States must conserve the familial type

This is the second in a series of twenty articles, drawn from Mgr Delassus’s two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1904), in which he examines the conditions for the restoration of Christian society and the return to social truth. The section of this work that is reproduced here considers the role of the family as the origin and model of all society and the disastrous effects of human tampering with this institution so manifestly wanted by God and nature. 

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

Not only is the family the first element of all states; it remains the constitutive one, such that regular society as it stands — as long as it does not frustrate the laws of nature, as France did in the Revolution — is composed, not of individuals, but of families. Today, individuals alone are counted; the state only recognises dispersed citizens. This is contrary to the natural order. As M. de Savigny said so well: “Once formed, the state has families, not individuals, for constitutive elements.” This was the case in other times, as shown most clearly by the population counts, which were always made, not by persons, but by hearths — that is to say, by homes; each home was reputed to be the centre of a family, and each family was as much a political and juridical unity as it was an economic one. M. Buisson said recently in the Chamber: “The duty of the Revolution is to emancipate the individual, the human person, the elementary cell, organic to society.” This is, in effect, the task that the Revolution imposed on itself, but this task comes to nothing less than the disorganisation and dissolution of society. The individual is only one element of the organic cell of society. This cell is the family; to isolate its elements so as to practice individualism is to destroy life; it is to render it powerless to fulfil its role in the constitution of the social being, as would the dissociation of the elements of the vegetable or animal cell to living beings.

This was so well understood by the primitive Roman state that it recognised only gentes, and it was necessary to be a member one of these in order to have any legal status. “The emancipated son, the affranchised slave, foreigners who came to Rome seeking refuge all had to submit to the head of a family.” As in Rome, so in France in the high middle ages: “No place for the isolated man,” said M. Buisson, “if a family came to ruin or was dissolved, its members had to join another. Not to find such a shelter is to die.” Everywhere, at all the good moments in the histories of peoples, the family was what democracy, to our misfortune, has made of the individual: the social unit.

No less in the social body than in the living body; to take up the comparison of M. Buisson again, the elementary cells (families in the social body; plastids in the living body) are not all of the same rank, though both have come out of the parent cell. First, there are cells which give birth to blood cells and cells which give birth to the cells of tissues; likewise, in society, families are of diverse condition, though they share a common purpose, and are distributed, in every civilised state, among three classes: the people, the bourgeoisie and the nobility. Simply put, the bourgeoisie fills the role of blood in the human body: it comes out of the people and feeds the nobility. Contrary to what democracy wants to bring about, inequalities arise everywhere that moral, intellectual and material progress is seeded and develops, becoming accentuated and fixed in families and, little by little, forming a hierarchy, not of civil servants, but of houses.

Here again we find the great laws, established by God in the creation of man and his primary society, for regulating all human societies on whichever path they might take. “There are,” says M. de Bonald, “laws for ants and laws for bees. How could one ever have thought that there were none for the society of men; that they were at the mercy of the blind chance of their own invention?” Rousseau thought this. He did his utmost to formulate laws for states, different to those imposed by the Creator; and his disciples, the democrats, going all out to establish states based on his doctrine, cannot help but destroy them, and destroy them at the root, by founding them on equality in opposition to hierarchy, on liberty in opposition to authority, and on reciprocal independence in opposition to union.

If nations are built only of living families, and if the laws imposed by God on the family must be the laws of all societies, it is necessary for states to reproduce in them something of their primitive type. All the experts are in agreement on this point. “The Greeks and the Romans,” said l’abbé Fleury, “so renowned for the wisdom of this world, studied politics and governed their families accordingly. The family is the miniature of the state, which must always direct living men in society.”

“The Household,” said Jean Bodin, in the second chapter of the first book of his work, “is a just government of several subjects under the obedience of the head of a family. The commonwealth is a just government of several households and of that which they have in common with the sovereign power. It is impossible for the commonwealth to be worth anything if the families, which are its pillars, are poorly founded.” Leon XIII spoke in the same way: “The family is the cradle of civil society, and it is from within the walls of the domestic house that the destiny of states is, in large part, prepared.” And previously: “Domestic society contains and fortifies the principles and, so to speak, the best elements of social life: on this also depends the tranquil and prosperous condition of nations.” 

