Frey was born in Arlesheim, Switzerland, as the son of Emil Remigius Frey. His father was a liberal separatist politician.
Frey's family provided refuge for Friedrich Hecker when he fled the repression following the revolution in Germany in 1848. Frey later emigrated to the USA arriving in Belleville, Illinois an area with many Forty-Eighters, veterans of the 1848 revolutions in Europe. For a while he worked for Hecker, but they had a falling out.
Career during the American Civil War
Frey entered the unionist 24th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment as a private. Frey wrote in his essay "My American Experiences" that "on 17th of June  I enlisted in the 24th at Chicago. On that same day I was appointed by Colonel Hecker to be the colorbearer of the regiment, and in the evening we left Chicago for Alton, Ill." Hecker was his commander, and they became friends again, with Frey sharing a tent with Hecker's son. Frey was later promoted to First lieutenant but resigned on 17 June 1862. He began raising a company for the Second Hecker Regiment (The 82nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment) and became the company's captain. Captain Frey was taken prisoner at the battle of Gettysburg on 1 July 1863 and held in Libby Prison for eighteen months before being exchanged for Captain Gordon, a Confederate prisoner under sentence of death.
After the Civil War, Frey returned to Switzerland. From 1866 to 1872, he was a member of the cantonal government of Basel-Country. In 1870, he married Emma Kloss (born 1848) from Liestal, with whom he had five children: Hans (1871–1913), Emil (1872–1913), Carl (1873–1934), Anna (1874–1893) and Helene (1876–1944). In 1877 Emma died from pulmonary tuberculosis, aged just 28 years.
From 1882 to 1888, Frey was the first ambassador (Minister) of Switzerland to the United States in Washington.
He was elected to the Federal Council of Switzerland on 11 December 1890 and handed over office on 31 March 1897. He was affiliated to the Free Democratic Party. During his office time he held the Military Department.
He was President of the Confederation in 1894.
From 1897 to 1921, Frey was director of the International Telegraph Union.
- Aus den Erlebnissen eines Schweizers im Sezessionskriege, Bern 1893, (translated: "From the experiences of a Swiss in the Civil War")
- Die Kriegstaten der Schweizer, dem Volk erzählt, Neuchâtel 1905, (translated: "The Swiss Acts of War, told to the People")
- II Formation and Enlistment by Ray W. Burhop, accessed December 10, 2007
- 'Receiving the Swiss Minister: Col. Frey receiving the congratulations of his countrymen' New York Times, November 20, 1882; Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois, Civil War, vols. 2 and 5.
- ITU: ITU's Former Secretaries-General
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Emil Frey.|
- Profile of Emil Frey with election results on the website of the Swiss Federal Council.
- Personenlexikon des Kantons Basel-Landschaft (German)
- Emil Frey - der Baselbieter Bundesrat (German)
- Fritz Grieder: Emil Frey in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
- Archiv der Basler Familie Frey - Family archives in Basel (German)
- Emil Frey in the German National Library catalogue
|President of the Swiss National Council
| Succeeded by|
Arnold Otto Aepli
|Member of the Swiss Federal Council
| Succeeded by|