I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. — James Madison

William Tell - George Upton




Freedom's New Year

Everything needful had been decided and provided by the men who took the oath to liberate their country from the hands of its oppressors. On New Year's night of 1308 a young man with twenty of his trustiest comrades went to the castle of Rossburg. They found a girl there who was in sympathy with their undertaking. At their signal she let down a rope from the wall, by which the young man ascended, followed by his comrades. When all were together they seized the warder and his family, surprised the sleeping guards, and confined them securely, so that the affair should be kept quiet until the fate of Sarnen was decided. Then they sent a messenger by a secret route to Stanz, carrying the news of their success to the Confederates.

Morning broke. Landenberg, the Governor, left the castle of Sarnen to attend matins at a church near by. On the way, twenty men from Oberwalden met him, bringing calves, goats, lambs, cheeses, and other gifts, which they begged him to accept as New Year's presents. Landenberg was greatly pleased with such fine gifts, and invited them to go to the castle and await his return. They were scarcely in the castle yard before one of them gave a signal on his horn to thirty companions, who were hidden in the bushes near by. At the same time those in the castle drew their spear tips, which had been concealed in their garments, and fastened them to their sticks. The little garrison attempted to defend itself, but was quickly overpowered, and the gates were opened to the comrades outside. A messenger was also despatched with news of this victory.

Landenberg trembled when he heard the news at church that he had lost his castle, and hastily fled with his retinue, intending to cross the mountains; but as he was prevented by a heavy snowfall, he went across the fields from Sarnen to Alznacht and thence by boat to Lucerne, As they had let the Governor escape unharmed, they allowed the castle guards to go honorably and without violence. They were permitted also to take their personal effects, but they were obliged to swear they would never return to the country. There were great rejoicings over the capture of these two castles. High soared the flames in air as a signal to light the fires of freedom on the mountains.

There was great activity at the same time also in Schwyz and Uri. Werner Stauffacher and William Tell led an armed force against Schwanan and Kussnacht, both of which castles were assailed and destroyed. The nearly finished castle of Zwing-Uri was demolished. The messengers of victory passed each other on the roads, and saw freedom's fires burning on many mountains.

It was a joyous New Year's festival, for the patriots had secured their freedom without shedding a drop of blood or injuring any one—an achievement which seems almost incredible when it is remembered how intensely the people had suffered and how long they had been deprived of their rights.

Eight days later deputies from the three cantons assembled at Brunnen, and with joyful hearts thanked God in church for the victory which He had granted them, and renewed the League which they had organized on the Rutli meadow. The nobility also joined with the people, for it seemed to them nobler to share their honors with the people than to accept empty honors from a foreign court.

The commemoration of the rescue of the fatherland has been observed from generation to generation, and the exploits of Tell, who lived until 1355, have been celebrated in addresses and poems, and many times have been depicted upon canvas. Schiller, one of the noblest poets of all times and peoples, has glorified him in his last great art-creation—the drama of "William Tell."

Even to this day the heart of every Switzer beats more exultantly when he shows a stranger the places which have been immortalized by the deeds of Tell and his heroic associates.