Pestalozzi and the revolution

In 1789, with the storm of the people at an arms' arsenal and the following revolutionary events, the absolutist France went down. Still Pestalozzi tried to save “the pure absolutism” by his work and by his efforts to get employed by a progressive government (for example by the Austrian emperor in Vienna). So – seen from without – it may be surprising that on August 26th in 1792 he, among 16 other popular personalities of Europe, as the only Swiss was appointed honorary citizen of France by the French National Assembly. Without a doubt many requests of the French revolutionaries agreed with Pestalozzi's ideals, for example their ideas of trade and freedom of trade, of freedom of the press, of freedom of worship, of abolishment of unfair contributions, of the tax right and of the improve of the education of the people. Nevertheless, there are plain differences, too: Pestalozzi never judged the ideal of the outer equality particularly high and the modern understanding of freedom as an all-round independence stood in contrast to his differentiated idea of freedom. Perhaps the break of Pestalozzi's relations to Vienna and the appointment as French honorary citizen, which took place around the same time, contributed to the fact, that Pestalozzi inwardly freed himself from the ideal of the aristocracy, that he more and more befriended with the democratic idea and more sympathized with France.

His judgement about the events in France and about if the revolution should be wished, however, always kept being differentiated: On one hand he supported the revolutionaries in the affair but on the other hand he condemned the bloodshed, that took place in order to push through a new system, yes, the murderous rage of the French revolutionaries between 1792 and 1794 deeply frightened him and disgusted him.

For Pestalozzi the appointment as French honorary citizen was the cause to write down his statement on the revolution. Thus his very interesting and important paper about the revolution "Ja oder Nein?" (Yes or No?) came into being, which he could not let print, though. In his work Pestalozzi declared to be 'partially for the people' (PSW 10, pg. 142). But that does not hamper him to judge the requests and the statements of the revolution in a very differentiated way. On the one hand he in principle supports the ideas of the revolution, but on the other hand he is frightened by the lust to kill of the revolutionaries and clearly condemns their excess and violence – even if he is able to understand them and even acknowledges it being inevitable. But even more he condemns the despotism and absolutism of the European high nobility – especially the French one -, which he considers to be the real cause of the revolution and the horrors which are connected with it. In his opinion Ludwig XIV is mainly responsible for the misery of the people and the resulting bloodshed, as he, in his long time of government, arbitrarily destroyed the right and consequently the balance of the classes and thus made all people equal, that is to say equally bad. If now the critics of the revolution object to the ideology of being equal Pestalozzi counters this with saying that the revolutionaries only finish what the absolutism began.

The French revolution cast its shadows also at Switzerland by encouraging the underprivileged classes to make their demands. This for example happened at the municipality Stäfa, which was governed by the town of Zurich. The growing textile industry made many citizens quite wealthy, but they did not have any political rights. In a manifesto they made their demands in a very restricted and subject voice. First they demanded a constitution that guaranteed not only the citizens in town, but also the inhabitants of the countryside political rights. Then they demanded freedom of trade and industry, further the right for the population of the countryside to attend higher schools in order to become teachers and pastors, but also the right to be allowed to be promoted an officer in the army like town citizens; further they demanded a fairer tax system, because only farmers were – as a remnant of the feudalism – bound by law to a variety of depressing duties, whereas traders, industrialists and town citizens did not pay any taxes. Finally they reminded the government of the old rights and freedoms of the municipalities, which the town in course of time had robbed and withheld from them.

The town harshly reacted to this writing: It arrested and banished. In this situation Pestalozzi made himself the attorney of the people and put down his thoughts in three writings, which he wanted to present to influential citizens of the town. In a public writing he tried to arouse understanding for both sides, but he did not conceal that his heart was side with the people from the countryside. So he shouted to the government:

"Real virtue is just as far from the blind acting like slaves as from the rough spirit of uprising, and the native country can be ruined by flattered baseness as well as by a not subdued lack of restraint. The danger of the moment is big, but the danger of the future is infinitely bigger. I am convinced that the native country only rescues itself by sparing the feelings of the people." (PSW 10, pg. 294)

