The father of modern Geneva James Fazy (1794-1878)

17 February 2008
The father of modern Geneva James Fazy (1794-1878)

The way Geneva looks and functions today is in part due to the actions of James Fazy in the twenty years between 1841 and 1861. Fazy was a statesman whose list of accomplishments is extraordinary: he founded the newspaper Journal de Gen?ve; he encouraged new industries and banks; he laid the foundations for the public health system; he introduced the primary education system. The grand boulevards that encircle the city from Rive to Paquis are due to his policies, and the Bergues district was built up on his initiative. He oversaw the laws setting up the Swiss railway system but, principally, he wrote the Geneva Constitution of 1847 which upholds democracy and the separation of power. He played an active part in the writing of the Swiss Constitution of 1848, especially in creating a legislature of two chambers based on the American model. He supported the arts and the theatre and saw disarmament as the salvation of mankind.

His forward-looking and controversial policies were based on individual liberty, political liberty and commercial liberty. He believed that political democracy would lead to social democracy. In 1846 he founded the Geneva Radical Party, a political movement that had begun to take form ten years earlier. Fazy was several times President of the Geneva State Council, as well as being elected to posts in Berne-for instance, as president of the Federal States Council from 1854 to 1855.

Jean-Jacob Fazy, always known as James, was born in Geneva on 12 May 1794. His family owned a factory in the Bergues district that employed 1,200 people in the manufacture of printed calico. His father intended him to be a businessman and he was therefore educated in Germany and France. From 1814 to 1821 he studied law in Paris. Realising that he was cut out neither for the world of business nor for the world of law, he decided to become a journalist. In the 1820s he published books in Paris containing ideas that caught the attention of the leaders of the liberal opposition in France. Particularly, he became a friend of General Lafayette, one of the greatest heroes of the American and French Revolutions. Lafayette introduced him to the way political institutions functioned in the United States.

Throughout the 1820s, Fazy alternated between Paris and Geneva, opposing the conservative and aristocratic governments in both cities. On 5 January 1826 the first issue of the Journal de Gen?ve appeared in which he described "a return to true democracy based on one-man one-vote". However, he returned to Paris and spent six years writing for various reviews opposed to the royalist governments of that time. The French government tried to crush these periodicals by imposing heavy fines on them. In 1833 Fazy was condemned for violation of the press laws and he returned to Geneva for good.

Since 1814, following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, a new conservative government had taken office in Geneva. Over the years this government faced increasing opposition, particularly from radicals like Fazy. Finally, in 1841 it was forced to accept that an elected assembly supervise its affairs. A new constitution for Geneva, partly written by Fazy, was adopted in 1842. It guaranteed universal suffrage, and established the conseil d’?tat as the executive authority and the grand conseil as the legislative body. However, Fazy was not satisfied and the 1840s were to be a troubled time in Geneva. He launched a new journal, La revue de Gen?ve, to oppose the city’s government.

In 1846 there was the Sonderbund crisis in Switzerland. Seven Catholic cantons decided to secede from the Swiss Confederation. This would have been the first step in national disintegration. There were violent protests in the belief that the Geneva government had not done enough to oppose the Sonderbund cantons. Troops that were sent to control the rioters were overwhelmed. The State Council resigned and Fazy and the Radical Party swept to power. They were to govern Geneva without interruption from 1847 to 1861. They wrote another Constitution for Geneva establishing individual rights, confirming universal suffrage and modifying the legislative and executive powers.

Fazy was so effective because he could always count upon the support of two groups: the working classes and the Catholics. Up until 1847 Geneva town had been surrounded by massive earthworks that had existed since before the Escalade in 1602. There were two direct drawbacks. First, the town could not expand because all the land inside the fortifications was occupied. Second, there was an absolutely colossal trench between the town and the outside world-from Rive to Coulouvr?niere there were only two small passageways into the town. By the mid-nineteenth century Geneva was no longer a citadel under threat and there had been many proposals to get rid of these defences. In 1849 Fazy’s government decided to dismantle them. Since Europe was going through one of its periodic economic crises at that time, this project gave work to the numerous unemployed. With its new boulevards, the city doubled in size. Fazy also won over the Catholics by letting them have entire responsibility for running their own affairs. The Constitution that he wrote for Geneva in 1847 meant that, for the first time over 300 years, Protestantism was no longer the dominant religion.
Further important decisions created the railway system, several banks, the cantonal hospital and an old folk’s home. The primary education system was set up and the vocational and academic systems overhauled. Primary education was henceforth non-religious and free for everybody.

In 1861, James Fazy suffered an important electoral defeat in Geneva and was obliged to step down. In 1863 and 1864 he was faced with opposition within his own party and failed to get re-elected. However, he continued to have a seat in the parliament in Berne until 1872. He also faced grave financial difficulties. Towards the end of his life James Fazy taught legislation and constitutional history at the University of Geneva. He died in Petit Saconnex on 6 November 1878 aged 84 years.