On SAGE Insight: What can Thomas Jefferson’s accounting records tell us about plantation management, slavery, and Enlightenment philosophy in colonial America?

From Accounting History

The recent Special Issue of Accounting History focusses on Accounting and the Enlightenment. The term “Age of Enlightenment” generally refers to a period in Western history spanning from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century, during which time intellectual leaders began to focus on scientific rationality and political freedom in place of religious dogma and aristocratic privilege.

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was the third President of the United States, and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, which included the memorable phrase “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This phrase stands today as perhaps the most succinct expression of Enlightenment thought coming from eighteenth-century America. Paradoxically, however, Jefferson was a slave owner, and it is difficult to reconcile Jefferson’s Enlightenment ideas with his ownership of slaves. While this paradox has been extensively investigated by many eminent historians, this article seeks to expand this literature by examining the contents of Thomas Jefferson’s financial records for additional evidence relating to this issue. The authors follow the idea that accounting is a privileged way to understand history, by investigating Jefferson’s financial records in order to expand our understanding about Jefferson himself. As a result, a principal contribution of this article is to use accounting sources to bring new insights into the life of Thomas Jefferson, thereby providing new knowledge that complements historical works provided by other generalist historians. Despite the contradiction of Jefferson’s advocacy of Enlightenment thought while being a slave owner, the essential elements of Enlightenment philosophy, in which Jefferson played an important role, have had an enormous impact on creating the world in which we live today.

Abstract

Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States of America and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence of the American Colonies from Great Britain. Less well known is that he was a meticulous record keeper. He kept daily records of every receipt and expenditure that he made, no matter how small, for a period of over 60 years. Most of these records have survived and are located in various libraries throughout the United States. Two questions are raised in this article: first, what can Jefferson’s accounting records tell us about plantation management in colonial America? Second, what do these accounting records reveal about Jefferson’s perspectives on eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy? This article investigates original archives in an effort to answer these questions.

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Article detail
First Published 15 May 2018
DOI: 10.1177/1032373218772589
Accounting History

 

 

     
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