John Adams: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 15

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

Aristocratical Republics: SWISS CANTON OF ZURICH

My dear Sir,

THE canton of Zurich contains one hundred and fifty thousand souls, upon an area of forty miles by thirty, abounds in corn, wine, and all the ordinary productions of excellent pastures. Literature has been encouraged, and has constantly flourished in this country, from the time of Zuinglius to that of Geiner and Lavater. The inhabitants are industrious, their manufactures considerable, and their commerce extensive.

In the city is a public granary, an admirable resource against scarcity, and a magnificent arsenal well filled with cannon, arms, and ammunition, particularly musquets for thirty thousand men; the armour of the old Swiss warriors, and the bow and arrow with which William Tell shot the apple on the head of his son —

Who with the generous rustics fate,
On Uri’s rock, in close divan,
And wing’d that arrow, sure as fate,
Which fix’d the sacred rights of man.

The sovereign is the city of Zurich. The sovereignty resides in the two burgomasters, in the little council composed of forty-eight members, and the grand council composed of one hundred and sixty-two members; all taken from thirteen tribes, one of which is of the nobles, and the other twelve of citizens.

Although there are twelve thousand souls in the capital, and one hundred and fifty in the canton, there are not more than two thousand citizens. In early times, when the city had no territory round it, or a small one, the citizens were in possession of the government; when they afterwards made additions by conquest or purchase, they still obstinately held this power, and excluded all their new subjects. It is an hundred and fifty years since a new citizen has been admitted: besides electing all the magistrates and holding all offices, they have maintained a monopoly of commerce, and excluded all strangers, and even subjects of the canton, from conducting any in the town. Such are commons, as well as nobles and princes, whenever they have power unchecked in their hands!

There is even in this commercial republic a tribe of nobles, who consider trade as a humiliation.

The legislative authority is vested in the grand council of two hundred and twelve, including the senate.

The senate consists of twenty-four tribunes, and four counsellors chosen by the nobles, to these are added twenty, elected by the sovereign council; making in all, with the two burgomasters, fifty: half of them administer six months, and are then succeeded by the rest. The burgomasters are chosen annually by the sovereign council, and one of them is president of each division of the senate, which has the judicial power, in criminal matters, without appeal, and in civil, with an appeal to the grand council.

The members of the senate are liable to be changed, and there is an annual revision of them, which is a great restraint.

The state is not only out of debt, but saves money every year, against any emergency. By this fund they supported a war in 1712, without any additional taxes. There is not a carriage in the town, except it be of a stranger.

Zurich has great influence in the general diet, which she derives more from her reputation for integrity, and original Swiss independence of spirit, than from her power.

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States

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