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Francia The Dictator, The Louis XI Of Paraguay
by [?]

Among the varied countries of South America the little republic of Paraguay, clipped closely in between Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil, presents the most singular history, this being due to the remarkable career of the dictator Francia, who ruled over it for a quarter of a century, and to the warlike energy of his successor Lopez. The tyranny of Francia was one of the strangest which history records, no man ever ruling with more absolute authority and more capricious cruelty. For many years Paraguay was completely cut off by him from the rest of the world, much as Japan was until opened to civilization by Commodore Perry. Unlucky was the stranger who then dared set foot on Paraguayan soil. Many years might pass before he could see the outer world again. Such was the fate of Bonpland, the celebrated botanist and companion of Humboldt, who rashly entered this forbidden land and was forced to spend ten years within its locked confines. Such is the country, and such was the singular policy of its dictator, whose strange story we have here to tell.

In May, 1811, Paraguay joined the other countries of South America in the general revolt against Spain. There was here no invasion and no blood-shed; the armies of Spain were kept too busy elsewhere, and the revolution was accomplished in peace. A governing committee was formed, with Fulgincio Yegros for its chairman and Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia for its secretary. The first was a man of little ability; the latter was a man whose powers will soon be seen.

The committee decreed the independence of Paraguay. Two years later a new convention was held, which dissolved the committee and elected two consuls, Yegros and Francia, to govern the country. Two chairs were made for them, resembling the curule chairs of Rome, and called Caesar’s and Pompey’s chairs. On entering office Francia coolly seated himself in Caesar’s chair, leaving that of Pompey for his associate. This action showed the difference in force of character between the two men.

In fact, Francia quickly took possession of all the powers of government. He was a true Caesar. He appointed a secretary of state, undertook to reorganize the army and the finances, and deprived the Spaniards in the country of all civil rights. This was done to gain the support of the Indian population, who hated the Spaniards bitterly. He soon went farther. Yegros was in his way and he got rid of him, making the simple-minded and ignorant members of the congress believe that only a sovereign magistrate could save the country, which was then threatened by its neighbors. In consequence, on the 8th of October, 1814, Francia was made dictator for three years. This was not enough to satisfy the ambitious ruler, and he played his cards so shrewdly that, on the 1st of May, 1816, a new congress proclaimed him supreme and perpetual dictator.

It was no common man who could thus induce the congress of a republic to raise him to absolute power over its members and the people. Francia at that time was fifty-nine years of age, a lean and vigorous man, of medium stature, with piercing black eyes, but a countenance not otherwise marked. The son of a Frenchman who had been a tobacco manufacturer in Paraguay, he was at first intended for the church, but subsequently studied the law. In this profession he had showed himself clever, eloquent, and honorable, and always ready to defend the poor and weak against the rich. It was the reputation thus gained which first made him prominent in political affairs.

Once raised to absolute power for life, Francia quickly began to show his innate qualities. Love of money was not one of his faults, and while strictly economical with the public funds, he was free-handed and generous with his own. Thus, of the nine thousand pesos of annual salary assigned him, he would accept only three thousand, and made it a strict rule to receive no present, either returning or paying for any sent him. At first he went regularly every day to mass, but he soon gave up this show of religious faith and dismissed his private chaplain. In fact, he grew to despise religious forms, and took pleasure in ridiculing the priests, saying that they talked about things and represented mysteries of which they knew nothing. “The priests and religion,” he said, “serve more to make men believe in the devil than in God.”