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A freedman is a former slave who has been released from slavery, usually by legal means. Historically, slaves became freedmen either by manumission (granted freedom by their owner) or emancipation, (granted freedom as part of a larger group).

In Ancient Rome

Compared to other ancient peoples of the Mediterranean basin, the Romans were extremely liberal in freeing slaves and granting Roman citizenships. In fact, freedmen formed about 5% of the population of Rome during its Imperial Age.

Slaves were able to earn their freedom in more than one way. Educated and trained slaves were almost always freed, a practice that was so common that Emperor Augustus passed a law prohibiting the freeing of slaves before they reached the age of thirty. A slave could also be freed as a reward for long and dedicated service, and many were freed in the wills (and therefore at the death) of their owners. The Augustan law also restricted the numbers of manumitted slaves. No more than 100 slaves per household, and a lower number in less affluent households, could be freed in this way. A slave was able to buy his own freedom through his peculium (money), or personal possessions.

When an owner freed a slave, the act was called manumissio, from the word manus, meaning hand in Latin, and mitto, meaning send. The oldest method of manumission was in a legal ceremony, where a witness claimed that the slave did not actually belong to the master, who did not deny this. As a result, the slave was freed.

Liberti or Libertini are two words that were, at different times, used by the Romans to describe the condition of former slaves who had been freed. There is some distinction between these words. The term libertus meant the freedman, when considered in relation to the owner who had bestowed liberty upon him. The term libertinus denoted the freedman when considered in relation to the state he had occupied in society since his manumission.

Freedmen were also able to own their own land. However, they were not full Roman citizens. They could not run for public office or hold a high rank in the army.

The Claudian Civil Service set a precedent whereby freedmen could be used as civil servants in the Roman bureaucracy. In addition, Claudius passed legislation concerning slaves, including a law stating that sick slaves abandoned by their owners became freedmen if they recovered. The emperor was extensively criticized for using freedmen in the Imperial Courts.

United States

In the United States, the term Freedmen refers chiefly to former slaves emancipated after the American Civil War.

Slaves freed before the war, usually by individual manumissions, often in wills, were generally referred to as Free Negroes. In Louisiana and other areas of the former New France, especially before annexation to the US under the Louisiana Purchase, free people of color were so identified in French: gens de couleur libre. Many were part of the Creoles of color community, well-established before Louisiana became part of the US. The community in New Orleans increased in 1808 and 1809, with a wave of Haitian immigrants after the Haitian Revolution. This strengthened the French-speaking community of free people of color.

Four million people—not all of them of color—went from bondage to freedom as a result of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in areas of states not under the control of the United States of America to be 'free,' the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the states. Abolition of all slavery was accomplished through the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment gave ex-slaves full citizenship. The Fifteenth amendment gave voting rights to adult males among the free people. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments are known as the "civil rights amendments", the "post-Civil War amendements", and as the Reconstruction Amendments .

To help freedmen transition from slavery to freedom, including a free labor market, President Abraham Lincoln created the Freedmen's Bureau, which assigned agents throughout the South. The Bureau created schools to educate freedmen, both adults and children; helped freedmen negotiate labor contracts, and tried to minimize violence against freedmen. The era of Reconstruction was an attempt to establish new governments in the former Confederacy and to bring freedmen into society as voting citizens.

In the 21st century, a dispute continues between the Cherokee Nation and descendants of freedmen of Cherokee masters over the rights of the freedmen to membership (or citizenship) in the Cherokee tribe. It is an issue because of the benefits that membership grants. Descendants of freedmen believe that emancipation granted them citizenship, in their instance, citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.

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