Contracting, property rights and liberty: Accountability under the Freedmen’s Bureau’s labour-contract system

Document Type


Publication Date




The purpose of this paper is to focus on the labour contract system (LCS) established by the Freedmen’s Bureau 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 USA; 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 upholding their contractual obligations prevailed over the desire to defend the freed-people’s property rights.

Research limitations/implications

This research examines the relationship between labour contracting and property rights as well as the role of accounting in sustaining racial prejudice against freed-persons after the American Civil War. As in many archive-based studies, illustrations are selective and not randomised.


The paper examines the various accountings and accountabilities within the LCS in the context of the underlying ideological tensions and priorities in post-conflict US society.


Additional Files