Altdorf and the Landesgemeinde of Uri

LET me say at once that, although the name of Altdorf is indissolubly linked with that of William Tell, the place aroused an interest in me which did not at all depend upon its associations with the famous but now discarded archer. From the very first it gave me the impression of possessing a distinct personality, of ringing, as it were, to a note I had never heard before, and thus challenging my attention to its peculiarities.

No doubt this effect was heightened by the manner in which my visits were made, since on both occasions, when I spent the month of May in Altdorf, I arrived directly from Italy, and so exchanged abruptly the characteristics of two widely differing countries. It was very striking, this sudden transition from the olive to the pine ; from landscapes in which purely Italian colors predominated to hillsides of fresh green, dotted with wooden chalets instead of whitewashed stone houses; to hear the cuckoo in the woods and the inspiring lark rising from the fields instead of the caressing notes of the nightingale ; and to find myself once more in the midst of a people who had at all events a reasonable idea of prix fixe. But even when these differences were forgotten, Altdorf continued to impress me as a thing apart, singularly interesting and not easily understood.

Besides the annual Landesgemeinde, or open-air legislative assembly, held in the environs, the primary object of’ my visits, which I shall describe later in this article, there was a great deal in the ordinary village life to stimulate thought, and at times I found myself not a little puzzled to account for certain apparent contradictions and inconsistencies which confronted me as I learned to know the place better.

It is often a source of genuine disappointment to the traveler to find the Swiss mountaineers so different from what he had expected. They are hardy and good-natured, but, speaking more especially of German Switzerland, handsome men and pretty women are very rare. The canton of Uri is no exception to this rule. Many of its inhabitants have been crippled by accidents, not a few are deformed from their birth; they speak one of the harshest dialects in Europe, and have not even a cantonal costume to make them picturesque. Perhaps, if Schiller had actually visited Uri, and had not obtained the necessary information for his play at second hand, his version of the origin of the Swiss Confederation would have been less romantic and more in accordance with the facts. The traveler, I suppose, sets up an imaginary type. Every beauty in nature, he reasons, should somehow be reflected by a corresponding good quality in man; but he forgets that if scenery leaves its traces upon character, so do privation, overwork, and bad food. The truth is, the Swiss are the most practical, matter-of-fact, and commonplace people in the world, and are necessarily rendered so by the hardships with which they are surrounded. If they were what the tourist would like them to be, picturesque, romantically inclined, venturesome for the sake of adventure, they would long ago have been absorbed by the great powers upon their borders, and the mission of Sw itzerland, to provide a neutral territory in the midst of Europe, would never have been fulfilled. Perhaps the national qualities have been best summed up by the Genevese writer, Paul Vaucher, who, in speaking of the early Confederates, calls them “ parfois un peu grossiers, mais toujours intelligents.”

As you approach Altdorf from Flüelen on the Lake of Lucerne by the long, white road, the first houses you reach are large structures of the conventional village type, plain, but evidently the homes of well-to-do people, and some even adorned with family coats of arms. In fact, this street is dedicated to the aristocracy, and formerly went by the name of the Herrengasse, the lane of the lords. You may well be shocked at the application of the word " aristocracy ” to the democratic canton of Uri, in this republic of Switzerland ; nevertheless, though these “lords" no longer bear titles, except, those they may hold temporarily by virtue of their offices in the commonwealth, they occupy a social position absolutely apart from the common peasants. Their children receive a superior education, the sons being usually sent to foreign countries, or at least to other cantons, to perfect themselves, while the daughters bestow the most fastidious attention upon their toilets, and contract matrimonial alliances with the same care in regard to social standing as the nobility of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. At the same time, I saw no evidence that this aristocratic position was in any sense abused in a political manner ; for indeed absolute democracy and the equality of rights are strictly enforced by the constitution of Uri, and one need only attend the Landesgemeinde to appreciate how completely this equality is carried out. There is, furthermore, an historical aspect of the case which will help to explain this modern paradox, an aristocracy within a democracy. When the first settlers moved into the country, — those Alamannian colonists from the surrounding lowlands who doubtless brought with them the germs of the Tell legend,— they were grouped in the various degrees of the feudal state, noblemen, freemen, and serfs, but were also united upon an equal footing in an Association of the Mark, in charge of the common land. They were peers in the administration of this land, but not in social position.

Beyond these fashionable houses is an open square, upon which faces the cozy inn where I stayed, — named, of course, after William Tell; and off on one side the large parish church, built in cheap barocco style, but containing a few objects of interest. One is a Birth of Christ, ascribed to Van Dyck; how justly I could not tell. In support of its authenticity they say that a Count of Beroldingen presented it upon his return from military service in the Netherlands ; and in fact the ancestral castle of this family may be seen from Altdorf, if you look in the direction of Seelisberg. It is a white house upon the green pastures at the foot of the mountain Nieder Bauen. A Burial of Christ is attributed to Caracci, probably with little reason ; and near one of the side doors is a Madonna and Child in relief by Imhof, a sculptor born near the neighboring village of Bürglen, which is also, it will be remembered, the traditional birthplace of William Tell. In his youth Imhof was a goatherd, who used his knife to carve upon any material he could find, as once the boy Giotto used his pencil. Imhof’s Cimabue was a certain Doctor Ebel. who, passing through Altdorf in 1818, heard of the young artist, and sent him first to Stuttgart to study under Dannecker, and then to Rome, where he died in 1869, after having acquired a European reputation, but before he could complete a monument of William Tell for which he was making designs. In Uri every act of the state is accompanied by a church function of some sort. The annual pilgrimage to Tells famous chapel on the Lake of Lucerne, which always takes place on the Friday following Ascension Day, has a semi-ecclesiastical, semi-political character. In all affairs of the commonwealth the priesthood exercises a tacit but predominating influence. Educational matters are, of course, entirely in the hands of the clergy; nor is the tolerant spirit of this wicked age allowed to work its way into the minds of the people through other channels, for recently, when a company from the neighboring canton of Glarus proposed to use the water-power of the turbulent Schächenbach for factories, the opposition of the clergy made it impossible to obtain the necessary concession. The same thing happened when the St. Gothard railroad offered to build extensive workshops in Altdorf. In both cases the fear was expressed that Protestants thereby might be brought into the country. Perhaps this explains why Uri is at once the poorest and most illiterate of all the Swiss cantons. On looking over the cantonal constitution, however, I discovered a privilege so remarkable that it must always have gone far to reconcile the men of Uri to the authority of the Vatican. Every Gemeinde, or parish, it appears, elects its own priests, and thus controls their actions sufficiently to make unpatriotic intrigues impossible.

There is a good deal of sight-seeing to be done in Altdorf for so small a place. In the town hall are shown the tattered flags carried by the warriors of Uri in the early battles of the Confederation, the mace and sword of state which are borne by the beadles to the Landesgemeinde, and a portrait which the attendant informs you with a grave face is the oldest extant of William Tell. In a somewhat inaccessible corner, a few houses off, the beginnings of a museum have been made. Here is another portrait of interest, that of the giant Püntener, a mercenary whose valor made him the terror of the enemy in the battle of Marignano in 1515 ; so that when finally he was killed, they avenged themselves, according to a writing beneath the picture, by using his fat to smear their weapons, and his carcass to feed their horses. Just outside the village rises the arsenal, whence, I was told, old armor was taken and turned into shovels, when the St. Gothard railroad was building, so poor and ignorant were the people. If you are of the sterner sex, you can also penetrate the Capuchin monastery, and enter the gardens, where the terraces that rise behind the buildings are almost Italian in appearance, festooned with vines and radiant with roses. Not that the fame of this institution rests on such trivial matters, however. The brothers boast of two things : it is the oldest of the order in Switzerland, dating from 1581, and they carry on in it the somewhat unappetizing industry of cultivating snails for the gourmands of foreign countries. Above the Capuchins is the famous Barnewald, mentioned by Schiller, a tract of forest on the mountain slope in which no one is allowed to fell trees, because it protects the village from avalanches and rolling stones.

After all, however, the best part of Altdorf, to make an Irish bull, lies outside of the village. I can give no adequate idea of the impression left upon me by this strange little community without referring to the Almend, or village common. Indeed, as time went on, I learned to regard this Almend as the complete expression and final summing up of all that was best in Altdorf, the reconciliation of all its inconsistencies, and the symbol of its pure democracy.

Day after day, insensibly, almost involuntarily, I would go out to the great pasture beside the river Reuss, a field of short, juicy Alpine grass, in sight of the snow-capped Bristenstock at one end of the valley, and of the waters of Lake Lucerne at the other. In May the fullgrown cattle had already departed for the higher summer pastures, leaving only the feeble young behind, who were to follow as soon as they had grown strong enough to bear the fatigues of the journey. At this time, therefore, the Almend became a sort of vision of youth, — of calves, lambs, and foals, guarded by little boys, all gamboling in the exuberance of early life. At noon I often delighted to sit upon the green, and give myself up wholly to the influence of the hour. A spirit of idyllic peace pervaded the scene, emphasized rather than broken by the actions of the young animals. Perhaps a foal would tear across the field in skittish glee, or a calf which had long stood staring into vacancy would suddenly blurt out unmeaning bellowings. Ever and anon a spirit of mischief prompted one of the boys or the attendant puppies, on sport intent, to rush with much show of fierce purpose into the ranks of the sheep,— the poor sheep, that, nibbling feverishly, each trying to get into the shade of the others, desired nothing so much as to be left alone. At such times, as I sat buried in contemplation of this play, a lark would rise from near by, where the peasants were tilling the fields, and, soaring, leave behind it a trail of sound, a succession of inspired notes, like an aerial ladder to the sky, at whose foot I stood spellbound, speechless, and my eyes strained to follow the bird in its flight until it was lost in the heights. Then, when the lark descends ; when it drops suddenly from the clouds, carrying a long-drawn crescendo note to earth ; when it hovers for an instant with outstretched, quivering wings over its nest in the rushes, gives a few last trills of bliss, and all is silence, — ah, how the heart beats! What a moment of serene joy that is! Alas that we Americans can never hear the skylark in our own country! I used to think, on those occasions, that the song of the lark was a fit emblem of the scene on the Almend, a veritable hymn to youth.

But the Landesgemeinde was the attraction which drew me in the first place to Altdorf, at a season when few travelers are to be seen. The open-air legislative assemblies, which, as has been said, are held annually in the primitive Swiss cantons, are the oldest examples of purely democratic institutions to be found in the world to-day. In their present complete form they probably do not antedate the end of the thirteenth century; at all events, we have no documentary evidence of a regular Landesgemeinde prior to 1294 ; but the germs from which they have been developed can be traced faintly until they disappear in the very dawn of recorded history. Their origin must be sought in the political and social organization of the early Germans ; perhaps in the assembly of the Hundred, or in the agricultural Association of the Mark; for Swiss liberty is based upon the ancient Teutonic institutions introduced by the Alamanni, a branch of the great Teutonic race, when they invaded Helvetia, at the beginning of the fifth century, and put an end to the Roman dominion, which had existed in that country since the time of Julius Cæsar. In the German Empire, which rose upon the ruins of the Roman, and of which the early Swiss formed a part, these democratic institutions almost everywhere succumbed to the influence of the feudal system; but in the more secluded regions, especially amid the mountain fastnesses of central Switzerland, they were able to retain a great deal of their ancient Teutonic purity.

It is with good reason, therefore, that Mr. Freeman opens his published lectures on The Growth of the English Constitution by describing two typical Landesgemeinden in Switzerland. “In the institutions of Uri and Appenzell,” he says, “and in those others of the Swiss cantons which have never departed from the primeval model, we may see the institutions of our own forefathers, the institutions which were once common to the whole Teutonic race, institutions whose outward form has necessarily passed away from greater states, but which contain the germs out of which every free constitution in the world has grown.”

Every year, on the first Sunday in May, the voting population of Uri, all men of twenty and upwards, meet upon a meadow just off the great St. Gothard carriage-road, about two miles south of Altdorf. The spot is known as Bötzlingen an der Gand ; behind it rise some formidable rocks which culminate in the Hohe Faulen, and in front stretches the plain of the Reuss, classic with many legends and traditions of the early days of Swiss freedom. Here the affairs of the commonwealth of Uri have been discussed and decided annually probably for some five centuries ; the only known break having occurred at the end of the last century, when the privileges and prerogatives of the sovereign states which composed the old Confederation were annulled to make place for the short-lived Helvetic republic set up by the French revolutionists.

Although I attended the Landesgemeinden both of 1888 and 1889, I will confine myself to that of 1888 in the following description, as it proved the more interesting of the two. The 6th of May turned out to be one of those brilliant days which are experienced in Switzerland principally in the spring and autumn, when the tourists have not yet arrived, or have already left; a day full of the exhilaration and intoxication of nature. From end to end the valley of the Reuss lay bathed in a flood of golden light shining through an atmosphere of crystal purity. Daisies, cowslips, and buttercups, the flowers of rural well-being, showed through the rising grass of the fields; along the hedges and crumbling walls of the lanes peeped timid primroses and violets, and in wilder spots the Alpine gentian, intensely blue. High up upon the mountain slopes the verdure had already assumed that indescribable soft velvet green which appeals so strongly to every artist, notably to Ruskin, while higher still, upon the summer pastures, ragged and vanishing patches of snow proclaimed the rapid approach of warmer days.

Early in the morning crowds of worshipers repaired to the parish church at Altdorf, and after service dispersed in groups about the village, to await the time when the procession should start for the famous meadow. At last, at about eleven o’clock, there was a roll of drums, a burst of music, and a train of persons issued from the little marketplace in front of the town hall (Rathaus.)

First marched two men clad in mediæval costumes of orange and black, the cantonal colors, each bearing upon his shoulders the great horn of a bull. These individuals are called Tells, in memory of the traditional hero, and the horns are those which the ancient warriors of Uri carried with them to battle. Then followed drums and music and a detachment of soldiers, over whom waved the ancient banner, in the centre of which was embroidered a bull’s head, the cantonal coat of arms, and in one corner a miniature representation of the crucifixion; for church and state, religion and warfare, have always gone hand in hand in the primitive Swiss cantons. Behind this guard of honor came the magistrates and their seven beadles in carriages, the latter made imposing by cocked hats and long cloaks, also of orange and black. In the carriages were the three symbols of state : the mace, a wooden staff studded with brass nails, and surmounted by a ball representing an apple pierced by an arrow (evidently another reference to William Tell) ; the sword of state, a long, two-edged weapon; and a bag containing the cantonal seals. If I dwell upon these details, it is because the accessories to the Landesgemeinde are undergoing a process of simplification which renders it advisable that they should be noted before they are finally swept away. For example, I see that when Mr. Freeman was present, in 1863 and 1864, the magistrates rode on horseback, and the chief magistrate wore the sword by his side; now these worthies drive in the ordinary tourist carriages of the country, and the sword is entrusted to a beadle. The procession was closed by an irregular following of all the men, women, and children who could manage to leave their homes in various parts of the canton.

Arrived at the meadow, the voters, estimated at two thousand by the weekly paper of Uri, the Urner Wochenblatt, ranged themselves upon a wooden stand, built for the occasion, in the shape of an amphitheatre; the chief magistrate, the Landammann, and the Landesstatthalter took positions at a table in the centre, where the symbols of state were displayed with the horns, drums, and banner, while the seven beadles occupied raised seats at. one side of the ring. The women, children, and visitors, on their part, withdrew to the unoccupied portions of tin; meadow or to an adjacent hillock, from which the proceedings could be more conveniently watched. Amongst the spectators were also some visitors from neighboring cantons, a member or two of the federal legislatures at Berne, the late British minister to Switzerland, Sir F. O. Adams, who has since written a work on The Swiss Confederation,1 and a few Americans.

It is customary for the Landammann to open the assembly with a speech, in which he rehearses the affairs of the canton, of Switzerland, and even the most important events in foreign countries which have occurred during the past year.

While this was in progress I looked more closely at the men who composed the assembly, and could see how truly democratic a gathering they made. All manner of men were there side by side ; all kinds of trades and occupations were represented, — the cowherd, the artisan, and the shopkeeper, the professional man, the parish priest, the monk, and the soldier, all on an equal political footing, deliberating together for the common good. They paid the closest attention to the speech of the Landammann, who, as he advanced and warmed up to his theme, departed more and more from pure German and lapsed into the familiar dialect, which was used by every subsequent speaker.

As soon as this speech had been brought to a close, a ceremony of the utmost solemnity took place. The whole assembly rose, and stood bareheaded for some moments in silent prayer, — an impressive incident, never to be forgotten : the sudden silence of the multitude, the heads bared to the sky, and the deeply religious aspect of the whole thing. After this the business of the meeting began.

