July 4th 1776 was a major turning point in American History. It marked the point, during the American Revolution, when the Declaration of Independence from British rule was approved by the 2nd Continental Congress. All 13 colonies east of the Mississippi River agreed to their desire for independence, thus becoming the United States of America, while continuing to fight against British resistance. In 1783, a peace treaty was signed ending the American Revolution and acknowledging the United States of America as an autonomous nation. July 4th is celebrated as the Birthday of the USA.
August 1st is Swiss National Day but it does not signify a declaration of independence or a great turning point in a military battle. Furthermore, the day was only recognized as a federal holiday in 1994, although first celebrated in 1891! So what does August 1st signify ?
Swiss history is utterly complex, but one thing is straight forward – the Swiss people desired their independence as much as the people of the 13 colonies. By twist of fate, the forest cantons of Switzerland: Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden became the founding fathers of the Swiss Confederacy .
With the opening of the north-south trade route over the Gotthard in the early 13th century, Uri and Schwyz grew quickly and enjoyed great prosperity. In 1231, Uri was granted imperial immediacy by King Henry of Germany (1211-1242), son of Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), who bought the canton from the Habsburg, thus protecting them from rule by the local counts. In 1240, Schwyz was granted the same privilege for services rendered. In 1274, their immediacy was reconfirmed by the new Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf I of Habsburg (1218-1291). As the region grew and prospered so did desire to control it. Consequently, the death of Rudolf I in 1291 fueled concerns over loss of liberties under new leadership. Shortly before his death, the Emperor had purchased Unterwalden (Obwalden and Nidwalden) from Murbach Abbey causing them similar concerns. It was at this point, the Old Swiss Confederacy was born.
In an effort to protect themselves, Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden drafted and signed a “declaration” of mutual support and protection known as the Pact of 1291, which was largely forgotten until its rediscovery in 1724. Nevertheless, the making of this pact was the beginning of the Old Swiss Confederate and later became the symbol of Switzerland’s birth. The word “symbolic” is used deliberately as it would be more than 700 years before Switzerland became the country we know today.
In 1891, to mark the 600th anniversary of the signing of the pact and decree it as the founding document, the Swiss celebrated on August1st, as the document was signed only as “beginning of August”. It was not until 1899 that the date was chosen as the birthday of Switzerland and celebrated annually thereafter, becoming an official holiday in 1994.
A summary of the early formation of the Confederate would be incomplete without pausing to mention the “Oath” which has made Rütli in Canton Uri the site of celebrations on August 1st. As mentioned, the existence of the written Pact of 1291 appears to have faded from memory until its rediscovery in the archives. What is celebrated in Rütli is the clandestine meeting among representatives of the 3 cantons in 1307 where they allegedly pledged support to one another in a fashion similar to the Pact of 1291. Historians disagree about two things: the location of the signing of the Pact (some think it was in Brunnen and some Rütli) and whether or not the Oath ever happened. Regardless of this debate, Rütli meadow is a natural “monument” honoring the formation of the early confederacy.
By 1353, the Old Swiss Confederacy comprised the 3 founding cantons plus Glarus, Zug, Lucerne, Zurich and Bern. The Old Swiss Confederacy enjoyed incredible success and growth until the 15th century when they were defeated at the Battle of Marignano . It would be more than a century, under the Peace of Westphalia, 1648, before Switzerland would regain power and be recognized by other European countries as independent from the Holy Roman Empire and neutral. It would be another 150+ years before the modern boundaries for Switzerland were formed, in 1815, and considerably more time, 1979, before the 26 cantons that comprise today’s Helvetica were formalized.
Starting from the point of their “Declarations” to modern day, it took considerably longer for Switzerland to emerge than for the United States of America to coalesce: Alaska and Hawaii entered into the Union in 1959. It is important to note that I am not comparing one to the other as better or worse. One is my homeland and the other my adopted land and I am interested in the history that has shaped them both. The correlation herein is simply a thread which shaped the fabric to weave the tale of August 1st – Swiss National Day.
Happy 721st Birthday , Confoederation Helvetica!
Short video of a boat trip back and forth among the three forest cantons who drafted and signed the Pact of 1291: Uri, Schwyz & Nidwald ( lower Untrerwalden) with a brief stop in Rütli, the sight of the mythical 1307 Oath.