If you really want to know how the Swiss Confederation came to be, you can not do better than take the train to the top of the Rigi. You might stumble through many a volume, and not learn so thoroughly the essential causes of this national birth.
Of course, the eye rests first upon the phalanx of snow-crests to the south, then down upon the lake, lying outstretched like some wriggling monster, switching its tail, and finally off to the many places where early Swiss history was made. In point of fact, you are looking at quite a large slice of Switzerland. Victor Hugo seized the meaning of this view when he wrote : “It is a serious hour, and full of meditations, when one has Switzerland thus under the eyes.”
The physical features of a country have their counterparts in its political institutions. In Switzerland the great mountain ranges divide the territory into deep valleys, each of which naturally forms a political unitthe Commune. Here is a miniature world, concentrated into a small space, and representing the sum total of life to its inhabitants. Self-government becomes second nature under these conditions. A sort of patriarchal democracy is evolved : that is, certain men and certain families are apt to maintain themselves at the head of public affairs, but, with the consent and cooperation of the whole population.
There is hardly a spot associated with the rise of the Swiss Confederation whose position can not be determined from the Rigi. The two Tell’s chapels; the Rutli; the villages of Schwiz, Altdorf, Brunnen, Beckenried, Stans, and Sarnen; the battlefields of Morgarten and Sempach; and on a clear day the ruined castle of Hapsburg it-self, lie within a mighty circle at one’s feet.
It was preordained that the three lands of Uri, Schwiz, and Unterwalden should unite for protection of common interests against the encroachment of a common enemythe ambitious house of Hapsburg. The lake formed at once a bond and a high-way between them. On the first day of August, 1291, more than six hundred years ago, a group of unpretentious patriots, ignored by the great world, signed a document which formed these lands into a loose Confederation. By this act they laid the foundation upon which the Swiss state was after-ward reared. In their naive, but prophetic, faith, the contracting parties called this agreement a perpetual pact; and they set forth, in the Latin, legal phraseology of the day, that, seeing the malice of the times, they found it necessary to take an oath to defend one another against outsiders, and to keep order within their boundaries; at the same time carefully stating that the object of the league was to maintain lawfully established conditions.
From small beginnings, the Confederation of Uri, Schwiz, and Unterwalden grew, by the addition of other communities, until it reached its present proportions, of twenty-two Cantons, in 1815. Lucerne was the first to join; then came Zurich, Glarus, Zug, Bern, etc. The early Swiss did not set up a sovereign republic, in our acceptation of the word, either in internal or external policy. The class distinctions of the feudal age continued to exist; and they by no means disputed the supreme rule of the head of the German Empire over them, but rather gloried in the protection which this direct dependence afforded them against a multitude of intermediate, preying nobles.