Frédéric-César de La Harpe

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La Harpe

Frédéric-César de La Harpe (born April 6, 1754, Rolle, Vaud, Switzerland — died March 30, 1838, Lausanne, Switzerland) was a Swiss political leader and Vaudois patriot, who played a leading role in the creation of the Helvetic Republic.


La Harpe came from the Swiss canton of Vaud. At the time Switzerland was a confederacy of mainly self-governing cantons held together by a loose military alliance. Some of the cantons were what was referred to as subject lands since they were governed by other cantons: Vaud, for example, had been under the control of Bern since the 16th century. There was little in terms of actual union and no central government. Like most of Europe, Switzerland was deemed feudal in nature since the wealthiest members of society benefited from privileges that others were denied. There was much resentment over this which led to many conspiracies and uprisings. In Vaud itself Major Abraham Davel led a revolt against Bern, in protest at what he saw as the denial of political rights of the French-speaking Vaudians by the German-speaking Bernese. He was beheaded in 1723.[1]

La Harpe was born in 1754. Having obtained a doctorate of Laws at the University of Tübingen in 1774, he travelled abroad and became tutor to the children of Tsar Paul I of the Russian Empire. Following the outbreak of the French Revolution of 1789, he began to plot a Vaudois uprising from St. Petersburg. In 1794 he returned to Switzerland and thence to Paris, where he and other exiles sought French assistance for releasing Vaud and Fribourg from Bern's domination.

La Harpe published his Essay on the Constitution of the Vaud, an anti-Bernese tract. On 10 December 1797 he addressed the French Directory, stating that commitments made by the Duke of Savoy in treaties signed with Bern at Lausanne in 1564 were now the responsibility of the French and thus gave them the right to assist the people of Vaud against the Bernese.

In fact, by the time the French did send troops into Vaud in late January 1798, the locals had already risen up and driven away the Bernese baillis (or governor) and proclaimed the Lemanic Republic. This did not stop the French who proceeded to a largely peaceful invasion of Switzerland and brought about the Helvetic Republic, established by La Harpe and Peter Ochs.

The Helvetic Republic abolished the cantons and established a central government. On June 29, 1798, La Harpe himself entered the Swiss Directory (chief executive committee). A year later he deposed Ochs and sought dictatorial power only to be deposed himself in a coup in January 1800. He subsequently fled the country.[2]

The Republic itself was unpopular with the people and relied on French troops for support. The French pillaging of state coffers, the curbing of the right to worship and the heavy-handed crushing of resistance, most notably in Nidwalden, caused considerable resentment. What's more, the treaty of alliance with France undermined Swiss neutrality and led to subsequent invasions/liberations by Austrian and Russian troops.

Eventually, in 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul of France, instigated the Act of Mediation which abolished the Helvetic Republic and turned Switzerland back into a confederacy. La Harpe himself refused to take part in the negotiations, in fact he wrote to his former pupil, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, complaining that "So much trouble has gone into doing such detestable work, whereas a week would have been enough to supplement all that was required for a single, central government". He did, however, get some satisfaction in that Vaud was declared a sovereign canton, independent of Bern.[3]

During 1813 and 1814, with Napoleon's empire on the verge of collapse, La Harpe and his friend Henri Monod lobbied Tsar Alexander who persuaded the other Allied powers opposing Napoleon to recognise Vaudian and Aargauian independence, in spite of Bern's attempts to reclaim them as subject lands. La Harpe attended the Congress of Vienna where the major powers set about redrawing the map of Europe following Napoleon's defeat. He gained further recognition for Vaud's rights, though he opposed the Federal Treaty of 1815 which established Switzerland's post-Napoleonic arrangements.[3]

La Harpe then served on Vaud's legislative council until 1828.


Opinions on La Harpe are mixed in Switzerland. In Vaud he is highly regarded as a liberator and an artificial island (Île de la Harpe) is named after him.[4] Others, however, see him as largely responsible for the occupation of Switzerland under the French and the subsequent chaos of the Helvetic Republic. It might be noted that aspects of the Republic, such as the 7-member executive Swiss Federal Council, were adopted in the Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848, which has been the basis of subsequent constitutions.

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