Every one knew that a measure of great importance would be presented to the assembly that day ; in fact, nothingless than the adoption of a new constitution. The old one had been found to be both cumbersome and antiquated, and the new one had been framed with a view toward simplification, so that it might correspond more closely to those of the other cantons. As the project had been before the people for some time, ample opportunity had been given them to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with its provisions, and the assembly was therefore prepared to discuss the proposed changes intelligently. A strong minority from the valley of Urseren, where lies the popular summer resort of Anderrnatt. opposed the new constitution, especially on account of certain clauses referring to the management of roads. These views were represented by five speakers, whereas the majority put forward nine. After an animated debate lasting for two hours and a half, a vote was taken upon the question of adopting a new constitution pure and simple, adoption being carried by the bare majority of three fifths to two fifths of the votes. Another vote was taken, this time upon the adoption of the new constitution as it stood or as amended by the minority, and resulted in the almost unanimous adoption of the constitution as it stood. The voting was done by a show of hands, according to the old Teutonic custom, so familiar to us ; but it was accompanied by a curious sound, which I fancied was in imitation of the bellowing of a bull, the inevitable bull of Uri. An appeal in writing against the new constitution was then handed to the Landesstatth alter, based, as I afterwards ascertained, upon the forty-third article of the federal constitution, and the assembly proceeded to the next order of business, the election of officers. First came the seven Regierungsräthe ; literally, “ councilors of the government,” or, as we should say, “ the cabinet.” In only two cases was there any serious opposition to the candidate nominated; for it seems to be customary in this conservative little democracy to reëlect officers who have done their work satisfactorily, rather than experiment with untried ones. The result of every election was announced by the head beadle, or crier (Landesweibel), who, raising his cocked hat, repeated a set formula, wishing the successful candidate “ joy and health ” (Glück und Heil). At this juncture the assembly was asked to choose the Landammann and the Landesstatthalter from the number of the Regierungsräthe. Immediately the actual Landammann rose, and resigned his office in a speech in which he declared that he had served four years as chief magistrate, and therefore declined reëlection. At the same time he proposed the actual Landesstatthalter as his successor, and with this took his seat amongst the people. The assembly followed his suggestion as to his successor, and afterwards returned the Landammann himself to the office of Landesstatthalter ; so that the two highest officers had in the end only exchanged places. After the oath had been administered to them, the necessary representatives of the federal legislature in Berne were elected, and then a number of minor officers of the canton. As a last piece of legislation, the rights of citizenship (Bürgerrecht) were granted to a family which had lately immigrated from the canton of Unterwalden.

With this the order of business was complete, and the assembly adjourned. The session had lasted four hours and a half, when the procession marched back to Altdorf in the same order in which it had arrived.

Simple and prosaic as this political act may seem, I turned from contemplating it with the feeling that I had been witnessing a religious rite. Never had I seen the state placed on so high a plane, or the functions of government so nearly endowed with ideal attributes; for I realized that these rude peasants are more truly sovereign than any crowned ruler, and that their assembly, though sprung from a seed planted in the dawn of recorded history, is neither antiquated nor outworn, but filled with the spirit of perennial youth. Could there be a clearer witness to the stability which inheres in genuine democracies ? The primitive Swiss cantons are at once the oldest democracies in existence, and the most radical. Statesmen never contrived, philosophers never speculated upon or poets sung of, commonwealths so practical, rational, and withal so ideal as they, in which the voice of every man was more distinctly heard and the execution of the public will more certain of fulfillment. In them the maximum of flexibility has been reconciled to the strongest conservatism, and that without bombastic assertions of equal rights or theoretical definitions of liberty, but naturally and without premeditation.

A modern historian has said that every form of government contains within itself the germ which will eventually destroy it, but the Landesgemeinde is as vigorous to-day as it has ever been, and really seems more in accordance with the spirit of this age of ours, which makes for absolute self-government, than with that of previous ones. In truth, there is a something in this Landesgemeinde which is not merely Swiss, or even Teutonic, but which answers to the aspirations of mankind in general. A book is called a classic because it appeals to qualities in human nature which are permanent, and belong more or less to every age and every clime; in this sense the Landesgemeinde is a classic amongst forms of government, for it is the expression of pure democracy, for which humanity has always striven and will always strive.

