Accounting for slavery during the Enlightenment: Contradictions and interpretations

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This article discusses Enlightenment principles and describes how they were manifested in the debates on slavery. It then analyzes the role of accounting during the slave era in the United States and British West Indies. The key areas discussed are property rights, the humanity of slaves, economic incentives, and self-improvement. The article finds that belief in progress through reason, the common denominator of Enlightenment thinking, was not generally evident in the management and accounting practices on plantations and that the utility of accounting to slaveholders was limited. These practices were not geared toward improving productivity. Instead, short-term gains were achieved by driving the slaves harder, or longer term ones by treating slaves more benevolently to extend life spans or acquiring new plantations to expand capacity. The rate of productivity on plantations tended to be governed by established social norms and was not susceptible to change nor was it noticeably impacted by accounting.


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