Accounting for Slavery

How did Southern slave-owners “manage” their plantations? Was it pastoral or was it more professional and driven by hard-headed accounting, record-keeping, and statistics? Professor Caitlin Rosenthal explains her fascinating new research on “masters and management” in the 19th century US south. Episode #374

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Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management

The story of modern management generally looks to the factories of England and New England for its genesis. But after scouring through old accounting books, Caitlin Rosenthal discovered that Southern planter-capitalists practiced an early form of scientific management. They took meticulous notes, carefully recording daily profits and productivity, and subjected their slaves to experiments and incentive strategies comprised of rewards and brutal punishment. Challenging the traditional depiction of slavery as a barrier to innovation, Accounting for Slavery shows how elite planters turned their power over enslaved people into a productivity advantage. The result is a groundbreaking investigation of business practices in Southern and West Indian plantations and an essential contribution to our understanding of slavery’s relationship with capitalism.

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