The familiar narrative of American business development begins in the industrial North, where paternalistic factory owners, committed to a kind of Protestant ethic, scaled up their operations into ‘total institutions’—an effort to forestall labor turnover by providing housing and fulfilling community needs. Many of these firms were, of course, dependent on the availability of cotton from the South where, as Caitlin C. Rosenthal
argues, modern management practices were expanded and refined through experimentation with enslaved workers. Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management
(Harvard University Press, 2018) resituates the development of scientific record-keeping and labor optimization practices within the Atlantic slave trade. The book pays close attention to how sophisticated reporting practices, emerging from the standard record books that circulated throughout the Atlantic world, allowed planters to rate and categorize enslaved people in a generalizable way. The book is an invitation to rethink the genealogy of business management, to disabuse professionals of a claim to moral distance from a time when unfettered legal control over a labor force—as
capital—created hitherto unknown opportunities for knowledge production and experimentation with efficiency.
Mikey McGovern is a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s Program in the History of Science. He works on computing, quantification, communication, and governance in modern America.