Chapter 25

Napoleon, the Architect

of Modern Italy and Switzerland





We have seen how Napoleon, at only 27 years of age, governed practically the whole of Italy from his Chateau of Montebello near Milan. After creating the Cisalpine Republics (Milanese and Emilia), and Liguria (region of Genoa), he was venerated as the saviour and liberator who had established peace and prosperity.


While Napoleon was in Egypt, the Austrians had regained control of Northern Italy and abolished the changes he had brought about. They also massacred or deported Italian patriots.


After the Victory of Marengo, Napoleon concentrated his efforts on restoring the Cisalpine and Ligurian Republics. On January 21, 1802, the Cisalpine Consulate assembled in Lyon to elect a President of their Republic. They chose Napoleon, who accepted the presidency of what he immediately dubbed the Italian Republic, to the great joy of the delegates who were longing for national unity.


On Sept. 11, 1802, Piedmont became a French province in fulfilment of the wish that the people had expressed in an earlier referendum. A balance was thus established between Austria, which controlled Venice, and France, which controlled the Alpine passes and the western part of the plain of the Po river.


Louis de Bourbon, the son-in-law of the King of Spain, was made King of Etruria (Tuscany). In exchange, Spain ceded Louisiana back to France. The island of Elba also became French


There were further modifications after 1805, and by 1814, the whole of Italy was divided into three great blocs: the French departments, the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of Naples. Three tiny principalities were hemmed in: Lucca-Piombini, Benevent, administered by the French, and the ancient republic of San Marino. Sicily and Sardinia retained their independence.


Napoleon never achieved Italian unification, but he paved the way for it by instituting the same administrative, economic, and social structures throughout Italy. In fact, Napoleon, as King of Italy and Emperor of a total of 130 departments, 15 of which were in Italy, recommended to his brother Joseph, King of Naples, that feudalism (the rule of the barons), be abolished in his kingdom. This was accomplished on March 30, 1806.


After this date, the whole of Italy benefited from French laws and codes, including the Code civil. Public education was modelled on the French system and saw the creation of lycées and universities. Civil engineering projects, particularly in the areas of road construction and city planning, produced major economic results. In 1814, all things considered, the living standard of the Italian people was far superior to what it had been in 1796 – all thanks to Napoleon!

 Switzerland: Since the proclamation of the Helvetic Republic in 1799, Switzerland had existed in a state of anarchy and civil war that was responsible for thousands of deaths. After a series of coups d’état, a ferocious struggle raged among the cantons and the rival factions. The central government never managed to assert its control. Each of the various parties attempted to secure the assistance of France, but solely to further its own interests.


Napoleon's line of conduct was clear: the happiness of the Swiss people was as dear to him as that of the French, indeed, of all the peoples of the world. In September 1802, in an attempt to re-establish order and civil peace, he appointed Colonel Rapp to deliver a proclamation to Bern in which he offered to act as mediator.


“Citizens of Helvetica, for three years you have offered a heart-rending spectacle; opposing factions have successively seized power. Their passage has been distinguished by a degree of partiality that attests to their weakness and their incompetence.


You have quarrelled for three years without managing to come to an agreement; if left to yourselves, you would kill each other for three more years without managing to understand each other any better. Your history clearly shows that your internecine struggles were never ended without the intervention of France. I had, however, made up my mind not to meddle in your internal affairs. Your various governments have come to me one after another to implore me to give them my assistance. I gave them my opinion, but they refused to follow it, merely using my name to satisfy their own interests and passions. But I can no longer remain indifferent to the devils that plague your country. I have now altered my point of view, and am prepared to act as mediator between your parties.”


Napoleon then laid down the conditions for his mediation: to dissolve the authorities that had been formed, and delegate to Paris deputies from the cantons and the former central authorities, in order to make known to them the means for restoring unity and peace. Sixty delegates travelled to Paris for this conference, which took place from December 1802 to January 1803. As soon as they arrived in Paris, the First Consul informed them of his intentions.


“Citizen representatives of the nineteen cantons of the Helvetic Republic, your country is in a dire situation. The only hope for its salvation is through prudence, moderation and the sacrifice of your passions. I have committed myself to making my mediation effective. I am prepared to do the impossible to succeed in this noble mission. Without your cooperation, it will be difficult, with your assistance and your influence, however, it will be easy.


