John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America, Letter 11

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Aristocratical Republics: SWISS CANTON OF BERNE

My dear Sir,

IT is scarcely possible to believe that Mr. Turgot, by collecting all authority into one center, could have intended an aristocratical assembly. He must have meant, however, a simple form of government of some kind or other; and there are but three kinds of simple forms, democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. As we have gone through most, if not all, the governments in Europe in which the people have any share; it will throw much light upon our subject if we proceed to the aristocracies and oligarchies; for we shall find all these under a necessity of establishing orders, checks, and balances, as much as the democracies. As the people have been always necessitated to establish monarchical and aristocratical powers, to check themselves from rushing into anarchy; so have aristocratical bodies ever been obliged to contrive a number of divisions of their powers to check themselves from running into oligarchy.

The canton of Berne has no other sovereign than the single city of Berne. The sovereignty resides in the grand council, which has the legislative power, and the power of making peace, war, and alliances, and is composed of two hundred counselors and ninety-nine assessors, the election of whom is made, by the seizeniers and the senate, from the citizens, from whom they are supposed virtually to derive their power; but a general assembly of the citizens is never called together, on any occasion, or for any purpose, not even to lay taxes, nor to make alliances or war. To be eligible into the grand council, one must be a citizen of Berne, member of one of the societies or tribes, and at least in the thirtieth year of his age.

The executive power is delegated by the grand council to the senate or little council, which is composed of twenty-seven persons, including the two avoyers or chiefs of the republic, the two treasurers of the German country, and of the pays de Vaud, and the four bannerets or commanders of the militia, taken from the four first tribes, for the four districts of the city. Vacancies in this senate are filled up by a complicated mixture of ballot and lot: twenty-six balls, three of which are gold, are drawn out of a box by the several senators; those who draw the golden ones nominate three electors out of the little council; in the same manner, seven members are designated from the grand council, who nominate seven electors from their body; these ten nominate ten candidates to be voted for in the grand council: the four of these who have the most votes, draw each of them a ball out of a box, which has in it two of gold and two of silver; the two who draw the gold arc voted for in the grand council, and he who has the most votes is chosen, provided he be married, and has been ten years in the grand council.

Vacancies in the grand council are filled up, at certain periods of about ten years, and two new members are appointed by each avoyer, one by each seizenier and senator, and two or three others by other officers of state: if there are more vacancies, they are filled by the election of the seizeniers and senators.

The seizeniers, who have this elective power, are drawn by lot from among those members of the grand council who have held the office of bailiff’s, and who have finished the term of their administration. The bannerets and seizeniers have, by the constitution, an authority, for three days in Easter, resembling that of the censors in ancient Rome, and may deprive any member of cither council of his place; but, as their sentence must be confirmed by the great council, they never exercise their power. There are six noble families at Berne, who enjoy the precedence of all the other senators, although more ancient members, and have rank immediately after the bannerets.

The principal magistrates are, the two avoyers, who hold their offices for life; the two treasurers, who continue for six years; and the four bannerets, who remain only four. The avoyers officiate alternately a year; and the reigning avoyer, although he presides in council, in an elevated seat under a canopy, and has the public seal before him, has no vote except in cases of equal divisions, and never gives his opinion unless it is required. The avoyer, out of office, is the first senator and president of the secret council.

The secret council is composed of the avoyer out of office, the four bannerets, the two treasurers, and two other secret counsellors taken from the senate. In this body all affairs that require secrecy, and some of these are of great importance, are debated and determined.

The grand council assembles and deliberates by its own authority at stated times, and super-intends all affairs, although the most important are delegated generally to the senate. The whole administration is celebrated for its uncommon moderation, precision, and dispatch.

There are seventy-two bailiwicks, distributed in four classes, comprehending a country of sixty leagues in length, or a third part of all Switzerland, subject to this city. The bailiffs are appointed by lot from the grand council. They were formerly chosen, but this method rendering all the members dependent upon a few, who had the most influence, it had too strong a tendency to an oligarchy. The bailiwicks are the most profitable places, and are filled from the grand council. The bailiffs live in much splendor, and are able to lay up two or three thousand pounds sterling a year, besides discharging all their expenses. They represent the sovereign authority, put the laws in execution, collect the revenues, ad as judges in civil and criminal causes; but an appeal lies to Berne, in civil causes to the courts of justice, and in criminal to the senate: but as the judges on appeal are persons who either have been or expect to be bailiffs, there is great reason to be apprehensive of partiality.

There is no standing army, but every male of sixteen is enrolled in the militia, and obliged to provide himself an uniform, a musket, powder and ball; and no peasant is allowed to marry, without producing his arms and uniform. The arms are inspected every year, and the men exercised. There are arsenals of arms at Berne, and in every bailiwick, sufficient for the militia of the district, and a sum of money for three months pay. The dragoons are chosen from the substantial farmers, who are obliged to provide their own horses and accoutrements. There is a council of war, of which the avoyer out of place is president, in peace; in war, a general is appointed to command all the forces of the state.

There is a political seminary for the youth, called the exterior state, which is a miniature of the whole government. The young men assemble and go through all the forms; they have their grand council, senate, avoyers, treasurers, bannerets, seizeniers, &c.: the post of avoyer is fought with great assiduity. They debate upon political subjects, and thus improve their talents by exercise, and became more capable of serving the public in future life.

The nobility in this country are haughty, and much averse to mixing in company, or any familiar conversation with the common people: the commons are taught to believe the nobles superiors, whole right it is to rule; and they believe their teachers, and are very willing to be governed.

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