When Ticino Europe Learned Revolution

The second French revolution took place at the end of July 1830. The big bourgeoisie then took over the reins of the kingdom. But we often forget that the Liberal Revolution of 1830 first crackled in Ticino.

This content was published on May 05, 2022 – 4:00 PM

When Parisians take to the streets against the conservative regime, Ticino takes the lead in history for a month. The liberals imposed the principle of political transparency at the cantonal level, as well as representative democracy, with a parliament elected by men and a government appointed indirectly.

Series: “The Houses of Swiss Democracy”

This multi-episode series is tailor-made for the expert Claude Longchamp. The latter tells the places where important events took place.

Claude Longchamp is the founder of the research institute gfs.bern and is one of the most recognized political analysts in Switzerland. He is also a historian. He puts his knowledge to good use by offering popular historical tours of Bern and other sites for many years.

“Longchamp brings democracy to life,” headlined a journalist in his report on a tour led by the Swiss historian.

This multimedia series, produced exclusively for SWI swissinfo.ch, does not focus on cities, but on important places.

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Other principles then introduced in Ticino: the constitutional referendum and freedom of the press. A big step towards democracy!

The engine of the Ticino revolution is a liberal movement centered around the teacher Stefano Franscini. The latter denounces the delay of his canton in many publications and presents his proposals. In 1848, the revolutionary was rewarded for his struggle. He becomes one of the seven federal councilors who make up the first state government – and thus the first member of the Swiss government from the south of the Alps.


Claude Longchamp in the port of Lugano, the second democratic hotspot in our series. The peaceful and idyllic backdrop of Lake Lugano belies the fact that Ticino’s pioneering role in ushering in democracy in the 19th century has been fraught with bitter debate. swissinfo.ch / Carlo Pisani

Thanks to Franscini, Ticino opens the list of cantons with a liberal constitution. From 1831, the majority of his colleagues did the same. Switzerland was then a confederation of 22 cantons that would later be organized among themselves in a federalist way.

But within the cantons, the aristocratic regimes based on a few old families are abolished and the privileges of the cities are taken away. Ten cantons refuse, including the cantons that organize the traditional Landsgemeinde.

This period between 1830 and 1848 is described by the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland as the “breakthrough of democracy”. A process that is not free from counterproductive effects. At that time, only 20 to 25% of the population in the Swiss cantons had the right to vote.

In Great Britain or France, this figure does not reach two percent. It is clear that the Swiss cantons are European pioneers in the composition of parliament through popular election.

Too early for the federal state

But the breakthrough to a supra-cantonal democratic state failed. As early as 1832, the Bundestag sought a constitution that suited a modern form of government. A liberal, democratic and federalist state.

The Geneva lawyer Pellegrino Rossi proposes both the free movement of persons and goods and the freedom of establishment between the cantons. Customs duties, mail, currency, measures and weights must remain centralized. In concrete terms, the proposal models a supra-cantonal internal market.

From an institutional point of view, Pellegrino Rossi envisions a parliament that would be transformed into a parliament, which would decide according to the free will of the majority of its members, all men. The government is entrusted to a federal council of five members, headed by a Landammann. The Geneva also plans to create a federal court.

But the plan to create the new state is between a rock and a hard place. Federalists and centralists are skeptical for various reasons, but in the end they are all against it. Rossi’s plan is buried when Lucerne rejects the idea of ​​becoming the new capital in a cantonal referendum.

The power of ideologies

But the ideological foundations are there and have persisted to this day.

At that time, the conservatives to defend the regimes of the Congress of Vienna of 1815. The required separation of church and state means to them that religious educational institutions are protected from state intervention.

The radicals diametrically opposed to them with their secular democratic state. In their view, state power always emanates from the people. They advocate active and passive suffrage for young people and nationals of other cantons – but only for men.

Between the two we find the liberals† They emphasize the rule of law and individual freedom. Entrepreneurs must help the economy move forward. And it is through school education that society moves forward.

The state before and including 1848

Between 1648 and 1798, the Confederation is a loosely structured union of states, made up of 13 sovereign entities, whose cohesion is ensured by a Diet. Neutrality takes precedence in foreign policy.

From 1798 to 1803, the Swiss Republic is a unitary state. In 1803 we move to a state of 19 cantons.

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna introduced the Confederation of 22 cantons and imposes its neutrality. She has no right to join Austria or France.

In 1848 themodern federal state was created and is still current. Neutrality remains.

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These different worldviews influence people’s views on democracy:

Liberals see themselves as a elite which should confirm the cantonal elections, but which should not be restricted.

Conservatives are calling for a municipal vet be able to describe the interventions of the canton on the municipalities.

The Radicals are committed to a legislative referendum cover all bills.


Claude Longchamp in front of the courtyard of the “Municipio”, the town hall of Lugano. swissinfo.ch / Carlo Pisani

In 1831, Saint-Gall concretized this approach with the instrument of the veto. Every decision of parliament is subject to the approval of a committee that decides what is fair – a precursor to the current referendum. The goal is to maintain the influence of the Catholic Church.

In the canton of Vaud, on the other hand, the right of the people to decide laws was seriously discussed in 1845 – a precursor to the initiative.

Democracy, but also people’s rights such as the referendum and the initiative thus have their origin in the period of liberal opening, inspired by the cantons.

The monastic war escalates

Unsurprisingly, the issue of monasteries is turning into a knot of disagreement within young democracies. In 1834 many regenerated cantons demanded the dissolution of monasteries. In 1841, the federal government tried to overturn these decisions.

The conflict escalates. Radicals want to forcibly overthrow Lucerne’s conservative Catholic government through a paramilitary expedition of young men. In a second attempt, incendiary politicians and officers are also on board. But both companies fail.

A political and military coalition between conservative cantons (Sonderbund), hitherto kept secret, is stale. Zurich goes on the attack and demands that they renounce this alliance. A weak liberal-radical majority in the Reichstag subsequently legitimized the civil war.

The Last Civil War in Switzerland

From November 4, 1847, arms speak. The Confederate army – nearly 100,000 men under General Guillaume-Henri Dufour – targeted the centers of conservative Catholic resistance. Freiburg capitulates, Lucerne fights.

After 25 days of conflict and 150 deaths, the cantons of Sonderbund laid down their arms. All their constitutions are being revised in the light of liberalism – the way is clear for the federal state.

In this conflict, three conservative European powers provided political-diplomatic and logistical support to the Sonderbund forces: Austria, Prussia and Russia. Britain supported progressive forces politically and diplomatically.

the proportional vote

In the canton of Ticino, where it all began, the passionate struggle for democracy lasted until the 1890s, half a century later. On the way to a stable state, several governments fall, people die in elections and the Confederacy has to intervene five times. Rust was only real after 1891 with the introduction of a proportional voting system for parliament and government. A first in Switzerland.

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