So, it is with good reason that M. de Bonald said: “When the laws of the society of men are forgotten in political society, they are re-found in domestic society.” In France, society conserved the familial type until the Revolution. In the eighteenth century, even as late as February 1774, the Parliament of Provence could write to the king: “Each commune among us is a family which governs itself, imposes laws on itself and sees to its interests. The municipal officer is its father.”

M. de Ribbes, who studied the communes of the old regime with so much care, concluded: “The localities are organised into families, the municipal registers are in all ways similar to household records; the home has its rites, constituencies have their own. The idea of family is manifest to the highest degree in the system of administration, it is still more striking in solemnities and public recreation.”

The monarchy itself had conserved this same character. The government was essentially familial. The woman and the oldest son of the king were closely associated with the exercise of power. The treasure of the state was under the surveillance of the queen and under her direct control. The chamberlain, who today is called the minister of finance, was in fact her subordinate. In most households, even to our own day, it is the woman who keeps the key to the coffer. The queen appeared in treaties concluded with foreign powers.

The six great officers of the crown, who assisted the king in all his acts of power, originally had domestic functions, which one remarks very neatly from the very titles of their offices. The sénéchal, the connétable, the pannetier, the bouteillier, the chambrier, the chancelier all took their names from the different services in the king’s house, and it came about that the Hôtel du roi transformed little by little into a seminary for statesmen.[1]

M. Viollet, in his Histoire des institutions politiques et administratives de la France, defined the character of the old monarchy thus: “The authority of the king was more or less that of the father of a family; the patriarchal and royal powers are apparently very close.” In returning elsewhere to the same idea, he says again: “It is clear that the role of the king was that of the head of a patriarchal family.”

As the father of a family, the king was the source of all justice in the kingdom. He listened to plaintiffs like a lord to his vassals, like a father to his children. He treated his subjects with total familiarity. “Every day, in his chamber,” says Jean de Joinville, talking about Saint Louis, “he fed the poor in great abundance, and many times I saw him cut their bread and give them something to drink.” It would be an error to believe that these traits had been particular to the magnificent bounty of Saint Louis; Robert le Pieux (“the Pious”), among others, acted the same way. It was a tradition among the old kings, to show themselves welcoming and beneficent, above all to the little and humble.[2]

In the thirteenth century, the king went on foot through the streets of Paris, and everyone approached and spoke to him. The Florentine, Francesco da Barberino notes his surprise to see Philippe le Bel (“the Fair”) — whose power was felt as far as the south of Italy — walking thus in Paris, naturally returning the salutations of the good people who passed. He did not fail to oppose this geniality with the arrogance characteristic of a Florentine lord.

According to the testimony of the chronicler, Chastellan, Charles VII “spent days and hours in the meanest labour with all conditions of men, drudging with all the people and with each one in particular”. The Venetian ambassadors of the sixteenth century remarked in their celebrated despatches that “no person is excluded from the presence of the king and people of the vilest class brazenly penetrate the inner chamber of the king as they please.” The king ate with his family before his subjects. Anyone could enter the room during meals. “If there is a singular character in this monarchy,” wrote Louis XIV himself, “it is the free and easy access of subjects to the prince.” They entered the Palace of Versailles at will.

“I went to the Louvre,” wrote Locatelle in 1665, “I walked there in complete freedom. Passing the various bodies of the guard, I came to that door which opens at a touch — and most often at that of the king himself. It is enough to knock and they introduce you straight away. The king wants his subjects to enter freely.”

