"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and 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 all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed." -- U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864 (letter to Col. William F. Elkins) