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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). A fugitive slave is one who escaped slavery by fleeing.
Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become citizens. The act of freeing a slave was called manumissio, from manus, "hand" (in the sense of holding or possessing something), and missio, the act of releasing. After manumission, a slave who had belonged to a Roman citizen enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership, but active political freedom (libertas), including the right to vote. A slave who had acquired libertas was thus a libertus ("freed person," feminine liberta) in relation to his former master, who then became his or her patron (patronus).
As a social class, freed slaves were liberti, though later Latin texts used the terms libertus and libertini interchangeably. Libertini were not entitled to hold public office or state priesthoods, nor could they achieve legitimate senatorial rank. During the early Empire, however, freedmen held key positions in the government bureaucracy, so much so that Hadrian limited their participation by law. Any future children of a freedman would be born free, with full rights of citizenship.
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 criticized for using freedmen in the Imperial Courts.
Some freedmen enjoyed enormous success and became quite wealthy. The brothers who owned House of the Vettii, one of the biggest and most magnificent houses in Pompeii, are thought to have been freedmen. A freedman who became rich and influential might still be looked down on by the traditional aristocracy as a vulgar nouveau riche. Trimalchio, a character in the Satyricon of Petronius, is a caricature of such a freedman.
In the United States, the term "freedmen" refers chiefly to former slaves emancipated during 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 following the Louisiana Purchase), free people of color were so identified in French: gens de couleur libres. 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.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in states not under the control of the U.S. government to be free (i.e. the Confederacy), it did not end slavery in the Union states themselves. Abolition of all slavery (affecting four million people — not all of them of color) was accomplished as a result of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. 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 amendments", and 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 former Confederate states. 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.
The Cherokee Nation had allowed slavery before the American Civil War. After the U.S. abolished slavery, the Cherokee were required to allow freedmen full rights of citizenship in their society. This policy was later rescinded, resulting in a controversy within the modern Cherokee Nation, which continues. In the 21st century, the Cherokee Nation, and descendants of freedmen who were formerly owned by Cherokee tribesmen, are at odds over the rights of the freedmen to membership in the Cherokee tribes. (It is an issue because there are benefits that tribal membership grants.) Descendants of freedmen believe that emancipation granted them citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.
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- Fergus Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (University of Michigan, 1998, 2002), pp. 23, 209.
- Henrik Mouritsen, The Freedman in the Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 36; Adolf Berger, entry on libertus, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law (American Philological Society, 1953, 1991), p. 564.
- Berger, entry on libertinus, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law, p. 564.