Francia, the Dictator

This singular individual, named Jose Gaspar Rodriguez Francia, was born near Assumpcion, in Paraguay, in the year 17 . His father was either a Frenchman or a Portuguese, and his mother a Paraguay Creole.

He was one of several children. At the university of Cordova, in Tucuman, he received such an education as a classical seminary in the interior of South America could furnish. Being a person of a shrewd, saturnine disposition, and retired, studious habits, he contrived, by close application, to acquire a degree of knowledge seldom placed within the reach of a student whose pursuits were watched by the jealous ecclesiastics of that region. In addition to the branches of education common in the university, he contrived to acquire some knowledge of algebra, geometry and Greek. Having prosecuted his studies through the ordinary term, he returned to Paraguay, and entered into practice as a lawyer. His professional reputation, in that country where justice was regularly bought and sold, was not only unsullied by venality, but conspicuous for rectitude. The following anecdote of his uprightness has been related by a writer no way disposed to be unduly partial to the subject of it.

Francia had an acquaintance in Assumpcion, of the name of Domingo Rodriguez. This man had cast a longing eye upon a certain Naboth's vineyard; and this Naboth, named Estanislao Machain, was Francia's open enemy. Rodriguez, never doubting that the young advocate, like other lawyers, would undertake an unrighteous cause for a suitable reward, went to him, offered a liberal retaining fee, and directed him to institute a suit in law, for the recovery of the estate in question. Francia saw at once that the pretensions were founded in injustice and fraud; and he not only refused to act as his counsel, but plainly told Rodriguez that, much as he disliked his antagonist, Machain, yet if he persisted in his iniquitous suit, he would himself undertake the cause of the injured party. Covetousness, however, is not so easily driven from its purpose. Rodriguez persisted, and, as he was a man of great fortune, the suit appeared to be going against Machain and. his estate. At this critical stage of the affair, the slave who attended the door of the luckless Machain, was astonished, one evening, to see Francia present himself before it, wrapped up in his cloak. Knowing that the doctor and his master, like Montague and Capulet, were smoke in each other's eyes,' he refused him admittance, and ran to inform his mast er, of this strange and unexpected visit. Machain, no less struck by the circumstance than his slave, for some time hesitated, but at length deter mined to admit his old enemy. In walked the silent visitor to Machain's chamber, and spread the papers connected with the law-case upon the table.

Machain,' said Francia, you know I am your enemy. But I know that my friend Rodriguez meditates, and will certainly, unless I interfere, carry on against you an act of gross and lawless aggression. I have come to offer my service in your defense.' The astonished man could scarcely credit his senses; but he poured forth his expressions of gratitude in terms of thankful acquiescence.

Pleas, it would appear, are made in that country by writing. The first paper sent into court confounded the adverse counsel, and staggered the judge, who was in their interest. 'My friend,' said that functionary to the leading advocate for the plaintiff, I cannot proceed in this matter, unless you bribe Dr. Francia to be silent.' I will try,' was the answer; and the advocate went to him with a hundred doubloons. He offered them as a bribe to Francia, to let the matter slip; and more surely to gain his con sent, he advised him that this was done at the suggestion of the judge himself.

Leave my house, with your vile proposals and contemptible gold!' was the indignant answer; and the menial tool of the unjust judge waited for no further dismissal. Francia, putting on his capote, hurried at once to the residence of that magistrate. Sir,' said he, after mentioning the attempt to bribe him, you are a disgrace to law, and a blot upon justice. You are, moreover, completely in my power; and unless tomorrow you pronounce a decision in favor of my client, I will make your seat upon the bench too hot for you; and the insignia of your judicial office shall become the emblems of your shame.' The morrow did not fail to bring a decision in favor of Francia's client. The Judge lost his character, and the young doctor's fame resounded far and wide.

His uncommon reputation for integrity, a more than common acuteness and learning in his profession, profound knowledge of the foibles and peculiarities of his countrymen, together with his fame for a mysterious familiarity with the occult sciences, soon caused Dr. Francia to be regarded as a most remarkable personage. In the deplorable state of ignorance then existing in South America, it was a wonderful faculty that enabled a man to multiply and substract the letters of the alphabet; to read a language written in strange characters; to measure an angle, and ascertain the height of a mountain with a theodolite. Francia, celebrated for universal knowledge, stood upon high vantage-ground, and in a great public exigence could not fail to be looked upon as one of the individuals destined to take the lead in public affairs.

When the province of La Plata revolted from Spain, the people of Paraguay refused to acknowledge the authority of the former government; in consequence of which an army was sent from Buenos Ayres, in 1810, under Gen. Belgrano, to reduce Paraguay. He was defeated and driven back. The next year a revolutionary government was established, and Francia, who had previously been in public office as a member of the municipal council and mayor of the capital, Assumpcion, was appointed secretary of the congress. Everything was in confusion; the army, as is usual on such occasions, seemed inclined to take the lead, and for some time, faction and terror alone prevailed; but Francia, at this critical moment, obtained an ascendancy which he never afterwards lost. His superior talents, address and information were continually in requisition and made him indispensable on all occasions. Nothing of any importance could be transacted without him. The members of the congress were entirely inexperienced in political matters, and grossly illiterate. Such a body attempted to found a republic, and we are told that their constitution was compiled from passages in Rollin's Ancient History!

The business proceeded with small success under such auspices. Intrigues, cabals and factions disgusted Francia to such a degree that he resigned his office, and retired to his country seat. The reader may wish for a picture of so remarkable a man as this Dionysius, of the western world, and we will copy the following description of him at the period of his retirement. It is drawn by an English merchant, who resided in Paraguay at that time:

On one of those lovely evenings in Paraguay, after the south-west wind had both cleared and cooled the air, I was drawn, in my pursuit of game, into a peaceful valley, remarkable for its combination of all the striking features of the scenery of the country. Suddenly I came upon a neat and unpretending cottage. Up rose a partridge; I fired, and the bird came to the ground. A voice from behind called out, Buen tiro a good shot.' I turned round, and beheld a gentleman of about fifty years of age, dressed in a suit of black, with a large scarlet capote, or cloak, thrown over his shoulders. He had a mate-cup in one hand, a cigar in the other; and a little urchin of a negro, with his arms crossed, was in attendance by the gentleman's side. The stranger's countenance was dark, and his black eyes were very penetrating; while his jet hair, combed back from a bold forehead, and hanging in natural ringlets over his shoulders, gave him a dignified and striking air. He wore on his shoes large golden buckles, and at the knees of his breeches the same.

'In exercise of the primitive and simple hospitality common in the country, I was invited to sit down under the corridor, and to take a cigar and mate, or cup of' Paraguay tea. A celestial globe, a large telescope, and a theodolite, were under the little portico; and I immediately inferred that the personage before me was no other than Doctor Francia. He introduced me to his library, in a confined room, with a very small window, and that so shaded by the roof of the corridor, as to admit the least portion of light necessary for study. The library was arranged on three rows of shelves, extending across the room, and might have consisted of three hundred volumes. There were many ponderous books on law; a few on the inductive sciences; some in French, and some in Latin, upon subjects of general literature, with Euclid's Elements, and some schoolboy treatises on algebra. On a large table were several heaps of law papers and processes. Several folios, bound in vellum, were outspread upon it. A lighted candle, though placed there solely to light cigars, lent its feeble aid to illumine the room; while a mate cup and inkstand, both of silver, stood on another part of the table. There was neither carpet nor mat on the brick floor; and the chairs were of such ancient fashion, size, and weight, that it required a considerable effort to move them from one spot to another.'

Francia's withdrawal left the government without an efficient adviser. Embarrassments multiplied, and a second congress was convened; such a congress,' we are told, as never met before in the world; a congress which knew not its right hand from its left; which drank infinite rum in the taverns, and had one wish, - that of getting on horseback home to its field-husbandry and partridge-shooting Such men, and we need not wonder, could not govern Paraguay. Francia was called from his retirement, and a new constitution was formed, with two chief magistrates, cal led consuls. Francia and a colleague were appointed to these offices for one year; each in supreme command for four months at a time; but as the former took the precedence, he had two thirds of the year for his own term of authority. Two carved chairs were prepared for the use of the consuls, one inscribed with the name of Caesar, and the other with that of Pompey. It is needless to say which of the consuls took possession of the former. By consummate address and management, and by the influence which he had obtained over the troops, Francia got rid of his colleague at the close of the year, in 1814, and was proclaimed dictator for three years. At the end of that time, he found no difficulty in assuming the dictatorship for life. From the moment that he felt his footing firm, and his authority quietly submitted to, his whole character seemed to undergo a remarkable change. Without faltering or hesitation, without a pause of human weakness, he proceeded to frame the boldest and most extraordinary system of despotism that was ever the work of a single individual. He assumed the whole power, legislative and executive; the people had but one privilege and one duty, - that of obedience. All was done rap idly, boldly, unreservedly, and powerfully; he well knew the character of the people at whose head he had placed himself, and who, strange to say, once thought themselves possessed of energy and virtue enough for a republic.

