The Author’s Corner with Caitlin Rosenthal

RosenthalCaitlin Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.  This interview is based on her new book Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Accounting for Slavery?

CR: Right out of college I worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. As one of the most junior people on my teams, I was often tasked with running the spreadsheets that we analyzed to help make our decisions. Some of these companies had tens of thousands of employees. As a result, I became interested in the history of scale: What happens when a manager or owner knows workers as cells in a spreadsheet, and not as individuals? This question sparked my interest in American business history and, more specifically, the history of quantitative management. As I began studying archival account books, I was surprised to discover that some of the most complex records I found were from slave plantations. So I decided to write a book that grappled with the business history of plantation slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Accounting for Slavery?

CR: Slaveholders used many advanced, quantitative business practices, ranging from calculating depreciation to measuring output per slave. In some cases, they developed these practices not despite, but because of the circumstances of slavery. 

JF: Why do we need to read Accounting for Slavery?

CR: Coming face to face with the precise ways that slaveholders extracted wealth from people can help us to understand the intersections of violence and innovation. During my few years working in the business world, I was often struck by how many business leaders were interested in economic history. But the stories that reached them tended to feature railroads, steam engines, and computers–not slave plantations. Confronting more uncomfortable stories can be a cautionary tale for what profit-seeking can look like when everything, including human lives, is up for sale.  

I think that studying plantation business practices is also absolutely essential for understanding what enslaved people were up against. In antebellum America, they faced a brutal, centuries-old institution that was increasingly infused with highly modern technologies of control.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

CR: As an undergraduate, I was a political science major who incorrectly believed that history was mostly about memorizing dates. During my junior year I took an amazing U.S. Intellectual History class with Thomas Haskell at Rice University. The class helped me to see how powerful history could be for understanding not just modern institutions but also patterns of thought and, especially, how we see ourselves. In a sense, “Accounting for Slavery” is an intellectual history of slaveholders’ management practices and what they can tell us about management more generally.

JF: What is your next project?

CR: I’m currently researching the “business of business education.” The project starts with the relatively unknown history of nineteenth-century commercial colleges, the hundreds of for-profit schools that taught business skills like bookkeeping for a fee. I am interested in what this history can tell us about the scope of business education: who can access it, and what kind of practical and ethical questions are (and are not) included in the curriculum. 

JF: Thanks, Caitlin!