Founding families (1)

This is the ninth in a series of twenty articles drawn from Mgr Delassuss two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1905). The section of his work translated for this series considers the role of the family as the origin and model of society, the disastrous effects of human tampering and the necessity of the restoration of Christian society. This series began in April 2022 with How states are formed“.

The first part of this series, entitled “How states are formed”, appeared in the Digest in April 2022.

The work of observation to which Pierre Guillaume Frédéric le Play applied himself for so many years and in so many countries led him to these conclusions. There have always been, and there are even now in the world, three systems of family: the patriarchal family, the founding family and the unstable family.

Under the patriarchal system, which one finds throughout almost all of Asia and on certain mountains in Europe, the father keeps his sons and their wives and children under his immediate authority. The community includes up to four generations. Ancestral ideas, morals and habits, the tribal spirit penetrate the children from a young age in an indelible manner. The downside of this system is routine; the absence of progress. The founding family maintains itself over the ages like the patriarchal family, but it has greater flexibility and tends more towards its own perfection. It has, like the patriarchal family, a double principle of stability and perpetuity: one material — the home; the other moral — tradition.

The major interest of the founding family, which it places before all others, is the conservation of the heritage handed down by its ancestors. The family is similar to a hive; new swarms come and go but the hive must not perish.

To maintain it, parents of each generation associate with their own authority those of their children whom they judge to be the most fit to labour with them in the work of the family — the cultivation of the familial domain or the work of industry — and then to continue it after their death. This child is not necessarily the eldest, but in actual fact, almost always is. The eldest seems designated by providence, he is rather quite ready to cooperate with the father, is best able to oversee the education of his brothers and sisters. He is soon prepared for the obligations which are, in a way, imposed on him by the divine will. At the time of his marriage, he is made heir to the home and to the domain or workshop; or rather he is made their trustee, charged with passing them on to the next generation after having made good. In Provence, he is called the wage earner (le soutien de maison — literally, “the support of the house”).1

This quality imposes on him the duty of head of the family. He has the obligation to raise the youngest children, to give them an education appropriate to the family’s condition, to endow them with an emolument and to set them up with what has been saved from year to year by the labour of all. If the heir dies without children, another member, set up somewhere else, leaves his own house to come back and fulfil the duties of the head. These duties include, other than those already mentioned, the maintenance of the house and of its dependencies, the upkeep of the tombs of ancestors, the celebration of religious occasions, etc. All of this imposes on him an austere and frugal existence, the example of which is so good for initiating the younger generations into virtue.2 Louis de Bonald said:

“One is not fit to govern when one does not appreciate how the habits of a people — that is, its virtues — are influenced by a law which, constituting each family like the society itself, establishes some sort of royalty by birthright; as well as the indivisibility (and almost inalienability) of inheritance, by necessity of convenience, whereby the brothers are to take their legitimate portion in silver and leave all their possessions in the paternal house. ‘This house has been the home of my fathers, it will be the cradle of my descendants. Here, I have seen old age smile on my first works, and I will see for myself childhood trying its budding strength. These fields were cultivated by my fathers, I am cultivating them myself for my children.’ Such cherished memories, such sweet sentiments are linked to the most powerful interest of the human heart, that of property; in fact, they are the happiness of man, which assure society’s restfulness; I say more, they assure perpetuity. In countries where the law of equal shares forces children to sell all that might remind them of their fathers, there is never any family — I say more, there is never any society — because society ends and starts again with each generation.

“There, none of the children have any interest in staying with their parents to work for free to improve the state of things that, at the death of the father, the brothers will have to start again from scratch. The children leave the paternal house as soon as they reach working age to find a good salary at other farms or industrial works. The parents however get older, and soon old age or infirmity no longer permit them to cultivate their goods. They sell them off bit by bit, according to their needs, or let them go to waste; and when the parents are no more, the children come and divvy up what is left; sometimes they curse their father for chipping away at their inheritance, or too often, argue amongst themselves for a share; and hearts are only more divided when the property is not broken up.