Events concerning the king and queen directly were, for the whole of France, family events. The house of the king was in the true sense the “house of France”. The same testimony is offered in Letters of an English Traveller (1780). Here are a few lines of a citation made by de Maistre in one of his works:

“The Love and attachment of the French for the person of their king is an essential and striking part of the national character… The word “king”excites, in the spirit of the French, ideas of beneficence, thankfulness and love as well as those of power, grandeur and felicity… On Sundays and feast days, the French run in droves to Versailles, beholding their king with ever renewed avidity; and seeing him the for the twentieth time with as much pleasure as the first. They envisage him as their friend, their protector, their benefactor.”

“Before the Revolution,” General de Marmont also said, “one had a sentiment for the person of the king that was difficult to define, a sentiment of devotion with an almost religious character. The word ‘king’ then had a magic and power that nothing had altered. This love became a kind of worship.”

“Remember to love tenderly the sacred person of the king,” said a modest inhabitant of Puimichel (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) to his children in his commonplace book of 1681, “be obedient to him, submitted and full of respect for his orders.” Similar recommendations are found in the other commonplace books published by M. Charles de Ribbes; and the mottos of seigneurial families often express the same sentiments. They are never manifest more loudly than at the coming of Louis XVI to the throne.

“Cries of ‘Vive le Roi!’starting at six o’clock in the morning were not interrupted until sunset. When the Dauphin was born, the joy of France was that of a family. They stopped to talk to each other in the streets, not knowing one another, and kissed all those whom they did know.” The same sentiments persevered well into the Revolution. M. Maurice Talmeyr, in his pamphlet, Freemasonry and the French Revolution, made this observation:

“For two years, the Revolution played out to the cry of ‘Vive le Roi!’Then, of the riotous men and women conjured to outrage their sovereign, the larger part, when actually faced with him, were suddenly brought back to their senses by the insurmountable love of their race for the descendant of its monarchs. In his presence, all their mania turned into respect and tenderness, such as in October 1789.”[3]

M. Talmeyr offers other facts in confirmation of what he says here, and calls Louis Blanc as a witness. He could have invoked the revolutionary, Mme. Roland, eye-witness to the following, she wrote with despair: 

“One cannot believe to what extent the civil servants and merchants are reactionaries.[4] As for the people, they are tired; they think that it is all over and go back about their business. All the democratic papers are angered by the ‘Vivats’ which accompany the king each time he appears in public.”

So, there is perfect truth in the observation of M. Frantz Funck-Brentano that: “Nothing is more difficult for the modern spirit to understand than what the royal person represented in old France, and the feelings with which his subjects were attached to him.” It was said communally that the king was the father of his subjects; these words corresponded to a real and concrete sentiment on the part of the sovereign, as on the part of the nation. “To name the king ‘father of the people’,” said La Bruyère,” who always put so much precision into his sayings, “is not so much his elegy as his definition.” And M. de Tocqueville: “The nation had for the king both the tenderness that one has for a father and the respect that one owes only to God.”

“This (monarchical) regime,” said Augustin Thierry, “was not endured by the nation; it was resolutely and perseveringly wanted by it. It was founded neither on power or fraud, but accepted by the conscience of all.” Neither can we say that the nation wanted to be delivered from it. The number of abstentions in the elections of the whole revolutionary period, during which only ten thousand out of one hundred thousand enrolled electors voted, clearly shows that support for the republican regime in substitution of the monarchical was insignificant. Besides, it is known that a majority vote was not acquired for the condemnation of Louis XVI. One of the voters was not yet twenty-five years old, another was not even French, five others were neither valid nor enrolled; finally, seven representatives voted twice each: as representatives and as deputies for their colleagues. Instead of a majority, the verdict still had a minority of thirteen.

It is to the familial spirit of the monarchy, in large part, that France owed its prosperity. And such was its prosperity that France was, without contest, the first nation of Europe. In 1787, the great English orator, Charles James Fox, recognised this, not without a certain bitterness, when he cried out in the House of Commons:

“From Saint Petersburg to Lisbon, if one excludes the court of Vienna, the influence of France predominates in all the cabinets of Europe. The cabinet of Versailles presents to the world the most incomprehensible paradox: it is the most stable, the most constant and the most inflexible of all Europe. For several centuries, it has invariably followed the same system; and yet the French nation passes for the most lenient in all Europe.”

