Beyond  /  Comparison

Emancipation in War: The United States and Peru

A comparative look at the U.S. and Peru's emancipation proclamations' nuances in declaring the freedom of enslaved peoples.

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.

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.