Origins and family
"Neuberg", the house where Escher was born on Zürich's Hirschengraben
Auguste Escher, wife of Alfred Escher, around 1855
Alfred Escher with daughter Lydia
, around 1865
Alfred Escher was born in Zürich, into the Escher vom Glas family, an old and influential dynasty that had produced many prominent politicians. A scandal surrounding Alfred Escher's immediate forebears had, however, damaged his family line's reputation. His great-grandfather Hans Caspar Escher-Werdmüller (1731–1781) had fathered a child out of wedlock with a maidservant in 1765 and emigrated. His grandfather Hans Caspar Escher-Keller (1755–1831) almost brought the whole of Zürich to financial ruin when he went bankrupt.
Finally Alfred Escher's father Heinrich Escher (1776–1853) made a new fortune through speculative land deals and trading in North America. In 1814 Heinrich returned to Zürich and married Lydia Zollikofer (1797–1868) in May 1815. The marriage produced two children, Clementine (1816–1886) and Alfred. In 1857 Alfred Escher married Augusta Uebel (1838–1864). Their daughter Lydia was born in 1858, but another daughter Hedwig (1861–1862) died while still a baby. In 1883 Lydia Escher married Friedrich Emil Welti, the son of Federal Councillor Emil Welti. In 1890, shortly before the end of her tragic life, she invested the Escher fortune in a Foundation which she called the Gottfried Keller Foundation after the Zürich writer to whom her father gave consistent support. Lydia's suicide in 1891 brought an end to Alfred Escher's family line.
Childhood, youth, student years
Alfred Escher spent the first years of his childhood in the house where he was born, the "Neuberg" on Hirschengraben in Zürich. Heinrich Escher had a country house built on the left shore of Lake Zürich in the village of Enge (now part of the city of Zürich). He called it Belvoir. When the family moved into the house in 1831, Heinrich Escher was able to devote himself fully to his passion for botany and his entomological collection. During this period Alfred Escher was taught at home by various tutors, including the theologian Alexander Schweizer, and Oswald Heer, who was to become a paleo-botanist and entomologist. Escher attended the Zürich Obergymnasium high school from 1835 to 1837. After graduating from high school, Escher decided to study law at the University of Zürich. In 1838/39 he spent two semesters abroad at the
Universities of Bonn and Berlin, though these stays were marred by serious illness. During his studies, Escher became involved in the Zofingia student society, which he joined in 1837. He served as president of the society's Zürich section in 1839/40 and in September 1840 became overall president of the whole society. Escher himself repeatedly cited the Zofingia as a major influence on the development of his personality. With a dissertation on Roman law, Escher gained his doctorate "summa cum laude" from the University of Zürich. Having completed his studies, Escher needed to think carefully about his future career, so he went to Paris for several months to contemplate the matter.
Following his return to Zürich in the summer of 1843 Escher devoted himself to a number of academic projects. He did preparatory work on a wide-ranging history of Swiss law, which never came to fruition. Escher also planned to give lectures at the University of Zürich. In February 1844 he gave a trial lecture, whereupon the University governing council appointed him as a lecturer in the Faculty of Political Science.
In addition to his academic pursuits, the radical-liberal Escher was politically active: he met regularly with former student friends in the "Academic Wednesday Society" to discuss topical political issues and wrote a number of articles for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. In August 1844 Escher, now 25 years old, was elected to the Zürich's Cantonal Parliament. He was now able to play an active part in political debates of the time, most notably the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Swiss Confederation, a position on which Escher played a prominent role in the anti-Jesuit camp. In 1845 and 1846 Escher took part in the Federal Council of Cantonal Representatives (Tagsatzung) in Zürich as Third Envoy, which brought him into contact with Switzerland's leading politicians. In 1847 Escher was appointed as Zürich's Chief Administrator, and in the summer of 1848 he was elected to the cantonal government. With the introduction of the new Swiss Federal Constitution, it became necessary to put together the first ever national parliament. On 15 October 1848 Escher was elected to the National Council and was appointed its Vice-President on 7 November 1848. Escher was to sit on the National Council without interruption until his death 34 years later. He was elected to serve as National Council President (the highest public office in Switzerland) four times (in 1849, 1856 and 1862: in 1855 Escher declined the post for health reasons).
Opposition and criticism
Thanks to his many political posts and his position as one of the founders of the Swiss Northeastern Railway (1852/53) and Credit Suisse (1856), Escher commanded an unusual amount of power. He attracted a number of nicknames as a result, including "King Alfred I" or the "Princeps". His political eminence was bound to attract critics. The Democratic Movement called for the people to be given a greater say on political issues. The devotees who surrounded Alfred Escher – known as the "Escher system" – were the avowed enemies of the Democrats. The fight was taken to the "Escher system" by means of pamphlets and public assemblies, and ultimately this resulted in a weakening of Escher's influence.
Another serious problem he faced was the fact that his Northeastern Railway was sliding further and further into financial crisis in the 1870s. The company's share price plummeted from 658 Swiss francs in 1868 to 70 francs in 1877. This process prompted irate investors to heap criticism on Alfred Escher, even though he had already resigned from his position as chairman of the Northeastern Railway board in 1871. Even the financial difficulties involved in the Gotthard project were blamed on Escher by various parties.
Illness, death and memorial
Alfred Escher's grave in the Manegg cemetery in Zürich
In addition to personal attacks from political opponents, Escher faced serious health problems. He suffered repeated bouts of ill health throughout his life and on many occasions was obliged to spend long periods in convalescence. His susceptibility to illness was highly incompatible with his phenomenal appetite for work. During the critical phase of the Gotthard Tunnel construction in the mid-1870s Escher nearly worked himself to death. In 1878 he fell so badly ill that he was unable to leave "Belvoir" for several weeks. His life became a constant alternation between illness and recovery: asthma, fever, eye conditions, boils. However, this did not prevent Escher from fulfilling his political and business obligations whenever he could. In late November 1882 he fell badly ill again. Carbuncles developed on his back and he was plagued by a virulent fever. On the morning of 6 December 1882 Alfred Escher died on his "Belvoir" estate at Zürich/Enge.
At his funeral service on 9 December 1882, which was held in Zürich's Fraumünster church, the Swiss political elite conferred the last honour on him: Federal Councillors, National and States Councillors as well as countless representatives of the Cantons were in attendance. In February 1883 a committee was formed for the purpose of erecting a memorial statue to Escher. The commission went to the sculptor Richard Kissling. The Alfred Escher memorial designed by Kissling and erected outside the Zürich main railway station was inaugurated on 22 June 1889. Alfred Escher was initially buried in the Enge cemetery, but when that was deconsecrated in 1925 his remains were moved to the Manegg cemetery.