By Courtney Suciu
Business practices innovated on Antebellum plantations have had a profound impact on the structure of the U.S. economy – but it’s a topic that is often overlooked (or misunderstood) in discussions and research on U.S. culture and history.
However, the business history of slavery is the subject of historian Caitlin Rosenthal’s book, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management.
In this case study, Rosenthal, who is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkley, explained why she was drawn to this topic:
My work on the business history of slavery began the first time I looked at a plantation account book. I was surprised by the complexity of the accounting and the diligence with which the overseer tracked output. This went against most of what I had learned from canonical business histories.
Rosenthal described her book as “a study of the intersection of violence and innovation,” dispelling the belief “that sophisticated technologies go hand in hand with the expansion of human freedoms.”
Instead, the historic plantation records she used in her research “show that the opposite can be true.” Rosenthal observed how sophisticated accounting techniques made it easier for “planters [to treat] enslaved people as if they were cogs in a giant machine, exploiting their production and reproduction to earn massive fortunes.”
She added, “Recovering this history is a cautionary tale about what capitalism can look like when everything, including lives, is up for sale.”
Initially, Rosenthal said she depended on Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations, an expansive microfilm collection. “Huge numbers of account books survive from slave plantations,” she said, “and the challenge I faced while writing this book was sorting from this massive pile.”
A large part of these records has been digitized by ProQuest History Vault. As a result, these records are more easily accessed and searched. Rosenthal said this allowed her to “turn up materials I would never have found otherwise.”
According to the author, the insights about contemporary American business and financial practices afforded by these rare primary source documents are especially meaningful for the times we live in now.
“We’re living in a world where data is more important to businesses than ever, and quantitative management poses distinctive ethical challenges,” she explained. “Reducing people to numbers can offer crucial insights, but it also erases context and can make it harder to see biases.”
Read Rosenthal’s case study to explore her findings in detail. It is especially recommended if you are interested in:
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu