Emancipation in War: The United States and Peru

Emancipation in War: The United States and Peru

On September 22, 1862, a week after the devastating Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Delivered by the lawyer-turned-politician, Lincoln emphasized the reunification of the country, but also set new precedents for the emancipation process. Wartime emancipation proclamations were not unusual. When the gaze moves beyond the U.S. borders, Peru offers a good comparison for showing how these declarations could embrace a high moral tone and simultaneously endorse compensated emancipation without reparations for the emancipated. Furthermore, the Peruvian example is a good reminder that slavery persisted after the Independence of Spanish-America and abolition resulted from domestic rebellion in many countries. However, as in the United States, these wartime emancipation proclamations rarely considered the plight and future of the formerly enslaved.

By the time of the American Civil War, emancipation was hardly a novel idea. The Age of Revolutions (c.1760-c.1825) witnessed the abolition of slavery in Vermont and the institution’s violent overthrow with the racial conflict in the French colony Saint-Domingue. The precedent of Saint-Domingue raised fears of race war, economic desolation, and political uncertainty. By the 1830s, the British Empire provided an alternate model by issuing a parliamentary decree to end slavery and helped to established additional precedents for other nations. In the aftermath of abolition, enslaved people gained their freedom, but without an economic redistribution and rearrangement of labor practices on the sugar islands, the freedmen lacked political power in a society that required property for voting. At the same time, planters received a significant direct and indirect compensation for their lost property.[1] Future abolitions in the Danish, French, and Dutch colonies continued with compensation for masters. In that regard, Lincoln dramatically broke with precedent by signaling an uncompensated emancipation.

Where readers are well-aware of the causation of the American Civil War and its evolution to emancipation, the conflict in Peru needs a brief introduction. Despite common assumptions, Peru had not abolished slavery immediately after independence. At the time of independence, Peru had an enslaved population of about 50,400, about 3.8% of the population. By the mid-1850, there were still 25,505 enslaved people, or less than 1% of the population.[2] A far cry from the almost 13% of the U.S. population that suffered enslavement. However, both countries ended the institution in very similar but also markedly different ways.

Ramon Castilla

Peru had suffered from significant political instability since independence. Only five of the first twenty-three presidents served two or more years in office. The 1850s and 1860s were a period of great volatility in Peruvian politics. Civil unrest was frequent. In April 1851, José Rufino Echenique succeeded Ramón Castilla y Marquesado as president, but there were domestic political rivals who accused the government of corruption and violations of the law. In August 1853, Domingo Elías unsuccessfully challenged the government, but a few months later the rebellious hotbed of Arequipa once again erupted in opposition to the government. At this point, Ramón Castilla entered the fray and accused Echenique of “tyranny, theft, and immorality.” With both leaders needing supporters, especially soldiers, they decreed measures to improve their popularity, including emancipation.[3] While the rebellion in the United States was initially about union and independence, the civil war in Peru was about political power and the presidency. As the respective civil wars dragged on, slavery became a tool to bring about a swifter end to the fighting.

President Lincoln made a far-reaching change in September 1862.[4] Lincoln opened his declaration with his well-known invocation of his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief, an authority he continued to use in the official declaration three months later, and that “the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States, and each of the States, and the people thereof, in which States that relation is, or may be, suspended or disturbed.” A statement many detractors of the decision pointed to, showing that it was still a war for union. Lincoln abandoned this specific statement in his official declaration in January where the reunification of the country was nowhere to be found.

In contrast, on December 3, 1854, Ramón Castilla, trying to win the presidency and oust his political opponent from office, immediately invoked a high moral cause. He claimed, “That is due to justice to restore to man his freedom: that one of the chief objects of the revolution of 1854 was to recognize and guarantee the rights of humanity, oppressed, denied, and scorned by the tribute of the Indian, and Slavery of the negro.” Therefore, Castilla promised the end of slavery and all Native tribute payments. Of course, for his proclamation to become the law of the land, he still had to win this civil war. However, this was a dramatic step to bring an end of suffering for enslaved and indigenous Peruvians, especially when one considers that Lincoln was just three months away from allowing the largest mass execution in U.S. History with the hanging of thirty-eight Dakota people at the same time that he considered emancipation.