The army, of course, was his chief instrument of power. It consisted of five thousand regular troops, and twenty thousand militia. He took care to secure their most devoted attachment, and it does not appear that during his whole career of despotism the smallest symptom of disaffection was ever manifested in their ranks. Francia, at the time of his accession to the supreme authority, was past the age when any dormant vice, save that of avarice, is likely to spring up in the character. He was not dazzled with the pomp and circumstance of exalted rank, nor even by that nobler weakness, the desire of fame; for he took no pains to make an ostentatious display of his power, or spread his reputation among foreign nations, or hand his name down to posterity. On the contrary, he carefully shrouded himself, and, as far as possible, his dominions, in haughty seclusion. His ruling, or rather his absorbing passion, was a love of power, and of power for itself alone. It was with him a pure, abstracted principle, free from desire of the splendor which usually surrounds it, of the wealth which usually supports it, and of the fame which usually succeeds it.

The most remarkable feature in his administration was the perfect isolation in which he placed the country. Intercourse with foreign nations was absolutely interdicted. Commerce was at an end. The ships lay high and dry, their pitchless seams yawning, on the banks of the rivers, and no man could trade but by the Dictator's license. No man could leave Paraguay on any pretext whatever, and it became as hermetically sealed against the escape of its inhabitants as the Happy Valley' of Abyssinia. In this restrictive policy he was assisted by the peculiar geographical features of the country. Paraguay, in the midst of an immense and thinly-peopled continent, stood alone and impenetrable its large rivers, wide forests and morasses, render traveling difficult and hazardous. Any one attempting to cross the frontiers must encounter the danger of losing himself in the wilderness, of being destroyed by those immense and terrible conflagrations to which the thick woods are subject, of excessive fatigue and exposure, of starvation, and attacks from venomous reptiles, wild beasts and savages. The only possibility of escape is during the time that the river Paraguay overflows the surrounding plains; it is then barely practicable. A Frenchman, with five negroes, made the attempt in 1823. One of them died of fatigue, another by the bite of a snake. At one time they were surrounded by the burning woods; and at another were involved in an immense glade in the midst of a forest, where they wandered about for fifteen days in search of an outlet, and were finally obliged to return by the opening through which they escaped. Being at last so reduced by fatigue and famine that they were unable to resist a single man, they were recaptured by a sergeant of militia.

But Francia's tyranny was not without signal benefits to the country. The land had peace, while all the rest of Spanish America was plunged into frightful anarchy, raging and ravening like a huge dog-kennel gone mad. Paraguay was domineered over by a tyrant, but Peru and Mexico, Chili and Guatimala, suffered the oppression of forty tyrants. Francia's soldiers were kept well drilled and in strict subordination, always ready to march where the wild Indians or other enemies made their appearance. Guard-houses were established at short distances along the rivers, and around the dangerous frontiers; and wherever an Indian cavalry horde showed itself, an alarm-cannon announced the danger; the military hastened to the spot, and the savage marauders vanished into the heart of the deserts. A great improvement, too, was visible in other quarters. The finances were accurately and frugally administered. There were no sinecures in the government; every official person was compelled to do his work. Strict justice between man and man was enforced in the courts of law. The affair of Naboth's vineyard could not have occurred under the Dictator's rule. He himself would accept no gift, not even the smallest trifle. He introduced schools of various sorts, promoted education by all the means in his power, and repressed superstition as far as it could be done among such a people. He promoted agriculture in a singular manner, not merely making two blades of grass grow where one grew before, but two crops of corn in a season. In the year 1820, a cloud of locusts devastated the whole country, and the prospect of universal famine threatened the land. The summer was at an end, and there was no foreign commerce by which supplies might be obtained from abroad. Francia hit upon an expedient, such as had never entered into the contemplation of any man in Paraguay before. He issued a peremptory command, ordering, under a severe penalty, that the farmers throughout the country should sow their lands anew. The result was, that a second crop was produced, and the people amazed with the important discovery that two harvests were, every year, possible in Paraguay. Agriculture made immense progress; the cultivation of many articles, before unknown in the country, was now successfully introduced, and, among others, rice and cotton. Manufactures kept pace with agriculture, and the clothing of the people, which had previously, for the most part, been imported ready made, at a great expense, was now entirely produced at home.