Switzerland is different from every other country because of the catastrophes that have befallen it in recent years, its geographical location, its different languages, its different religions, and the extreme diversity in the habits and customs of the cantons. Nature itself has made your country a federation, and no sensible person would wish to eradicate it. The circumstances and the spirit that reigned in the past have divided you into sovereign peoples and subject peoples; recent circumstances and the spirit of our times, which are in greater accord with justice and reason, call out for the reforms that I shall now propose to you:


1.                   Equal rights for the nineteen cantons.

2.                  The patrician families must renounce their privileges, sincerely and voluntarily.

3.                   Priority must be given to completing the organization of the cantons. It will then be up to us to determine the relationships between them and the central government, since the latter is far less important than the cantonal governments. “In your country, nothing can ever be uniform; neither your finances, your army, nor your administration. You have never maintained a regular, paid army. You cannot afford a large-scale financial system, nor have you ever sent diplomats to foreign courts.


Situated on the crest of the mountain chain that separates France, Germany and Italy, you share the spirit of each of these nations. The only prerequisites are the neutrality of your own country, the prosperity of your trade, and a single system of administration.


Those are the opinions that I have regularly expressed to your compatriots whenever they have consulted me concerning their affairs. They seem so reasonable to me that I hope that no extraordinary effort will be required to convince you of the good sense of what I am saying. Until now, a great many have refused to abandon their privileges. These people have demonstrated a constant tendency to oppose France and to seek alliances and support from among its enemies.


No organization that is opposed to the well-being and the good will of France can serve your interests. Since I have addressed myself to you in the terms worthy of a Swiss citizen, I see myself obliged, as chief magistrate of our two great countries, to tell you in the simplest terms, that neither France nor the Italian republic will ever permit a system of government that would promote the establishment of our enemies in your country. The peace and well-being of 40 million people, your neighbours, without whom you could not survive, either as a state, or as individuals, weigh heavily in the scale of international justice. You must be in harmony with them, and as in the past, your first interests, your first objective, your first duty must be to not allow anything to be done on your territory that is directly or indirectly harmful to the interests, honour and well-being of the French people.


Even if I had not been forced to intervene in order to defend your interests and put an end to your quarrels, I would have had to do so to defend the interests of France and of Italy. In fact, your insurgents were led by those who were at war with us, and every decision that came out of their committees was on the side of privilege, against equality and was a direct affront to the French people.


I am happy to have met you. I shall often repeat what I am saying now, because until your citizens have totally absorbed the meaning of my words, you will never be able to achieve reconciliation and restore peace and happiness in your country. Swiss politics has always been considered across Europe as an integral part of the politics of France, Savoy, and of the Milanese dominions, since the very existence of Switzerland depends on the well-being of these countries. The first and most important duty of the French government will always be to ensure that you do not adopt a system that is hostile to France, and to prevent our enemies from meddling in your affairs. We must not only protect the portion of our territory that is contiguous with yours, we must also ensure that should your neutrality be violated, your own interests and the goodwill of your governments will lead you to stand side by side with France and not with its enemies. I shall pay great attention to anything you wish to present to me, either collectively or individually, or through the representatives of the cantons. I have asked Senators Barthélemy, Fouché, Roederer and Desmeunier to undertake discussions with you directly, to study your interests and express your point of view. They will keep me informed of anything you might wish to communicate to me."


The Swiss delegates were given total freedom in the discussions. The debates were long and animated, but produced no results, owing to the divergence of opinion over the question of forming a federal government.


Napoleon therefore decided to organize a conference with five delegates from each party, those who wanted a single government and those who supported the idea of federation.


The first party selected Stapfer, Sprecher, Von Flue, Monod and Usteri ; the second designated Affry, Jauch, Reinhard, Glutz and Wattenwyl de Montbenay. The meeting between the ten delegates and Napoleon was held on Jan. 28, 1803. It lasted from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.


Here too, the discussion was animated, but Napoleon ended up by convincing the Swiss delegates. They were dumbfounded to see that he understood the problems that afflicted the cantons better than they.


The Mediation Act was signed in Paris on February 19, 1808. This act was in fact a constitution that was perfectly adapted to Switzerland and its 19 cantons. Switzerland became a confederation of states equal in law. Mediation established the importance of the cantons, thereby setting the stage for modern federalism. In several important areas, Napoleon played a considerable role in promoting the stability and development of Switzerland, but his greatest accomplishment remains the Mediation Act of 1803, through which he gave Switzerland the constitution that brought it peace and prosperity.



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