State and Local Government Accounting in 19th Century America: A Review of the Literature

Article excerpt

Abstract: Although 19th century America offers a natural experiment in government accounting practices and voluminous original records still exist, a review of the literature on the period's state and local government accounting finds few secondary articles and almost no contemporary literature before 1875. After that, reformers, decrying the municipal accounting practices of their time, wrote profusely so that some secondary studies of that literature exist. The governmental financial records of the 1800s varied in quality from excellent to scandalous and would, if properly sampled and described, not only fill the gaps in our knowledge of 19th century government accounting and fiscal policy, but would also allow study of the causes and effects of many alternative measurement and reporting structures.


In his 2000 presidential address to the American Accounting Association, William Kinney [2001, p. 278, emphasis in the original] argued at length that "the domain of accounting scholarship [is] the knowledge of the individual and aggregate effects of alternative standardized business measurement and reporting structures." However, before we can study the effects, we must know what those structures are. Unfortunately, in the area of government accounting, scholarly descriptive work is scarce. Both Edwards [2000] and Fleischman [2006] found so little material on the subject that no articles found inclusion in their compendia of scholarly accounting history articles.

Turning more specifically to the 19th century history of accounting by American governments below the national level, (1) researchers have left the subject almost untouched. This is unfortunate because the America of the 1800s was a natural experiment in government accounting. Each state and territory, and often each town or county, chose and developed a means of accounting for its use of the public purse. If we knew more about these practices, we could undoubtedly study some of their effects, which may hold as much interest as the business sector practices to which Kinney refers.

This article is a review of the literature on 19th century state and local government accounting in the U.S. Its purposes are to review that literature, to describe what it tells us about its subject, to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the literature, and to identify the research opportunities it creates. The paper begins with a methodological note and then proceeds chronologically, starting with the few studies addressing the practices at the turn of the 19th century. Next, the middle six decades of the century are covered quickly since almost no work has been done on that period. The last 25 years of the century, a period in which the literature is copious but preoccupied more by calls for reform than by description of existing practices, are then reviewed. The paper concludes with a discussion of what the extant literature does and does not accomplish, together with a call for scholarship on many topics that the current literature has either ignored to date or for which it has set the stage.


An attempt was made to identify all the secondary literature and as much of the contemporary commentary as possible on 19th century accounting by governments in the U.S. below the national level. Databases and indexes searched include: ProQuest's ABUInform, the Accountants' Index; America History & Life; Dissertation Abstracts International; EBSCOHost Business Source Elite; the Guide to Reference Books [Winchell, 1967]; the Public Affairs Information Service Bulletin and its related online databases, PAIS Archives and PAIS International; and Worldwide Political Science Abstracts. Multiple search terms were used as appropriate for the variety of databases.

"Contemporary commentary" consists of treatises about the accounting of a period written by observers of the time. These include handbooks and textbooks of accounting techniques, which describe what the authors considered best practices. …