The purpose of this study is to assess the importance of Switzerland in the life and writings of Edward Gibbon. Whereas the choice of Lausanne as a place of exile for Gibbon to undo his youthful conversion to Roman Catholicism was largely accidental, the society and intellectual resources of that city, perched on its hills overlooking the shores of Lake Geneva, proved to be of lasting influence for the rest of his life. During his period of exile, he began to write in French his first work to be published, the Essai sur l’étude de la littérature, and the subject of Switzerland was his preferred choice of research until his Grand Tour, in which he renewed his residence in Lausanne for a further eleven months, stimulated the idea of writing a history of Rome. Eventually he decided to retire to Lausanne at the end of his parliamentary career to finish the last three volumes of The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
Brian Norman shows that the liberalism of Gibbon’s political philosophy in his criticism of Lausanne’s subjection to the aristocratic rule of Berne surprised the patriots of the new canton of Vaud when his Letter on the Government of Berne, which is here established as a youthful work of the late 1750s, was posthumously published at the end of the eighteenth century.
The author then proceeds to examine Gibbon’s other early writings relating to Switzerland, his letters and journals, The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire and his Memoirs in order to show the abiding effect of the society, language, history, constitution and military organisation of Switzerland on his beliefs and assumptions.