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History of Corporate “Personhood”

February 28, 2010

(Compiled by Democracy United of Humboldt County

British Crown Corporations began operating in North America with the start of European settlement. These Crown Corporations, also known as colonial corporations, were a tool to export wealth back to the stockholders and the monarch that chartered them. The creation of corporations expanded empire and made the aristocracy wealthy. These early crown corporations were given the right to levy taxes, wage war, and imprison people all while enjoying a monopoly over trade in the regions where they operated. As Thomas Hobbes stated, corporations are “chips off the old block of sovereignty.”
It was clear though that these corporations possessed no rights of their own, but were rather artificial creations of the monarch, that existed for the benefit of the sovereign monarch. At any point the sovereign could revoke a corporation’s charter (the legal document that allows a corporation to exist).
Colonial anger and resentment against corporate power grew as the English Parliament introduced measures that protected trade by Crown corporations over that of local colonial merchants. In direct protest against Parliament’s tax protections that subsidized the East India Company, colonists organized an act of civil disobedience that came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. In that one act of property destruction, colonists destroyed the equivalent of one million dollars of the Company’s property.
After the American Revolution sovereign power was allegedly transferred from a monarch to “We the people.” Obviously the idea of vesting power in the people was noble, but only about 10% of the population counted as “people” with full citizenship rights. Those who were not white, male and property owners were not legally considered “people”. Over the next two hundred years groups excluded from “We the People” have struggled to be legally defined as “persons.”
For people immersed in a corporate world it is hard to imagine that in the 1800s corporations were only one form of doing business rather than the form. (As late as 1900 only 10 per cent of manufacturing companies in California even had a corporate charter.) The corporate form, was recognized to have certain utility in aggregating capital for large scale projects, which is why “the people” allowed them to exist at all.
Of course the concentration of capital also brings with it inherent risk for the populace. For this reason the formation of corporations was restricted to parameters set up by state constitutions and constrained by specific limitations in the state codes. The early 1800s frequently reiterated the fact that corporations could only be created for public benefit.
The Supreme Court of Virginia stated in 1809 that if an applicant for a corporate charter’s “object is merely private or selfish; if it is detrimental to, or not promotive of, the public good, they have no adequate claim upon the legislature for the privileges.” A comparison of state laws from the early 1800’s shows that corporations had limits on capitalization, debts, land holdings, and sometimes profits. They could not own stock in other corporations, could not have their headquarters outside their chartering state, nor could they keep their financial books closed to public representatives or make political or charitable contributions. In dramatic contrast to today, corporate stockholders and directors were often held personally responsible for crimes and harms they committed and debts they incurred under the name of the corporation.
Stated simply, corporations were properly understood to be public institutions created by democratically elected representatives of the sovereign people.
“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As the result of the War, corporations have been enthroned. … An era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people… until wealth is aggregated in a few hands… and the Republic is destroyed.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 1864
Only one year after the Civil War ended, individual states began to compete for corporate charters, and the income which charters generated. At the same time people’s movements against corporations were growing in strength. These movements were fueled by fear and resentment of concentrated corporate power that had boomed as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War.
This raging struggle led President Rutherford B. Hayes to say in 1876: “This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.”
In 1886, ten years after President Hayes spoke those words, the relationship between United States citizens and their corporate creations changed even more dramatically: corporations became “natural persons” under the law, sheltered by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. It all started here in California in a court case titled “Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad”. Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court let the state court ruling stand with these words: “The Court does not wish to hear the arguments on whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.” Sixty years later, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote, “There was no history, logic, or reason given to support that view.”
Ironically, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed to guarantee freed slaves treatment as legal persons under the law, rights that were not enforced until the 1950s. When women tired to argue they were protected as persons under the fourteenth amendment (Minor v. Happersett 1874) they were told the 14th amendment only applied to black males. The Fourteenth Amendment ruling has radically changed the nature of corporations in the United States and the world, as other countries have followed our lead.
“Corporate persons” won other Bill of Rights protections in the decades that followed. First Amendment, free speech protections making it virtually impossible to prohibit corporate campaign contributions. The Fourth Amendment now protects corporations from inspections to ensure worker safety.
Two years after the “Corporate Personhood” decision, President Grover Cleveland worried that, “Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”
President Cleveland should have kept more careful watch on his Attorney General if this was truly his concern. Just one year earlier, in 1887, Mr. Olney had quietly told railroad executives that the world’s first regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), was to be, “a sort of barrier between the railroad corporations and the people…” To the public, the new ICC was justified as a way to protect people from railroad corporations such as Southern Pacific Railroad Corporation, which was accused of cheating farmers on land sales, making secret pacts with large businesses to drive out smaller ones, and even destroying the equipment of rival railroads. The large railroad companies used the ICC as a legal way of fixing prices so upstart railroads could not charge less than them. ICC Commissioner Charles Perkins of Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company said bluntly in 1888, “Let us ask the [ICC] Commissioners to enforce the law when its violation by others hurts us.”
Since the creation of the first regulatory agency, an alphabet soup of agencies have been created by state and federal governments: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the California Department of Forestry (CDF), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and hundreds of others.
We, the citizens of each state, have been taught to think that these agencies exist to protect us. In fact, each has been modeled on the example of the Interstate Commerce Commission with bureaucrats taken directly from the ranks of the industry being regulated. This process has resulted in the development of regulatory agencies which merely manage – rather than prohibit – corporate harms and abuses of the public good.
Global trade agreements such as North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are ushering in a new era of corporate dominance but the struggle remains largely the same:
Who shall rule, corporations or the people?
As the corporate system goes global, we in the United States have a responsibility to undermine illegitimate corporate “rights” because that concept was invented by our corporations, our legal system and our government. Our work against corporate rule in the United States helps those in other nations fighting the same struggle against the corporatization of their countries.


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One Comment
  1. destructionist permalink

    Well said. I’ll go even further by asserting that those ‘American-born’ corporations that ship our American jobs to other countries in lieu of cheaper labor and higher profits, are nothing more than economic terrorists.

    After all, it was the American people that coddled them during their corporate infancy. We patronized their establishments and helped them become what they are today. (The reward for all our efforts? A flurry of pink slips and a lifetime of fear and uncertainty… )

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