John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 12

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Aristocratical Republics: SWISS CANTON OF FRIBOURG

My dear Sir,

THE canton of Fribourg is aristocratical, not having more than forty families, who can have any part in the government. These all live very nobly; that is to say, without commerce, manufactures, or trades.

The sovereignty and legislative authority resides in the council of two hundred persons, composed of the two avoyers, who are for life; twenty-two counselors; four bannerets; sixty other counselors, from whom the twenty-four who compose the senate, in which resides the executive power, are taken when they are to be replaced; and one hundred and twelve others, whom they call the grand senate of two hundred.

The two avoyers are elected by the plurality of suffrages of all the citizens. They hold their offices for life, and preside alternately a year. The twenty-two counselors are also for life, and are designated by lot, as well as the bannerets, whose charges continue but three years. The sixty also are nominated by lot, and are drawn from the hundred and twelve, called the two hundred. There last come forward in the state by the presentation and nomination of the secret chamber, composed of twenty-four besides the bannerets, who are the chiefs of it. This chamber, which is sovereign, besides the right of nomination to the state, has alone that of correction, and of proposing regulations.

The two avoyers, the twenty-two counselors, and the four bannerets, form the little senate, which hears and determines civil causes, and assembles every day.

Get your copy of John Adams: Revolutionary Writings, 1755-1775 (Library of America, No. 213)

The affairs of state are carried before the grand senate of two hundred.

The tribes are corporations of tradesmen, who have no part in government, and who assemble in their abbays, only for the affairs of their occupations, and all their statutes are approved or rejected by the senate.

There are thirty-one bailiwicks subject to this canton. The method of determining the members of the little senate and secret council is another check. The names of the candidates in nomination are placed in a box, containing as many partitions as there are persons: the ballots are thrown into this box by the electors, without knowing how the names are placed; and the candidate whose name occupies the division, which receives by accident the most ballots, has the lot. This is to guard against the influence of families; for, among those few families from which alone any candidate can be taken, some have more influence than others. The canton contains sixty-six thousand souls. Its land produces good pasture, some corn, and little wine; it has no commerce, and not much literature. It has more troops in foreign service than any other canton in proportion. As the rivers and lakes have a direct communication with the sea, they might have a valuable commerce; but as none of the persons concerned in government can be merchants, no commerce can ever be in fashion, except that of their noble blood to foreign sovereigns. It is no doubt much to the honor of their fidelity and valor to be chosen so generally to be the life-guards of princes; but whether they can vindicate such a traffic, upon principles of justice, humanity, or policy, or from the imputation of a more mercenary spirit than that of ordinary commerce, is for them to consider. The conservation of the oligarchy is entirely owing however to this custom: for a youthful fiery nobility, at home in idleness, would necessarily become ambitious of popularity, and either procure, by intrigues and insurrections, a greater share of importance to the people, or set up one of the greatest genius and enterprise among them for a despot. In foreign service they exhaust their restless years, and return, after the deaths of their fathers, fatigued with dissipation, to enjoy their honous and estates; to support those laws which are so partial to their wishes; and to re-assume the manly simplicity of manners of their native country.


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