But why should this institution thrive in a little obscure corner, rather than in the centres of human thought and endeavor ? What is the secret of its success in Switzerland ? The candid observer will find an answer to these questions in the surprising equality which reigns amongst the men who compose the assembly. They are equal not only from a political, but also, in a measure, from an economic, standpoint. , Absolute equality of worldly possessions will never be possible in any state, nor would such a result probably be desirable, but an approximation towards the golden mean has been reached in the primitive Swiss cantons which is certainly very remarkable.

Amongst the causes which have contributed to bring about this happy state of things, some are undoubtedly local, rooted to the soil, and could not be transplanted, hut others might well serve as suggestions to the great modern states, in which, whether they call themselves republics, monarchies, or empires, the most crying inequalities are demanding attention. Doubtless the seclusion in which these commonwealths have thrived has imprinted a certain simplicity and uniformity upon the lives of the inhabitants, very favorable to maintenance of economic equality. the dangers to which the people are exposed in their daily occupations have taught every person the double lesson of taking care of himself and of cooperating with others in case of necessity. No better training could be devised for the members of a free state. Moreover, it must be added that mountaineers the world over have usually been independent of foreign rule and equal amongst themselves.

But above all other influences (and this it is which statesmen might well study) must be counted the system of the Almend, the system by which a part, at least, of the land in every Gemeinde or commune has not been allowed to fall into the hands of private owners, but has been reserved for public use. We have a reminiscence of this in the common of England and New England, though the resemblance does not go very far ; for the Swiss Almend, in its wide sense, consists of forest, pasture, and meadow land, and according to the nature of the ground sometimes also of marshy land for rushes and peat. The use of this domain is governed by rules, which vary in different cantons and often in neighboring Gemeinden: in some it is the common property of all; in others, of a privileged class, generally the lineal descendants of the original settlers. Etymologists are not yet agreed whether the name “ Almend ” meant originally common land or fodder land, and historians are debating whether the use of it was intended in the beginning to be communistic or not. These are questions for the specialists to decide, but. the result which has been attained is patent to all. There can be no doubt that this system has contributed more than any other factor towards making the great extremes of wealth and poverty impossible in the primitive cantons, and giving every man an interest in the soil.

The reason for this becomes obvious when we consider that great wealth, in its ultimate analysis, almost always springs from the exclusive control of certain natural opportunities ; or, more briefly, from the monopolization of land, with all which that term implies. These rustics, by treating at least some of the total supply of land as common property, exclude the possibility of the complete monopolization of land, and the resulting concentration of wealth into the hands of a few. It is true that they have by no means reached a radical solution of the land question. There are landlords in Uri, as elsewhere, and they are no better and no worse than elsewhere, since their conduct is governed by economic laws which are not of their own making; but even this partial treatment of land as common property secures to the people certain solid advantages. Nor must this public property be regarded merely as a provision for the poor, since all alike have a share in it.

Hence it is that when the voters come together in their assembly, they are equal, as I said above, not only from a political, but also, in a measure, from an economic standpoint. This is the secret of the Landesgemeinde ; and should this comparative equality ever be disturbed by the working of modern industrial forces, the Landesgemeinde will lose its identity, will become a mere form, and eventually an impossibility.

Historical and political comparisons are apt to be risky and unsatisfactory, since exactly the same conditions can never be repeated in different countries and at different periods. We will, therefore, entertain no illusions on the subject. Our millions of voters cannot meet in an open-air assembly, nor can the affairs of our vast country be managed as simply and expeditiously as are those of that little commonwealth; but nevertheless youth can always profit by the experience of age, and we in America can learn something from Uri, the oldest democracy in existence. It seemed to me. as I watched the ancient assembly, that the Landesgemeinde confirmed a principle of inestimable value. History teaches that all democracies sooner or later end in anarchy or are transformed into despotic governments, unless they can guarantee to the people something more than mere political equality, which soon becomes a delusive sham in the presence of great economic inequalities. The venerable democracy of Uri reminds us that where this true equality reigns, or where even a reasonable approximation towards it is reached, there the most stable and abiding of states can be reared, and its maintenance entrusted with perfect confidence to the people themselves, acting without intermediaries.

W. D. McCrackan.

  1. Reviewed in The Atlantic, January, 1890.