Review: “Slavery’s Scientific Management: Masters and Managers”

by Caitlin Rosenthal

One of the main themes for historians of slavery’s capitalism is showing how American slavery was part of modern capitalist economy. Traditionally, scholars associate slavery with pre-modern economic institutions, such as feudalism and the likes. In America (U.S.) during the nineteenth century, the slave economy of the South was portrayed as the antithesis of Northern industry. Scholars, such as Caitlin Rosenthal, in “Slavery’s Scientific Management: Masters and Managers,” are showing how slavery contributed to modern business practices. Rosenthal’s Slavery’s Scientific Management” explores this theme by focusing on how slave owners kept meticulous records of slave productivity in hopes of maximizing output — a quintessential of tenant scientific management, most often associated with industry and manufacturing rather than slavery.

Assistant Professor at University of California, Berkeley, Rosenthal’s work on the connection between slavery and scientific management has been much anticipated and she is currently expanding and presenting her research in her forthcoming book: From Slavery to Scientific Management: Accounting for Control in Antebellum America. In an interview in the Harvard Business Review (2013), Rosenthal summed up her research by stating that “plantations took a more scientific approach to management than the factories did.” “Slavery’s Scientific Management: Masters and Managers” appears in Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (2016).

Rosenthal follows the accounts of Eli J. Capell from Amite County in Mississippi c.1842. Capell took notes on how many pounds of cotton his slaves picked per day. Monday, October 10, 1842, marked an extraordinary day for slaves’ output of cotton and Capell would use this day as a baseline for measuring future outputs. Capell and other “book farmers” used these records to evaluate experiments and incentives to increase production. “Slavery became a laboratory for the use of accounting because neat columns of numbers more closely matched the reality of life on plantations than in many other early American enterprises.” She goes on to state, “the commodification and capitalization of lives made it easier to put numbers to work. Innovation was a byproduct of bondage.” It was much easier for a slave owner, who kept records, to draw correlations between the input and output of slave labor because slaves’ productivity was measured by the amount of cotton picked per day. In manufacturing jobs, other variables (state of machinery, etc.) might hinder management from deducing accurate correlations between input and output.

Historian Alfred Chandler noted that overseers were the first “salaried manager[s] in the country, but he also argued that slavery was a premodern economic institution, more akin to feudalism than progressive industry and therefore fall outside the realm of management studies. Bill Cooke, however, responds by calling this the “denial’ of slavery in management studies.”

Slave accounting methods created a demand for instruction booklets. For instance, in 1850, Thomas Affleck published Plantation Record and Account Book. Affleck held a background in financing, scientific agriculture, and publishing.” He boasted about his use of accounting to increase productivity. These account books used the principles of median returns and the idea of the “prime hand.” “Hands,” referred to the slaves and the prime hand referred to the “maximum that could be expected from a single individual.” Overseers and plantation owners shared their accounts with others in hopes of finding universal ways of increasing production. They used methods such as “prime hands” and shared methods of incentives and punishment, which they though were effective ways of increasing output.

According to Rosenthal, Southern plantation accounting methods excelled beyond that of Northern manufacturers. The control of masters over slaves allowed them to forcefully impose quotas via simple accounting methods. “The soft power of quantification complemented the driving force of the whip.” In other words slave owners excelled at “management controls” which would become a quintessential factor in management theories and policies for later manufacturing jobs.

Unlike traditional narratives that portrayed slavery as a premodern institutional antithetical to capitalism, she shows that, slave accounting methods lead to business innovations that helped create American capitalism. Under slavery, the power of the managerial class excelled with the use of accounting methods, which would be adopted by Northern businesses and would eventually be referred to as scientific management.

The influence of business history and accounting in slavery has largely been overlooked. Rosenthal has opened the door to further exploring the contributions of slavery to the rise of capitalism. This review only covers the basics of her essay, but her contributions to the study of slavery’s capitalism help to expand our understanding of the interconnections between Northern industry and Southern slavery. The two economies were not mutually exclusive.