Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School, found that southern plantation owners kept complex and meticulous records, measuring the productivity of their slaves and carefully monitoring their profits—often using even more sophisticated methods than manufacturers in the North. Several of the slave owners’ practices, such as incentivizing workers (in this case, to get them to pick more cotton) and depreciating their worth through the years, are widely used in business management today.
As fascinating as her findings were, Rosenthal had some misgivings about their implications. She didn’t want to be perceived as saying something positive about slavery. On the contrary, she sees her research as a critique of capitalism—one that could broaden the understanding of today’s business practices.
The work is part of her current book project, “From Slavery to Scientific Management: Capitalism and Control in America, 1754-1911,” and the forthcoming edited collection Slavery’s Capitalism.
The evolution of modern management is usually associated with good old-fashioned intelligence and ingenuity—”a glorious parade of inventions that goes from textile looms to the computer,” Rosenthal says. But in reality, it’s much messier than that. Capitalism is not just about the free market; it was also built on the backs of slaves who were literally the opposite of free.
“It’s a much bigger, more powerful question to ask, If today we are using management techniques that were also used on slave plantations,” she says, “how much more careful do we need to be? How much more do we need to think about our responsibility to people?”