The city of Assumpcion was an assemblage of narrow, crooked, irregular streets, interspersed with trees, gardens, and clumps of tropical vegetation. It had no pavements, and, standing on a slope of ground, the sandy thoroughfare was torn by the rain into gullies, impassable, except by taking long leaps. Numerous springs issued from the soil in every part of the city, and formed streams, or stagnated into pools, where every species of filth became deposited. Francia determined on having it remodeled, paved, and straightened. The inhabitants were ordered to pull down their houses, and build them anew. The cost to private purses was great, and caused infinite grumbling; but Assumpcion is now an improved, paved city, and possesses convenient thoroughfares.

The stern temper and arbitrary political system of Francia led him to acts which could not fail of being denounced as the wanton excesses of a sanguinary disposition. He put to death upwards of forty persons, as we are assured by a traveler, who utters the bitterest denunciations against him. He had frightful prisons, and banished disorderly persons to a desolate spot in the wilderness. How far his executions were wanton and unjustifiable, we have not sufficient means of judging. In the early part of his career, a plot was formed for the purpose of taking his life; it was discovered, and executions followed; after which we hear nothing more of these sanguinary deeds. His enemy, the bandit chieftain Artigas, had done a great deal of injury to Paraguay, and had incensed him further by fomenting revolts among his Indians. Yet, when one of this chieftain's lieutenants rebelled against him, and forced him to retreat with the wreck of his army, Artigas threw himself on the mercy of the Dictator, and was treated with clemency. He suffered him to reside in Paraguay, assigned him a house and lands, with a pension, and ordered the governor of the district to furnish him besides with whatever accomodations he desired, and to treat him with respect.

The Dictator's treatment of foreigners who found their way into his dominions, was most rigorous and unjust, and has contributed more than any other cause to blacken his character among strangers. Paraguay was a sort of mouse-trap, easy enough to get into, but very difficult to get out of M. Bonpland, the fellow-traveler of Humboldt, and two Swiss naturalists, wandering into Francia's domains, were detained there many years. Sometimes, by special permission, an individual was allowed to leave the country, but these instances were rare. The foreigners detained were informed that they might pursue what avocations they pleased, provided they did not interfere with the government.

The father of Francia was a man of very eccentric habits; his brothers and one of his sisters were lunatics, and the Dictator himself was subject to fits of hypochondria, which seem occasionally to have affected his intellect. When under such influences, he would shut himself up for several days. On one of these occasions, being offended at the idle crowds gazing about the government-house, he gave the following order to a sentinel: - 'If any person presumes to stop and stare at my house, fire at him if you miss him, this is for a second shot, (handing him another musket loaded with ball;) if you miss again, I shall take care not to miss you!' This order being quickly made known throughout the city, the inhabitants carefully avoided passing near the house, or, if their business led them that way, they hurried on with their eyes fixed on the ground. After some weeks, an Indian, who knew nothing of the Spanish language, stopped to gaze at the house, and was ordered to move on, but continued to loiter. The sentinel fired, and missed him. Francia, hearing the report, was alarmed, and summoned the sentinel. 'What news, friend?' On being told the cause, he declared that he did not recollect having given such an order, and immediately revoked it.

The domestic establishment of the Dictator of Paraguay consisted of four slaves, three of them mulattoes, and the fourth a negro, whom he treated with great mildness. He led a very regular life, and commonly rose with the sun. As soon as he was dressed, the negro brought him a chafing-dish, a kettle and a pitcher of water. The Dictator made his own tea; and after drinking it, he took a walk under the colonnade fronting upon the court, smoking a cigar, which he always took care previously to unroll, in order to ascertain that it contained no poison; although his cigars were always made by his sister. At six o'clock came the barber, an un washed and ragged mulatto, given to drink, but the Dictator's only confidential menial. If his excellency happened to be in good humor, he chat ted over the soap-dish, and the shaver was often intrusted with important commissions in preparing the public for the Dictator's projects; so that he might be said to be the official gazette of Paraguay. He then stepped out, in his dressing-gown of printed calico, to the outer colonnade, an open space which ranged all around the building; here he walked about, receiving at the same time such persons as he admitted to an audience. About seven, he withdrew to his room, where he remained till nine. The officers then came to make their reports, and received orders. At eleven, his chief secretary brought the papers which required inspection by him, and wrote from his dictation till noon. He then sat down to a table, and ate a frugal dinner. After this, he took a siesta, drank a cup of mate, and smoked a cigar. Till four or five in the afternoon, he again attended to business; the escort then arrived to attend him, and he rode out to inspect the public works. While on this duty, he was armed with a sabre and a pair of double-barreled pocket-pistols. He returned home about nightfall, and sat down to study till nine, when he took his supper, consisting of a roast pigeon and a glass of wine. In fine weather, he took an evening walk in the outer colonnade. At ten, he gave the watchword, and, returning into the house, he fastened all the doors with his own hands.

