My dissertation brings together the literature on state formation and labor history to examine the role of unfree labor in postcolonial state-making through the case of Paraguay. Between 1811 and 1864, the newly independent Paraguayan state massively mobilized coerced workers—from state-held slaves to tributary indigenous peoples—for several state-building projects: the colonization of borders, the development of strategic industries, and the policing of political dissidence. I argue that these regimes of unfree labor allowed the state to secure its hegemony while simultaneously granting poor Paraguayans a platform to promote their own ideas about the public good and to demand inclusion in the body politic. In personal meetings with the president and his advisors, as well as through petitions, unfree workers denounced corruption among state officials, accused wealthy Paraguayans of conspiring against the government, and committed to maintaining Paraguay as a peaceful safe haven among war-torn nations. My research analyzes this seemingly paradoxical connection between labor coercion and political empowerment. Unfree workers made the reproduction of the state possible both by creating the state’s infrastructure and by cementing its authority through their claims of inclusion. My dissertation reexamines a longstanding historiographical problem: the incorporation of popular classes into the political life of new nations. While scholars have argued that popular classes shaped postcolonial state making through collective actions such as soldiering or rioting, I show that in authoritarian Paraguay, lower classes engaged in national politics through their labor. Paraguay’s unusual and understudied trajectory compels us to rethink narratives of postcolonial state formation by bringing new issues to the fore: the uses of state slavery as a tool for governance and not only for profit, the formation of distinctive political cultures under authoritarian contexts, and the politics of knowledge that determine which stories are deemed paradigmatic and which are omitted from pan-regional narratives.