Contracting, Property Rights and Liberty: The Lack of Accountability Under the Freedmen's Bureau's Labour-Contract System

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Conference Proceeding

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The paper focuses on the labour contract system (LCS) established by the Freedmen’s Bureau (FB) after the American Civil War to normalise relations between freed slaves and their former masters and to uphold their rights as free citizens. In particular, it explains the lack of accountability of employers under the LCS and how this contributed to the system’s failure. The paper adopts an archive-based approach to develop and illustrate the labour contracting relationship between freed persons and property owners and the role accounting played in sustaining this relationship in the immediate post-bellum period. The paper finds that the LCS was coercive compared to contemporary business practice in the U.S.; did not conform to the high ideals of contracting as portrayed by the abolition movement; and was adopted by default rather than design. In the event the reluctance of the federal government to infringe individual autonomy by imposing an over-arching system of regulation to hold employers to account for keeping their side of the bargain prevailed over the desire to uphold the freed-people’s property rights.


Presented at 8th Asia-Pacific Interdisciplinary Research in Accounting Conference, July 13-15, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.

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