John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 13

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Aristocratical Republics: SWISS CANTON OF SOLEURE

My dear Sir,

THE canton of Soleure, seven leagues in breadth and twelve in length, contains fifty thousand souls, and the Patrician families are in quiet possession of all the public offices. The sovereign is the city of Soleure; and the sovereignty resides in the grand council, consisting of two avoyers, who preside alternately, and whose election depends upon the council, and all the citizens in general, who are divided into eleven tribes; of twenty-three of the thirty-three senators taken from the tribes, each of which furnishes three; and of sixty-six members who represent the citizens, and are taken also from the tribes in equal numbers, viz. six from each tribe.

The senate is composed of the two avoyers, and the thirty-three senators taken from the tribes, making thirty-five in all, who are called the little council, conduct the affairs of state, and judge causes civil and criminal. The two councils make together the number of one hundred, without computing the avoyer in office, who presides in chief. This body, named the grand council, makes laws and statutes; treats of alliances, peace and war; decides appeals in the last resort; elects the treasurer, the fourth in rank in the state, and the exterior bailiffs. The thirty-three senators consist of eleven alt-raths or senior counsellors, and twenty-two yunk-raths or juniors. Upon the removal by death of one of the alt-raths, the eldest of the yunk-raths succeeds him, and this vacancy is filled, out of the great council, by election of the eleven alt-raths. From among the alt-raths, the two avoyers, the banneret, and the treasurer, the four principal magistrates of the commonwealth, are chosen; and on the death of an avoyer, the banneret succeeds to his place, after having gone through the formality of a nomination by the general assembly of citizens. Vacancies in the grand council are supplied by the alt-raths, from the same tribe to which the deceased member belonged. There is an annual meeting of the whole body of the citizens, in which the avoyers and banneret are confirmed in their places: the senior and junior counsellors at the same time mutually confirm each other. All these confirmations are matters of course, and mere form. All other public employments are disposed of by the senate.

The revenues of the public, and salaries of offices, are very considerable, and afford the few distinguished families very profitable emoluments. The grand sautier is annually elected by all the citizens. There are several tribunals and chambers: the secret council, formed of the two avoyers, the banneret, the treasurer, the most ancient of the senators of the first order or alt-raths, the secretary of state, and attorney-general: the council of war: the council of justice, which is composed of six members of the little council, and eleven members of the grand council, one of whom is furnished by each tribe; the grand sautier presides in it, instead of the avoyer in office: the consistory, and the chamber of orphans. This canton has a large country subject to it, comprehending eleven bailiwicks.

The soil is extremely fertile, yet there is a want of hands for agriculture, and population decreases, although commodiously situated for commerce, they have none. These circumstances are enough to shew the blessings of a government by a few noble families. They shew another thing, still more curious; to wit, the consequences of mixing the nobles and commons together. The latter have here been induced to reduce their own constitutional share in the government to a mere form, and complaisantly to resign all the substance into the hands of those whom they think their natural superiors: and this will eternally happen, sooner or later, in every country, in any degree considerable for extent, numbers, or wealth, where the whole legislative and executive power are in one assembly, or even in two, if they have not a third power to balance them.

Let us by no means omit, that there is a grand arsenal at Soleure, as there is at Berne, well stored with arms in proportion to the number of inhabitants in the canton, and ornamented with the trophies of the valour of their ancestors.

Nor should it be forgotten, that a defensive alliance has subsisted between France and several of these cantons, for more than a century, to the great advantage of both. These republicans have found in that monarchy a steady, faithful, and generous friend. In 1777 the alliance was renewed in this city of Soleure, where the French ambassador resides; and extended to all the cantons. In the former treaty an article was inserted, that if any dissensions should arise between the cantons, his majesty should, at the request of one of the parties, interpose his mediation by all gentle means to bring about a reconciliation: but if these should fail, he should compel the aggressor to fulfil the treaties between the cantons and their allies. As this article was manifestly incompatible with that independence which republicans ought to value above all things, it has been wisely omitted in the new treaty; and it would have become the dignity of the Swiss character to have renounced equally those pensions, which are called Argents de Paix et d’Alliance, as inconsistent not only with a republican spirit, but with that equality which ought to be the foundation of an alliance.