“And the mother, what becomes of her? If she survives her husband, the mother — the only authority that childhood recognises and that youth respects, the widow of her husband, the widow of her children who, without any reason to rally, go each one to their own side — sees the sale of her marriage bed, of the chamber where she nursed her children, of the house for which she left that of her father and where she had believed she would finish her days; she remains isolated, without consideration and without dignity, bereft at once of her family, to whom she gave life, and of the place where she raised it.

“And are the younger siblings to rejoice as much as one might think at the equality of shares? Most likely, in some opulent and not very numerous families, the first shares are better; but each child wants to have a family; and these goods, initially divided amongst a few, are divided again amongst many, and sooner or later this division increase geometrically. For petty landowners, this evil is felt from the first generation; each one however remains attached to his little fraction of the property, he torments himself and wears himself out to draw from it a meagre subsistence that he might have earned at less cost and greater profit in another profession.

“The equality of shares strikes a mortal blow to property. What interest can push the homeowner to the acquisition and the improvement of a property which causes him so much trouble during his life, and which will disintegrate at his death into imperceptible fractions and go to enrich the heritage of another family? Why would he bother exposing himself to speculations of improvement that he cannot finish and that no one after him will continue?”

This series will continue next month with Founding families (2)”.


1. Here you are, big strong boy,
You are going to enter into youth;
Receive my last lesson:
Learn what your birthright is.

As my father did,
A brave eldest son of our race
shows himself proud and satisfied
To take the hardest place.

His thrift is the common foundation
whence everyone draws whom he loves;
He amasses each’s keep
From all that he takes from himself.

From the post where the good God has put Him
he does not stray for an hour;
There he faces his enemies
There he will die if he must!

So, when God takes me back,
You know our humble inheritance,
You know the lot which falls to you,
And which returns to you whole.

Our dear little ones will be happy,
But I must be reborn in you.
Watch, fight, suffer for them…
This, my son, is your birthright!

Victor Laprade, “Le droit d’ainesse— “The birthright”

2. Edmond Demolins was travelling one day aboard a Norwegian vessel. He knew that the domains of Norwegian peasants are little kingdoms that the fathers pass on whole to one of their sons.

“I wanted to know what the captain of the ship on which I had taken passage thought of the sharing inheritances in his country. His opinion interested me all the more because our man appeared to have no personal reason to be in favour of integral transmission, not having been designated heir by his father . ‘Concerning his inheritance,’ he told me, by the book, ‘the father does what is in his mind. He alone chooses without constraint the one of his children to whom he wishes to leave his fishing boat and his rural domain.’

“‘In these conditions, I said, what is the lot of the children who do not inherit anything?’

“‘The father helps them to set themselves up, by giving them the sum of money which he can.’

“‘Does he give each of them an equal sum?’

“I asked this question in order to see whether the ideas of equal shares, which are so dear to the French, excited any sympathy in the mind of my interlocutor. He looked at me in astonishment and answered:

“‘But that would not be fair. The children are all unequal; some have more luck or more qualities than the others, and succeed quickly in creating a position for themselves; to them the father gives little or nothing, in order to be able to help the others more effectively.’

“‘Besides,’ he added, ‘success in life does not come from the money at one’s disposal, but personal qualities. One sees as many rich men who are ruined by their incapacity as people who raise themselves to wealth by work. A man must know how to be self-sufficient.’

“This response struck me: it put the question in its true light. By its brutality, our law of equal shares is a permanent source of inequality in each family. The father’s appraisal is more equitable because it weighs the inequalities of nature for each child. It reestablishes the equilibrium and has the result of giving support proportioned to each’s needs. It does not abase the father to the role of a simple cashier, but elevates him to the dignity of judge and equitable dispenser of the fortune which he has been able to earn or conserve.

“In these conditions, the father is not driven to limit the number of his children, because he does not consider each newborn as would a creditor, having to sacrifice his part of the domain or lessen that of his brothers. He knows that children from large families are generally better brought up, better prepared for the trials of life, and as a result, better able to cope in business and even to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters.

“I questioned the captain on the subject of the situation of the sisters, who have no dowry. ‘In such conditions,’ I observed, ‘a French woman would find it hard to find a husband.’

“‘I do not know any Norwegian,’ the captain answered me, ‘who has ever stopped to consider this. We believe that a husband needs to be capable of supporting a family.’”