Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

A Contingency Theory Perspective on Management Control System Design among U.S. Ante-Bellum Slave Plantations

Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

A Contingency Theory Perspective on Management Control System Design among U.S. Ante-Bellum Slave Plantations

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper examines the management control-system design of mid-19th century. U.S. slave plantations using a contingency theory. framework. Large rice plantations that relied on forced labor and tidal-flow agricultural technology were very profitable for their owners. This paper presents a model that links these favorable operating results to a close fit between the control-system design and three key contingent environmental variables. Absentee owners hired managers to provide on-site oversight and periodic operational reporting. These managers relied on slave drivers to assign individualized daily tasks to the plantation's field hands and monitor their performance. Productive field slaves were rewarded with greater free time each working day. In addition, many slaves worked cooperatively with their masters to obtain better jobs outside the rice fields and cash income. Ultimately, however, it was the institution of chattel slavery that kept the slaves working in the rice fields under oppressive and unhealthy conditions.


This paper extends the existing accounting history literature with an analysis of the control systems and practices of U.S.

ante-bellum slave plantations. This topic has received limited coverage in the existing literature. This analysis is couched in a perspective of contingency theory. The relationship between organizational control and the management of complex organizations has long been a popular topic for accounting research [e.g., Otley, 1980; Dent, 1990; Chenhall, 2003]. This paper presents a study of the managerial control systems and accounting practices of 19th century Carolinas Lowcountry rice plantations. The commercial success enjoyed by these large rice planters reflected a good fit between management control systems and key environmental factors. The tidal rice culture was characterized by large-scale plantations relying on controlled flooding and the forced labor of the descendents of slaves brought to achieve commercial rice production for export markets. The most profitable of these plantations covered thousands of acres and employed hundreds of slaves. As such, they were some of the largest and most complex commercial business operations in the nation at that time. These business owners utilized an integrated set of management and task controls, an integral part of a broader framework of social control and culture, to manage their agricultural enterprises. Written journals and face-to-face reporting from on-site managers provided planters with operational feedback on the productivity and well being of their slaves and land. These managers, in turn, relied heavily upon their foremen to make many daily decisions essential for business success, to supervise workers in the fields, and to help maintain social order in the slave community. Historical scholarship also suggests that the African origins of the tidal-flow agricultural technology, along with the accompanying tasking system of labor organization, evolved in the Carolinas during the 18th century as a mechanism to enhance worker productivity.

The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. The first section presents a discussion on the study's theoretical framework and a review of the research literature. The second section outlines the archival resources that provided the study's empirical data, followed by the paper's main body containing the empirical findings. The final section offers conclusions.


Theoretical Framework: This paper focuses on management and task control processes on 19th century U.S. slave plantations. Management control describes the process of implementing strategy [Anthony and Young, 1999]. Business owners typically hire professional managers to run their enterprises on a daily basis. Management control describes the relationship between business owners and their hired mangers. Owners provide direction and oversight while managers develop operational plans and motivate workers to implement those plans. …

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