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The Federal Charter from early August 1291 is Switzerland's oldest constitutional document. In this ancient pact, the valley communities of Central Switzerland, Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden pledged to help each other resist any threat of violence or injustice. Foreign judges were not to be tolerated, while the existing power balance remained intact. Procedures for criminal and civil cases and for disputes among the signatories were also laid down.
This Federal Charter has been officially regarded as the founding document of the Swiss Confederation only since the end of the 19th century. The Federal Council was primarily responsible for this, as, taking its lead from the charter itself, it organised national jubilee celebrations in 1891 and then in 1899 made 1 August the National Day of the Swiss Confederation.
Underlying this was the conviction that the democratic Federal State of 1848 represented a continuation of the Old Swiss Confederacy that existed before 1798, and that the historical nucleus of this Confederacy lay in the Alpine regions of Central Switzerland. This belief was linked to the legend that a group of freedom-loving men had sworn an oath of confederate alliance on the Rütli meadow above Lake Lucerne. This view of history has since been instilled in every Swiss schoolchild as a compulsory element of the curriculum.
Invoking the Federal Charter as the most venerable version of the Swiss Constitution and thus establishing a centuries-old, binding tradition of a society sworn to uphold freedom helped to cement national cohesion in the democratic Federal State. The pressure of political developments after 1930 led to the Federal Charter being regarded as more than simply the basis for a defensive alliance, but as a resolute response to the threat posed by foreign powers.
Thus, through the practical application of this lesson in history, the public came to perceive this ostensibly unprepossessing document with its symbolic character as a key element of Swiss historical and political culture in general. This also led to the Federal Charter Archive being established in Schwyz simply in order to house the Federal Charter. The Archive, in 1999 renamed the Museum of Swiss Charters, was opened as a national memorial in a ceremony in 1936.
The Old Swiss Confederacy, however, was far less significant in the late middle ages, and it was not unique either. It constituted a peaceful alliance of a type also found elsewhere at the time. The Charter certainly did not amount to a revolutionary act of self-determination by the peasantry, but rather secured the status quo in the interests of the local elites.
For centuries, this alliance of the valleys of Central Switzerland from 1291 received practically no mention, the document itself only being rediscovered in 1758 in the Schwyz archives. In the constitutional tradition of the Old Confederacy prior to 1798, the alliance of 1291, in contrast to the Federal Charter of 1315 (Pact of Brunnen), played no role. Nor is there any indication that it served as a model for subsequent federal alliances. Unanswerable questions relating to its historical provenance and interpretation also suggest that the contemporary importance of this document in more recent times has been considerably overestimated.
An appropriate assessment of the historical circumstances does not detract from the enormous cultural value of this prominent document, which is still referred to regularly in present day political debates.
Summary of the Latin text
For the common good and proper establishment of peace, the following rules are agreed :
1. In view of the troubled circumstances of this time, the people and communities of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden promise to assist each other by every means possible against one and all who may inflict on them violence or injustice within their valleys and without.
2. Each community shall help the other with every counsel and favour and at its own expense in the event of any assault on persons or goods within and without the valleys and to this end have sworn a solemn oath to uphold this agreement in confirmation and renewal of a more ancient accord.
3. Every man shall continue to serve his overlord to the best of his abilities.
4. The office of judge may not be obtained for any price and may only be exercised by those who are natives or resident with us.
5. Any dispute amongst the Confederates shall be settled by the most prudent amongst us, whose decision shall be defended by all.
6. Those who commit murder shall themselves be put to death. A murderer who flees may never return. Those who protect him shall themselves be banished from the valley until they are recalled by the Confederates.
7. Those who maliciously injure others by fire shall lose their rights as fellow countrymen, and anyone who protects and defends such an evil-doer shall be held liable for the damage done.
8. Any man who robs a Confederate or injures him in any way shall be held liable to the extent of his property in the valleys.
9. The property of debtors or sureties may only be seized with the permission of a judge
10. Every man shall obey his judge and must if need be indicate the judge in the valley before whom he must appear.
11. Any man who rebels against a verdict and thereby injures a Confederate shall be compelled by all other Confederates to make good the damage done.
12. War or discord amongst the Confederates shall be settled by an arbiter and if any party fails to accept the decision or fails to make good the damage, the Confederates are bound to defend the other party.
13. These rules for the common good shall endure forever.
Done with the seals of the three aforementioned communities and valleys at the beginning of August 1291.
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