But before his writing was printed, the town occupied the totally surprised Stäfa with 2000 soldiers on July 5th in 1795. Again it was punished hard and death sentences were threatening. Pestalozzi, however, did not let up and called on both parties to be sensible. As mediator he pursued clear aims: On the one hand the underprivileged people from the countryside should finally get their rights, but on the other hand he wanted to avoid any kind of bloodshed – not only the death sentences, but also the violent rebellion of the people from the countryside. Of course, Pestalozzi was not alone with his admonition to be reasonable; his friend from his youth, the pastor in Fraumünster Johann Kaspar Lavater, recommended level-headedness, too. Thus, at least, there were none of the feared death sentences and no bloodshed. But the prison sentences and fines weighed heavily on the 260 convicts.

In the meantime France got entangled in a war with almost all neighbours and wanted to bring the revolution to half of the world. One year after the events in Stäfa, Napoleon already caused a stir as victorious general in Italy and when he travelled through Switzerland another year later, in different places he was welcomed and acclaimed with the thunder of cannons, with honorary flags, nice speeches and ardent songs. The friends of the revolution encouraged him to march into Switzerland, too, in order to build the new system by force.

In this situation, when the civil war threatened from within and the marching in of French troops from without, Pestalozzi's politic aimed at avoiding both evils. He saw very clearly, however, that a revolution of the political conditions was not attainable without the help of France. In his opinion France should only put Switzerland under pressure, but not interfere directly with the process of reorganization. But he did not count on the avarice of the French. The government of all big towns had, in view of the revolts of the subjects, which broke out everywhere, and out of fear of the French, granted to the people from the countryside equality in February 1798 and promised them a constitution based on freedom, equality and brotherliness. Nevertheless, the French marched in with 15.000 men early in March, broke the last resistance, occupied the country, robbed the public treasury by bringing the gold to Paris in barrels on heavy ox carts, plundered the country and violated wives and daughters, so that pastor Lavatar from Zurich felt compelled to the following proclamation:

"That the aristocracy is brought down may have been a great luck, the fulfilment of the wishes of many noble men. […] You French come to Switzerland as robbers and tyrants, you make war against a country that never offended you. […] You spoke of nothing else but freeing – and subjugate in any kind of way. […] We never were ruled over like that when we were – according to your untrue speech – slaves, we never had to blindly obey like that when we are, according to your speech, free."

Now France changed the Swiss confederation, which was characterized by great variety, into a centralized state – called "Helvetic Republic" – and divided it quite arbitrarily into cantons and districts, which, however, had no independence at all, but only had to do what the Great Council (legislative body) and the board of directors (executive), that consisted of five men, decided. Because of that the new constitution was hated by most of the Swiss, although it granted equality of all citizens in the eyes of the law, freedom of religion, of conscience, of trade and industry, the right to set up associations, the right to send in petitions to the government, general taxes and the possibility to buy free of feudalistic duties and although in the board of directors there sat important men of real farsightedness and patriotic mind.

Pestalozzi bowed to the inevitable and as the constitution and the board of directors promised to realize most of the reforms, that he had demanded for 30 years already, he worked for the new system; he found it easier, as he befriended one of the five directors, Phillip Albrecht Stapfer. Thus Pestalozzi took over the edition of the "Helvetisches Volksblatt" (Helvetic Newspaper for the people), which must be regarded as mouthpiece of the Helvetic government. In his function as editor, but also in many pamphlets, Pestalozzi now tried to explain the sense and the chance of the revolution to the people and admonished the new rulers to really keep to their promises. The disseminated opinion, that the new system was against the religion, of course, he could not dispel in a sufficiently convincing way. The attacks of the revolutionaries against church and Christianity were simply too obvious, and even if the new constitution granted freedom of religion the pastors were forbidden to do anything political and their doctrine and sermon was controlled by the police. Also many did not feel free as long as strange troops caused havoc in the country and the people by force of arms were forced to take an oath to the new constitution.

Pestalozzi's work as editor was not very successful, because he could not write in the "tone of the people", no matter how much he tried. His texts were too instructive, often too condescending, too, to be much liked. So it was good for him as well as for his employers when a new task called him to Stans as a 'father of orphans' at the end of 1798 / early in 1799.