not recognized the rule of any monarch since the late Middle Ages. It maintained a loosely bound, oligarchic government until the French Revolution, when it was toppled by revolutionary troops in 1798. By 1813, a state in the older model had been restored, though one that maintained many centralized and nationalized aspects of the revolutionary regime. Liberal fervor, like that which was spreading through all through Europe in the nineteenth century, took root among the Swiss in the following decades, resulting in numerous democratic government reforms in the 1830s. By 1847, the forces of centralizing liberalization and the old conservative order came to a head, resulting in Switzerland’s very own civil war: the Sonderbund War. While it only lasted for about a month, the war was waged by several Catholic cantons eager to roll back reforms and return power to a cantonal level.

Sound familiar, Civil Warriors? One can perhaps hear the short-lived army of Swiss rebels clamoring on about “Cantons’ Rights!”

Naturally, the Swiss state won, and following its victory, the government was radically overhauled, resulting in the implementation of the modern Swiss constitution as well as the near-unquestioned governmental power of the Radical Party—the party that had lead the resistance to the Sonderbund alliance, which was unified by their support of the new unified state, liberal institutions, and a free economy.

Again, sound familiar?

This background gives us important context when considering the reactions of Switzerland and the Swiss to the Civil War, as their recent historical experience had been far different than that of most other Europeans.

Ferdinand Lecomte – our Swiss observer to the Civil War, recall – had been active in seeking government reform as a young man, served as an officer loyal to the Swiss government during the Sonderbund War, and was a card-carrying member of the Radical Party. In our context of the Civil War, Lecomte thus had every reason to sympathize with the North and be revolted by the South: in every comparable analogy between the two wars, Lecomte followed the Northern model.

Having labeled the Southern Democratic Party “oligarchic” in his observations, it thus seems very likely that he viewed the Democrats and their arguments of states’ rights the way he viewed conservatives and reactionaries in his own home state: burdens to the development that he sought. This is to say nothing as well in respect to his view on slavery: Lecomte was a committed abolitionist. His insistence on the illegality and immorality of the South’s secession is understood in the context of the Swiss Sonderbund War, which he had vigorously opposed. Secession and the attempted domination of governance by a vocal, conservative minority had threatened to tear Switzerland apart less than twenty years earlier. His view of secession as an “illegality” that was “contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Federal Constitution, to the spirit of every constitution, and every organization of political society whatever” was not born only out of support for the Union’s cause; this was a principle that Lecomte had to come to terms with fighting for his nation’s own Union (if ironically known as a Confederation). “The Union,” Lecomte states in regards to the Civil War, “is an entirety, an edifice which has been in course of erection for a long period, and not a heap of pebble stones thrown pell-mell the one beside the other. If one of the fractions of this edifice, if a single panel of the wall, is withdrawn, it is not only the removal of that panel, which is produced, but the falling of the whole.” Lecomte could easily be speaking of his own nation as well.

These same conclusions can be extended to Switzerland’s interest as a whole in the Civil War—why they would decide to send Lecomte in the first place. To the Confederation’s Radical government, the American Civil War was perhaps a second validation of their own principles: that unity built around liberal governance was a stronger political force than the forces of old, localized conservatism. Additionally, a second factor must be stressed: that both states were republics: as Lecomte says it his discourse, “it could not be a matter of indifference to republicans that I should speak to them of the misfortunes of another republic.” Based on further commentary by Lecomte, this status was a significant bond between the two states. He speaks of the United States in reverent terms, praising is growth as a nation in territory and population, as well as economics, industry, and military influence. These are all the accomplishments of the United States as a union, he argues—not any one individual part. Speaking of the character of the American, Lecomte describes how “blacksmiths there become Presidents of the republic; printers’ laborers become ministers; carpenters and boys of the coffee-house, become senators and generals, and good generals too. The poor fugitive, embarked from Europe with his wallet and love of liberty as his whole fortune, finds there a sure asylum.” Americans themselves, according to Lecomte, are “free of heart; they are firm of character; they are good parents; they are proud citizens; they have a consciousness of their republican dignity; they are pious; they are laborious; and to them it belongs more than to any others to say, with our beautiful national song: ‘We have no master but God.’ ” Perhaps it is this vision of America that Lecomte and the Radicals so sought to emulate in Switzerland itself—at the very least, it was one that they clearly believed afforded their highest respects and sympathies.

Lecomte had biting words for the rest of the Europeans, many of whom supported the South. Making his point clear, Lecomte attributed widespread sympathies to the South in Europe because “Europe, covered for the most part with oligarchic and despotic institutions, hates democracies in general, and the great American Republic in particular.” He goes on to call out the hypocrisy of Southern support by European nations that had long abolished slavery on their own soil, as well as reminding readers of the pan-European habit of crushing rebellions swiftly and brutally, wherever they began, despite the fact that now, in America, they were content to watch it play out. Lecomte’s point does seem to be reasonable—the success of the United States, after all, threated the legitimacy of monarchies.

While all of this hardly affects the story of the Civil War itself, it’s often worth asking “why” to historical questions that otherwise remain mysterious. Unveiling Lecomte and Switzerland’s recent background, we uncover a fine example of how historical events, miles and years apart, play into each other and cross paths—here, the Sonderbund War and the American Civil War. History and historical events, after all, do not exist in neat, tidy nutshells.

And, if a bit of casual editorializing can be permitted, sometimes it’s just really cool. After slogging through the propaganda-heavy account of Girard and the Southern hero-worship of Scheibert, Lecomte’s no-holds-barred verbal attacks on the hypocrisy of Europe and failings of the South is, and was for me, a refreshing change.


Sources:

Church, Clive H. and Randolph C. Head. A Concise History of Switzerland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Lecomte, Ferdinand. The War in the United States: Report to the Swiss Military Department. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1863.

Lecomte, Guy. “Lecomte, Ferdinand.” Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. Last modified March 18, 2009. Accessed March 3, 2015. http://www.hls-dhs-dss.ch/textes/f/F23964.php.

Luck, James Murrary. A History of Switzerland: The First 100,000 Years: Before the Beginnings to the Days of the Present. Palo Alto, California: Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship, Inc., 1985.

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