John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 14

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Aristocratical Republics: SWISS CANTON OF LUCERNE

My dear Sir,

THE canton of Lucerne comprehends a country of sixteen leagues long and eight wide, containing fifteen bailiwicks, besides several cities, abbays, monasteries, seigniories, &c. The inhabitants are almost wholly engaged in agriculture, and the exportation of their produce. Their commerce might be greatly augmented, as the river Reuss issues from the lake, panes through the town, and falls into the Rhine.

The city contains less than three thousand fouls, has no manufactures, little trade, and no encouragement for learning: yet the sovereign is this single city, and the sovereignty resides in the little and great council, having for chiefs two avoyers, who are alternately regents. There are five hundred citizens in the town, from whom a council of one hundred are chosen, who are nominally the sovereignty; out of this body are formed the two divisions, the little council, senate, or council of state, consisting of thirty-six members, divided into two equal parts of eighteen each, one of which makes choice of the other every half year. The whole power is actually exercised by this body, the two divisions of which administer the government by turns. They are subject to no controul, are neither confirmed by the sovereign council, nor by the citizens; the division which retires confirming that which comes in. As the vacancies in the senate are filled up by themselves, all power is in possession of a few Patrician families. The son succeeds the father, and the brother his brother.

The grand council consists of sixty-four persons, taken from the citizens, who are said to have their privileges; but it is hard to guess what they are, as the elections are made by the little and great council conjointly.

The administration, the police, the finances, and the whole executive power, is in the senate, which is constantly sitting.

The grand council is assembled only upon particular occasions, for the purpose of legislation. The senate has cognizance of criminal causes, but in capital cases the grand council is convoked to pronounce sentence: in civil causes an appeal lies from the senate to the grand council; but these appeals can be but mere forms, the same senators being in both courts.

As the senate constitutes above a third of the grand council, choose their own members, confer all employments, have the nomination to ecclesiastical benefices, two thirds of the revenues of the canton belonging to the clergy, their influence must be uncontroulable.

The two avoyers are chosen from the senate by the council of one hundred, and are confirmed annually. The relations of the candidates are excluded from voting: but all such checks against influence and family connections in an oligarchy are futile, as all laws are cyphers. There are also certain chambers of justice and police.

In some few instances, such as declaring war and making peace, forming alliances or imposing taxes, the citizens must be assembled and give their consent, which is one check upon the power of the nobles.