This essay argues that enslavers in the mid-nineteenth-century cotton South were interested in keeping detailed records but had minimal interest in advanced accounting methods. Drawing on the record and account books produced by Thomas Affleck in Mississippi in the 1840s and 1850s, it shows that enslavers largely used plantation books to record and track many aspects of cotton slavery rather than using them for advanced accounting. Enslavers held tens of thousands of enslaved people on plantations managed with the use of the Affleck books, making the books’ attempts to translate the tenets of agricultural reform into plantation practice particularly significant. The piece shows that technologies of capitalism, like the account books, worked to unintentionally enforce the violence and capriciousness of informal calculation rather than producing a slavery-based predecessor to managerial business practices like cost accounting. The books, which enslavers prized for their ability to monitor overseers and discipline recordkeeping habits, were one part of a violent, capitalist, and chaotic system of extracting cotton from enslaved people and southern soils, rather than a sign of the centrality of modern business practices.

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