A Politico Great Weekend Read
“Slavery in the United States was a business. A morally reprehensible―and very profitable business…Rosenthal argues that slaveholders in the American South and Caribbean were using advanced management and accounting techniques long before their northern counterparts. Techniques that are still used by businesses today.”
Accounting for Slavery is a unique contribution to the decades-long effort to understand New World slavery’s complex relationship with capitalism. Through careful analysis of plantation records, Caitlin Rosenthal explores the development of quantitative management practices on West Indian and Southern plantations. She shows how planter-capitalists built sophisticated organizational structures and even practiced an early form of scientific management. They subjected enslaved people to experiments, such as allocating and reallocating labor from crop to crop, planning meals and lodging, and carefully recording daily productivity. The incentive strategies they crafted offered rewards but also threatened brutal punishment.
The traditional story of modern management focuses on the factories of England and New England, but Rosenthal demonstrates that investors in West Indian and Southern plantations used complex accounting practices, sometimes before their Northern counterparts. For example, some planters depreciated their human capital decades before the practice was a widely used accounting technique. Contrary to narratives that depict slavery as a barrier to innovation, Accounting for Slavery explains how elite planters turned their power over enslaved people into a productivity advantage. The brutality of slavery was readily compatible with the development of new quantitative techniques for workforce organization.
By showing the many ways that business innovation can be a byproduct of bondage, Rosenthal further erodes the false boundary between capitalism and slavery and illuminates deep parallels between the outlooks of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slaveholders and the ethical dilemmas facing twenty-first-century businesses.
When an accountant depreciates an asset to save on taxes or when a midlevel manager spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps…Management techniques used by 19th-century corporations were implemented during the previous century by plantation owners.
Slavery in the United States was a business. A morally reprehensible—and very profitable business. Much of the research around the business history of slavery focuses on the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the business interests that fueled it. The common narrative is that today’s modern management techniques were developed in the factories in England and the industrialized North of the United States, not the plantations of the Caribbean and the American South. According to a new book by historian Caitlin Rosenthal, that narrative is wrong… Rosenthal argues that slaveholders in the American South and Caribbean were using advanced management and accounting techniques long before their northern counterparts. Techniques that are still used by businesses today.
[This] history of the accounting and management of slave plantations in the Americas goes a long way towards puncturing common-sense narratives of free market economics.
Examine[s] how slavery laid the foundation of American capitalism, including the invention of financial instruments, such as bonds that used enslaved people as collateral.
Valuable…Rosenthal proves that precise calculation of labor productivity took root in the slave economy. The irony is that it was more aggressively calculated there than among many Northern manufacturers of the time.
Looks at how sugar and cotton plantations organised and tracked production. It is a fascinating yet horrifying history of how planters saw the slaves they profited from—and how they drove up production…Challenges many dominant ideas about capitalism, class and progress.
Full of insights into the history of Atlantic slavery, Accounting for Slavery will force its readers to look with fresh eyes at the many freedoms and unfreedoms of the modern American workplace. This is an original book, which uniquely draws from and speaks to many disciplines, while written compellingly for a wide audience.
By paying close attention to slaveholders’ methods of keeping accounts, Caitlin Rosenthal shows how and why they tried to reduce human beings to marks on a ledger. Anyone concerned with the sometimes dark history of management, data, and modern accounting practices needs to read this brilliant, carefully argued book.
- 2019, Winner of the Francis B. Simkins Award
- 312 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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