Not everyone benefited from the economic and social developments of the 18th century. This led to tensions, riots and the formation of the Helvetic Society.

In the 18th century, given the prevailing centrally-governed monarchies in Europe, the old Confederation resembled a holdover from the late Middle Ages, and was not a state in the modern sense. Rather, it consisted of a network of small sovereign states joined together in a loose confederation. At the same time, not all areas of Switzerland were equally included in this federation.
The federation’s only joint institution was the Diet, in which each fully-entitled area had two representatives and each Associated Place had one. Its main tasks were the management of the common lordships, foreign policy and defence. However, its power was very limited and voting decisions, which required unanimity, were only seldom possible because the representatives received their instructions from the areas they represented.
In various parts of Switzerland, the strengthening of state power by the French model of absolutism produced three types of constitution that blended aristocratic forms and divine right with the republican traditions:

  • In the cities of Bern, Solothurn, Fribourg and Lucerne the patriciate, the rule by a few long-established families;
  • the guild aristocracy in Zurich, Basel and Schaffhausen; this limited the oligarchy of the old established families through the influence of the guilds; < / li >
  • and in the rural communities there also developed a common aristocracy of the old landed aristocracy and the families that had come into wealth and nobility through mercenary service.                                                                                                                                                         
During the 18th century, absolutist tendencies in the exercise of power resulted in a number of uprisings in the affected subject territories, which, however, up until 1798 were all defeated with the utmost severity.

Opposition to existing power structures

One of the most famous resistance fighters was the Vaudois lawyer and officer Major Davel (1670-1723). In 1723 he submitted to the authorities in Lausanne a manifesto in which he demanded independence from the canton of Bern and the accession of Vaud as the 14th full member of the Confederation. In response to this demand, Davel was arrested and executed, which attracted no great attention at the time. It was only in the middle of the 19th century that Davel was considered as a hero in Vaud.

The Helvetic Society

By their defense of the existing or imaginary Swiss character, the contemporary poets and scholars were for the first time promoting a Swiss national consciousness. In 1761/62, these patriotic and enlightened currents of thought became manifest in the establishment of the Helvetic Society.
The Helvetic Society’s membership included Protestant and Roman Catholic thinkers from around the country. The Helvetic Society became the centre of the new national self-consciousness. In the spirit of the times, this most important Switzerland-wide association (societal movement) promoted cross-boundary friendship, the development of a national consciousness and cohesion among Swiss. The republican virtues were to be further developed towards freedom, equality and the overcoming of sectarianism (religious tolerance). The spiritual and moral education of the individual as well as the economic livelihoods of the population were to be improved. This was the origin of the idea behind the separation of the denominations and of the trans-cantonal concept of Switzerland.
In addition to the Helvetic Society, various debating clubs, reading circles and other associations emerged. These promoted and spread the subversive ideas of thinkers such as Diderot ("No man has received from nature the right to give orders to others"), Voltaire and Rousseau ("Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains").
In the second half of the 18th century, literature also discovered the topic of the common heroic past before Marignano, which subsequently, as a "tale of slaughter", defined the Swiss view of history up to the late 20th century. By referring back to the common idealised past it was possible to avoid discussing the difficult times of religious tensions.

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