In effect, all societies which keep the familial spirit are, in a manner of speaking, bound to prosper; because they remain submitted to the law of nature. “Nothing in history,” said M. Frantz Funck-Brentano, “has ever invalidated this general law: as long as a nation governs after the constitutive principles of the family, it flourishes; from the day that it parts from the traditions which created it, ruin is close. That which establishes nations serves also to maintain them.”

This series will continue next month with “Union: the law of families and states”.


  1. The sénéchal — equivalent to the English “seneschal” — (from seniscalus meaning “old servant”) was the head squire. During wartime, he followed his master on expeditions, he looked to the arrangement of the royal tent. In the absence of the king, he commanded the army. His functions became hereditary in the houses of Rochefort and Guierlande; Louis VI diminished the extent of this office and Philippe Auguste (“Augustus”) abolished it.
    The connétable — or constable — was the “count of the stable” (comes stabuli). When Philippe-Auguste abolished the office of sénéchal, the connétable became chief of the army, to whom the king adjoined two maréchals (marshals). The office was abolished by Cardinal Richelieu.
    The pannetier surveyed the cooking of bread (pane). The office had the greatest names in France for titulars: Montmorency among them.
    The bouteillier had the administration of the royal vineyard and managed their revenues. He had the intendancy of the royal treasure and the presidency of the exchequer. From the twelfth century, these functions became hereditary in the house of La Tour. They were abolished by Charles VII.
    The chambrier — or chamberlain — directed the service of the private apartments. He became the treasurer of the kingdom and in this quality he was places, as we have said, under the order of the queen. The post was abolished in 1415.
    The origin of the grand chancelier — or chancellor — is at once religious and domestic. The Merovingian kings conserved among their relics, the little cape (cappa) of Saint Martin, whence the name of chapelle was given to the places where the relics of kings were guarded. To the relics were joined the archives. The head of the chapelains — or chaplains —was the grand chancellor, carrying constantly the royal seal around his neck.
  2. This is what Francois I, at the beginning of his reign, wrote at the top of his decree of 25 September 1523:
    “As it has pleased God to call us, at the flower of our age, as one of his principal masters of government and administration in this beautiful, noble and worthy kingdom of France, divinely and miraculously instituted for the direction and protection of all the estates of the same: Especially for the conservation, raising up and defence of the common and popular estate, which is, in this regard, the weakest, the easiest to trample and naturally in greater need of good guard and defence than any other; and particularly the poor common people of France, who have been always and in all things meek, humble, gracious, and of service to their natural prince and lord, whom they have always recognised, served and obeyed without changing, wavering, or wishing to suffer the domination of another prince. Such that, among the kings of France and their subjects, there has always been a greater adhesion, rapport and conjunction of true love, innocent devotion, cordial concord and intimate affection than in any other christian monarchy or nation.
    “Which love, devotion and concord, well maintained between the king and his subjects, in the fear and love of God (who has always been served devoutly in France) has made the kingdom flourishing, triumphant, feared, dreaded and esteemed by all the world…
    “And, the true means by which kings can and must both perpetuate and increase this love consist in justice and peace: in justice, making it pure, good, equitable and brief, without exception of persons or suspicion of avarice; in peace within and without the kingdom; above all, in intrinsic peace, making the common man to live, take his bread and live on it in peace, with the aid of his king, without being vexed, never disturbed without reason, which is the greatest happiness, contentment and treasure that a king can obtain for his people…”
  3. Translator’s note: The “October Days” were a pivotal moment of the French Revolution, initiated by the “Women’s March” to Versailles on 5 October 1789 and resulting in the royal family leaving the Palace of Versailles for the Tuileries in Paris, escorted optimistically by a crowd of over thirty-thousand. 
  4. Translator’s note: “Réactionnaire” was originally a pejorative term for those who opposed the revolutionaries out of fidelity to natural and divine law.