Chapter | Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development

Slavery's Scientific Management: Accounting for Mastery

by Caitlin C. Rosenthal


The traditional story of modern management begins in the factories of England and New England, extending only much later to the American South. This paper contests this narrative, arguing that many sophisticated techniques developed first on southern and West Indian slave plantations, disseminating among planters many decades before they were adopted in northern factories. I draw on extensive new archival research to show that these advances were not just incidental to the system of chattel slavery. Rather, innovation was, in a sense, a byproduct of bondage. The immense control of planters over their slaves enabled the development of management "controls." Slaves became the subjects of management experiments, their labor allocated and re-allocated from crop to crop, their meals and lodging planned, and their daily productivity measured and monitored. These findings disrupt prevailing narratives in business history, challenging the primacy that Alfred Chandler awarded the railroad as the testing ground for modern management. Long before the rise of the railroads, plantations relied on hierarchical reporting and long-lived assets—quite literally human capital. Although innovations in plantation accounting did not necessarily cause the rise of quantitative management in the North, these discourses were connected. Historians of management need to tell a new origins story—one located far from the factory floor.

Keywords: History; Governance Controls; Ethics; Societal Protocols; New England; West Indies;


Rosenthal, Caitlin C. "Slavery's Scientific Management: Accounting for Mastery." In Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, edited by Seth Rockman, Sven Beckert, and David Waldstreicher. University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming.