Jose Gaspar Rodriguez (Commonly Called Dr Francia. Francia), dictator of Paraguay, born in Asuncion about 1757, died there, Sept. 20, 1840. He boasted that he was of French extraction, but his father is supposed to have been born in Brazil, of Portuguese descent, and to have emigrated to Paraguay as an agriculturist along with other settlers. His mother was a creole. He was educated for the priesthood, received the degree of doctor of divinity, was for a short time a professor of theology at Cordova de Tucuman, then applied himself to the practice of the law, and gaining a reputation for ability and rectitude, was appointed to several public offices. After the declaration of independence by the Paraguayans in 1811, he became the secretary of the revolutionary junta, the other members of which were two assessors and a president, Don Fulgencio Yegros. The latter and Francia were in 1813 appointed joint consuls for one year, but Francia was the moving spirit of the government. At his instigation the consulship was abolished in 1814, and he was made dictator for three years, at the end of which he contrived to secure his election as dictator for life. He combined in his own person almost all the powers of the government.
He monopolized the cultivation of mate or Paraguay tea, and of other products of the country, but husbanded the national resources with great sagacity, gave a powerful impulse to the rearing of horses and cattle and to the cultivation of rice and grain, and established a standing army and guard houses along the frontiers, to protect the people against attacks from the Indians. He devised a code of laws, promoted education, checked the abuses of the clergy, improved the appearance of the capital, and, while neighboring states were in anarchy, secured for Paraguay a comparative degree of tranquillity. He peremptorily declined all intercourse with other South American states, and almost all foreign nations, and detained all foreigners who set foot in the country. No ex-port or import trade was allowed without the dictator's license, and death awaited those who were detected in leaving the country without his special permission. Those opposed to his rule were either shot or imprisoned. The principal victims of his administration were pecur lating officials, corrupt priests, and persons generally who endeavored to enrich themselves at the public expense. He was generally humane toward the poor, and professed to be impelled to rigorous measures by a sense of justice.
He was most unrelentingly cruel toward those who were accused of conspiracy against his life. About 1819 Gen. Ramirez of Entre Rios was supposed to contemplate an invasion of Paraguay. A letter from him to Yegros, Francia's former associate in the consulate, fell into the latter's hands. Yegros was charged with plotting against the country, and, with upward of 40 others, was put to death, and about 300 persons were imprisoned for 18 months, when they were only released upon the payment of a large ransom. Some of Francia's prisoners were subjected to the most cruel tortures, and the delight which he seemed to find in inflicting torment gave rise to the belief that, like some of his brothers, he was occasionally deranged. In his habits of life he was peculiar. After having been fond of gambling and social and sensual enjoyments, he led a life of the utmost retirement, and Paraguay was not more isolated from the rest of the world than he from the rest of mankind. He resided in the palace of the former governors of Paraguay, attended by four slaves. His barber, a mulatto, was his principal channel of communication with the public, and a half-breed named Patinos was his principal secretary.
After the death of his master the latter was implicated in a charge of conspiracy against the government, and hung himself in prison. Toward the end of his reign Francia was in constant fear of assassination. He remained a bachelor until his 70th year, when he was reported to have married a young French woman. He was a man of remarkable physiognomy, with dark, piercing eyes, and of great mental powers, which he cultivated by study and reading, He was especially fond of the French literature of the 18th century, and an admirer both of Robespierre and Napoleon. The anecdotes of his eccentricities were almost as numerous as the reports of his cruelties. Yet his death was deplored as a public calamity, and the people seemed to recognize in him a friend and a benefactor. His reputation as the tyrant of Paraguay was particularly aggravated in Europe by his treatment of Bonpland the distinguished botanist, whom he detained for nearly ten years, and by the accounts given of him by other persons whom he had interfered with.
Among these were two Swiss surgeons, Reng-ger and Longchamp whom he detained from 1819 to 1825. On their return they related their observations, and expressed their dislike of Francia, in an Essai historique sur la revolution de Paraguay et le gouvernement dictatorial du docteur Francia (Paris, 1827). Two young Scotchmen, J. P. and W. P. Robertson, who went to Paraguay on a commercial venture, were turned out of the country by the dictator, and they gave appalling accounts of his administration in three works: Letters on Paraguay" (2 vols., London, 1838),Francia's Reign of Terror" (1839), and "Letters on South America" (3 vols., 1843). A graphic sketch of his life and character was given by Thomas Carlyle in an article in the "Foreign Quarterly Review" (1843), in which the dictator is greatly lauded for his eccentric and ruthless energy and justice. C. A. Washburn, in his History of Paraguay (1871), paints him in the darkest colors.