Though possessing unlimited sway over the finances of the state, he made no attempt to enrich himself, and his small salary was always in arrears to him. His two nephews, who were officers in the army, were dismissed, lest they should presume upon their relationship. He banished his sister from his house, because she had employed a grenadier, one of the soldiers of the state, on some errand of her own. He was a devoted admirer of Napoleon, whose downfall he always deplored. The Swiss traveler, Rengger, who, after a long detention, was permitted to depart, left behind him a print of the French emperor. Francia sent an express after him, inquiring the price of it. Rengger sent him for answer, that the print was at his excellency's service, - he did not sell such trifles. The Dictator immediately despatched the print after him he would receive no gifts. There seems to have originally existed in him somewhat of the simple and severe virtue, which is more characteristic of a stern republican than of a sanguinary tyrant. He has left one witticism upon record, which we will subjoin, as it is much in character. Rengger, who was a surgeon, was about to dissect a body. 'Doctor,' said the Dictator, 'examine the neck, and see whether the Paraguayans have not an extra bone there, which hinders them from holding up their heads, and speaking out.'

In the accounts which were written of this extraordinary man during his lifetime, he has been represented as an arbitrary and cruel oppressor, universally detested, and whose death, inasmuch as he had made no provision for the continuance of the government, would plunge the state into anarchy and ruin. Both these representations have been completely falsified by the event. Francia died peaceably, on the twentieth day of September, 1840, aged eighty-three; the people crowding round his house with much emotion, and even, as we are assured, with tears of anxiety and sympathy. The funeral discourse pronounced on the occasion surprised the world; it was filled with praises of the deceased Dictator, whom it represented as the real father of his country.

Enough is known of Dr. Francia to assure us that he was a most remarkable individual; but it would be both difficult and unsafe to draw his character with confidence and minuteness, from the meagre and questionable materials which we possess respecting him. That he was a man of iron integrity in a country where corruption and venality were almost matters of course with public men; that he spent thirty years of his life in toil some devotion to his country; that he was above the vulgar love of money and disdained to take advantage of his unlimited power for enriching him self, - are all incontrovertible facts; that his government was also, on the whole, advantageous to his country, is not to be denied. But what were the motives which guided his conduct? Was it patriotism, or a simple love of power? Why adopt so strange a system of policy - that of interdicting all intercourse with other nations? Was it from a conviction that this was best adapted to the condition of the people, or that it was indispensable to the preservation of his despotic sway? Why enshroud himself in such mysterious isolation, holding as little commerce of affection and sympathy with his fellow-men us of trade with foreign nations? These are questions which we cannot easily answer. If we may rely upon the scattered glimpses of his career that have been presented to us, we should venture to decide that the main elements of his character consisted of stern integrity and devoted patriotism; blended, however, with natural sternness of temper, a love of power, and a conviction that a despotic government was best suited to the condition of the people. His singular habits were, probably, the result of native eccentricity; his exclusive policy was doubtless adopted with the double motive of perpetuating his authority, and insuring tranquillity to the country. Of the vigor of his mind and energy of his character, there can be no doubt. That he should have created and sustained, for thirty years, the sternest despotism that the world ever witnessed, in the heart of a continent where everything besides was tending to the dissolution of tyrannical power and the establishment of popular institutions, is a phenomenon that may well excite the curiosity and astonishment of the world. We may, indeed, suppose that his government was modeled after that of the Jesuits, the effects of which were still visible in his time; but that he should have been able to assume to himself, and exercise for so long a period, the unlimited power wielded by these sagacious priests, must still excite our surprise.