Issues at the municipal, cantonal and federal levels
The cantonal law on begging of 23 March 1827 prohibited this practice, but also required municipalities to set up committees for public welfare and create special funds for charity. A decree of 29 July 1850 called for the creation of charitable committees, but few were instituted before the end of the century. The municipalities were unwilling to apply the cantonal regulations for welfare. Thus it was often the canton, or even other municipalities, that was forced to take action.
This situation makes it possible to explain, at least in part, the interest that certain municipalities may have had in emigration. They sometimes preferred to finance the departure abroad of paupers and other persons considered to be undesirable and abandoned by their families, instead of giving them assistance. Although they officially denied it, the cantonal authorities also resorted to this "emigration of riddance", in particular to expulse jailbirds and convicted criminals overseas: the latter sometimes even requested it, preferring banishment to incarceration.
The canton's official policy regarding emigration tried to appear liberally inspired; this means that, faced with a phenomenon that it often strongly condemned, the government did nothing either to hinder or promote it. It should be noted that both conservatives and radicals agreed on this view of emigration and converged on a same political response toward it. As early as 1856, therefore, the canton had the task of regulating the emigration and supervising its conditions, in particular through police measures that required agencies to have patents. Starting in the middle of the 1860s, emigration became a regular issue of electoral campaigns.
The federal state itself was directly concerned by the departure abroad of hundreds of thousands of Swiss citizens during the 19th and first quarter of the 20th century. Although it was not mentioned in the federal constitution of 1848 and came within the competency of the cantons, the issue of emigration was to become one of its main preoccupations in the area of demographic policy. The government issued legal measures in this area and intervened to regulate the market for emigration. Its stance was inspired by the same liberal doctrine as on the cantonal level, formulated in the memorandum of the Federal Council of 24 December 1880: "Let us not lose sight of the fact that active labour is also a merchandise which, rightly enough, wants to be employed freely... The State that encourages emigration, as much as the one that prevents it, runs the risk of interrupting the flow of the working force".
Gérald Arlettaz, « L’émigration, un enjeu politique cantonal et national (1848-1888) », dans Vallesia, 46 (1991), p. 67-81.
Gérald Arlettaz, « Démographie et identité nationale », dans Etudes et sources, 11 (1985), p. 83-180.