Furthermore, Lincoln’s emancipation, at least as conceived in the preliminary proclamation and continued in the official proclamation, was extremely limited with the president only offering to free slaves in territories in rebellion on January 1, 1863, leaving critics to wonder if he even had the authority to do so. While Lincoln did not mention explicitly the idea of compensation for slaveholders, he did cautiously still suggest the colonization of freed people. A door he bolted shut in January with the official emancipation proclamation. While there was no reference to colonization, Lincoln suggested formerly enslaved individuals should seek labor contracts and if they so desired, don the uniform and fight in the war. He also broke dramatically with the precedent set by Great Britain in that there would be no compensation for slave owners.[5]

Castilla started his proclamation with some high moral assumptions. While the end of slavery was immediate, Castilla, just like Lincoln, still had to win the civil war for the proclamation to reach all corners of Peru. The Peruvian freed all individuals held in bondage immediately without consideration whether their owners were loyal or disloyal. He demanded, “The men and women held until the present time in Peru as slaves, or serving-freedmen, whether in that condition by sale or birth, and in whichever mode held in servitude, perpetual or temporary—all, without distinction of age, are from this day wholly and for ever free.” There was no geographical restriction in Peru. Castilla, however, was a man of his era. He was not ready to just take property away from people without providing adequate compensation. He decided, “that fair prices shall be paid the owners of slaves and patrons of serving-freedmen, on the following terms.” A decision that would dramatically increase the Peruvian government’s financial obligations and open the door for future political conflicts in the country.

Importantly, formerly enslaved people in neither the British Empire, the United States, nor Peru received reparations for overcoming the wrongs done to them for centuries. Racist attitudes remained prevalent. In September 1855, the U.S. Minister in Peru, John Randolph Clay, wrote with grave worry that the government had acted “without preparation and almost without notice.” Even worse, from Clay’s perspective, “The ‘Haciendados,’ or planters found themselves suddenly deprived of laborers to cultivate their Estates, as the negroes, in many instances, abandoned them; to come to Lima or move about the country in idleness.” The result was the ruin of landowners and a revolutionary environment.[6]

The two emancipation proclamations in Peru and the United States provide a reminder regarding the complexities of emancipation resulting from domestic conflicts. Reading Lincoln and Castilla’s emancipation proclamations in tandem is a study of contrast, similarities, and precedents. While Lincoln’s address reads like a legal document that sets a new precedent, Castilla’s sounds like a powerful humanist document that does not dare to go too far. Lincoln abandoned compensated emancipation, but dramatically limited the scope of his emancipation decree. At the same time, Castilla’s high moral tone favoring freedom to indigenous and enslaved Peruvians was curtailed by his desire to compensate masters. Both men were too conservative to embrace a massive social reorganization. At the same time, it was domestic wars that made these emancipation decrees possible. As a region ravished by domestic civil conflicts, Latin America has much to offer Civil War historians interested in comparative studies.


[1] Edward B. Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

[2] Peter Blanchard, Slavery and Abolition in Early Republican Peru (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Books, 1992).

[3] Blanchard, Slavery and Abolition in Early Republican Peru, 190-192.

[4] All quotes from Peru’s declaration drawn from: “Emancipation Declared in Peru,” Anti-Slavery Reporter, July 2, 1855, 157. All quotes from Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation from https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals_iv/sections/transcript_preliminary_emancipation.html, accessed August 24, 2020. All quotes from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=34&page=transcript, accessed September 10, 2020.

[5] Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 182-183.

[6] John Randolph Clay to William L. Marcy, September 10, 1855, Despatches from United States Ministers to Peru, Volume 12, September 4, 1855-December 26, 1856.

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at eichhorn.niels@gmail.com.

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