Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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DIETS AND DIETINES.—Diets are political assemblies in which the different estates or classes of the same country meet to deliberate on affairs within their jurisdiction.


—Germany, Poland, Switzerland and Sweden have given this name to their assemblies. These countries, having very different forms of government, are not to be confounded in the same study; we shall therefore describe the diet of each country separately.


The German Diet. During the time of the German empire the diet was assembled according to the good pleasure of the emperor alone; afterward the consent of the electors became necessary to its being assembled; and finally, the capitulations imposed on the emperor the obligation of convoking the diet at least every 10 years. Under the feudal régime all nobles whose possessions were held directly from the emperor took part in the deliberations. In 1500 Maximilian I, deprived them of this right. The counts regained them, however, by submitting to the form of collective suffrage. Until the diet was divided into colleges its deliberations were almost entirely the work of the magnates and the nobility, but this was changed, beginning with the assembly of Nuremberg held by Fredrick III. in 1467. These colleges were three in number: The college (or chamber) of electors, the college of princes, and the college of imperial cities. After the college of electors had arbitrarily assumed to itself exclusive rights, the treaty of Westphalia defined the rights of the diet, as well as those of the emperor, whose power was at this time almost nominal, in consequence of the influence which Austria and Prussia had acquired over the small principalities. Later, from 1815 to 1866, the Germanic confederation, for which a new diet was instituted, simply vegetated. Finally, we have the German empire, created in 1871, which has a reichstag, the Prussian parliament being called landtag, words which may both be translated diet.


The Diet of Poland. Even when the kings of Poland exercised absolute power they consulted on important affairs the magnates who formed, so to speak, their senate. At the diet of Chencing, in 1331, Ladislas the Dwarf convoked the entire nobility; since that time the nobles neutralized the power of the magnates. In proportion as enlightenment increased, the meetings of the diet became more frequent, but their convocation took place at the pleasure of the king, and had no regular form. The nobility met there in a body, discussed affairs on horseback, and separated at the end of a few days. The law of 1468 having determined the form of the diets, the petty dietine arose. Two deputies represented each district at the diet, after having received the instructions of their constituents. There were assemblies of all the nobles of each district, and these assemblies took the name of ante-comitial dictines or dietines of instruction. When the business of the diets was terminated, the deputies gave an account of their action to their constituents, in post-comitial dietines or diets of account.


—After the extinction of the Jagellon dynasty the government underwent great modifications. The pacta conventa, imposed on Henri de Valois, in 1573, put all important power in the hands of the diet, fixing the times and places of the sessions, as well as the length of each session. In spite of the unanimous agreement declared necessary to give force to the decisions of the diet, a majority of votes governed in its deliberations up to 1651. Sycinski, a deputy from Upita, gave at that time the first example of the liberum veto, annulling, by his protest, all deliberations taken and to be taken. This abuse, tolerated at first, was constitutionally recognized in 1718, and placed the country, so to speak, at the mercy of a single man. In this way diets were seen broken up by a single veto, pronounced even before the opening of the session. It sometimes happened that the author of the veto, when the gauntlet was thrown down to him, carried his opposition with him into the tomb, and in that way restored full liberty of action to the deputies. The liberum veto was abolished at last by the constitutional diet, which lasted four years, from 1788 to 1792, and which gave to Poland the wise constitution of May 3. When the monarchy became elective, there were diets of convocation, which took place after the death of the king, in order to provide for public tranquillity during the interregnum, and to fix the date of the election. At the diets of election all the nobility participated in a body, by virtue of a motion made in 1573 by John Zamoyski.


The Helvetic Diet. The first eight Swiss cantons, bound together by a federal pact, sent their respective deputies, from time to time, to a place agreed upon, to consult concerning their mutual interests. These assemblies, which date from 1481, appear to be the origin of the Helvetic diet. The federal cantons having increased, and with them the power of the confederation, these assemblies became more necessary and more frequent. It was then decided that the diet should be held every year. The canton of Zurich had the right of convocation, and its first deputy was president of the diet. The session lasted one month, and the place of reunion was fixed at Baden, in Aargau; in 1712 it was transferred to Frauenfeld, in Thurgau. Each canton sent two deputies, whose deliberations touched upon the differences between the cantons or between them and their allies, and upon measures fitted to guarantee the federal pact. The diet next examined the accounts of the bailiwicks or districts, and gave decisions in appeals both in civil and in criminal matters. Each canton preserved its autonomy in internal affairs; but the diet centralized in itself all power relating to foreign affairs.


—The Helvetic diet presented at this period a strange contrast. Admired abroad for its simplicity, its soundness of judgment and its justice in relations with foreign states, it was distracted at home by petty hatreds, provincial jealousies, a smoldering rivalry, and mutual distrust among its members. On this account, it was powerless to remedy the evils of the constitution. The federal pact was approaching its dissolution; the French revolution caused its fall. The desertion of the diet united at Aargau in 1797, enabled France to break up the confederation, in order to form the Helvetic republic. The two chambers then took the place of the diet, but with a feeling of antagonism to the new government. A bloody struggle was about to take place for the re-establishment of the federal pact, when Napoleon interfered as mediator, and made Switzerland a federal state. The diet was re-established by virtue of the constitution of Feb. 19, 1803. It assembled every year in the month of June, alternately in each of the chief towns of the five directing cantons, and the sessions lasted one month. Each canton sent a deputy; but Berne, Zurich, Aargau, the Grisons and Saint-Gall had each a double vote; there were 25 votes. All higher power was in the hands of the diet, whose deliberations were simply reflections of the ideas of the powerful mediator who had re-established it. The congress of Vienna confirmed the new federal pact made by Switzerland in 1815, and left the same powers to the diet. It met the first Monday in the month of June, and was composed of 24 deputies. Profound changes have taken place since then.


—As to the Swedish diet, as well as those of the different German states, we refer to articles devoted to these countries.


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