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Cantons of Switzerland

A list of the cantons, along with their capital, population, and official languages follows, in alphabetical order
Cantons are member states that make up Switzerland. Each is fully sovereign and had its own currency and army from 1648 until 1848 when the Swiss federal state was established under a new, federal constitution. The newest canton dates back only to 1979. It is the Canton of Jura, which split off from the Canton of Bern. Before Switzerland became a federal state, the Old Swiss Confederacy contained 13 cantons of two types: six "land" or rural cantons and seven "city" cantons. During the 16th century the cantons were part of the Holy Roman Empire, but they became independent after the Swiss defeat of Emperor Maximillian in a 1499 battle. The land cantons became democratic republics and the seven city cantons were ruled by noble families.

Every individual canton has its own constitution and its own legislature and court system. Most of the legislatures are what are known as unicameral, meaning there is one legislative house only.

The federal constitution in Switzerland states that the cantons are sovereign to the extent that it is not covered by federal law, meaning the areas of the law that are not specifically national laws are to be determined by the cantons. The cantons are responsible for health, welfare, police, education, and taxation. The degree of autonomy of cities differs from canton to canton, but cities are almost always allowed to levy municipal taxes and pass laws on a municipal level.

The federal constitution in Switzerland states that the cantons are sovereign to the extent that it is not covered by federal law, meaning the areas of the law that are not specifically national laws are to be determined by the cantons. The cantons are responsible for health, welfare, police, education, and taxation. The degree of autonomy of cities differs from canton to canton, but cities are almost always allowed to levy municipal taxes and pass laws on a municipal level.

A list of the cantons, along with their capital, population, and official languages follows, in alphabetical order.

Aargau, Aarau, 581,562, German
Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Herisau, 52,654, German
Appenzell Innerrhoden, Appenzell, 15,471, German
Basel-Stadt, Basel, 185,227, German
Basel-Landschaft, Liestal, 269,145, German
Bern, Bern, 962,982, German, French
Fribourg, Fribourge, 263,241, French, German
Geneva, Geneva, 438,177, French
Glarus, Glarus, 38,237, German
Graubunden, Chur, 188,762, German, Romansh, Italian
Jura, Delemont, 69,555, French
Lucerne, Lucerne, 363,475, German
Neuchatel, Neuchatel, 169,782, French
Nidwalden, Stans, 40,287, German
Obwalden, Sarnen, 33,997, German
St. Gallen, St. Gallen, 465,937, German
Schaffhausen, Schaffhausen, 74,527, German
Schwyz, Schwyz, 141,024, German
Solothurn, Solothurn, 250,240, German
Thurgau, Frauenfeld/Weinfelden, 238,316, German
Ticino, Bellinzona, 328,580, Italian
Uri, Altdorf, 34,989, German
Valais, Sion, 298,580, French, German
Vaud, Lausanne, 672,039, French
Zug, Zug, 109,141, German
Zurich, Zurich, 1,307,567, German

The cantons range in size from 37 square kilometers to 7,105 square kilometers. Appenzell Innerrhoden has the smallest population, at 15,471, while Zurich has the largest, at 1,307,567.The canton that reaches the farthest west is Geneva, which is home to international organizations like CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory. The canton also runs the University of Geneva.

Graubunden is the largest canton and reaches the farthest east. It is the canton where there are small villages that speak Romansh, the fourth official language of Switzerland. Ticino is the only canton that is situated south of the Alps. It is home to the Swiss Center for Scientific High Performance Computing, which is near the village of Manno.

The northernmost canton is Schaffhausen, located on the Rhine, next to the border with Germany. Most centrally located are the two half-cantons of Obwalden/Nidwalden.

Because Switzerland has so many cantons, it may seem to people who have never been there that it must be a large country, but it is actually very small. Each of the cantons is made up of around 3,000 communes, or communities. Education, labor, economic policies are determined either on the level of the canton, or on the level of the communes within the cantons. A commune may have a population as small as a few hundred, or as large as one million or more.

The Swiss believe in having a decentralized government for many reasons, one of which is that it supports diversity. Switzerland is made up of several ethnic groups and people who speak different languages. There are also divisions having to do with cultural or religious characteristics. Another advantage is that with many legislative and policy decisions made on a local level, the Swiss are involved with creating the laws that affect them personally. With the number of different cantons with their own systems, it is sometimes a case of learning from what works and what does not work so well in other cantons. Some cantons may have higher taxes with extensive welfare benefits, while another canton may have lower taxes and a greater reliance on private charities. Because Swiss can freely move between cantons, the theory goes that Swiss will move to where the laws are most appealing and eventually good laws will overtake bad laws in a sort of political evolution.

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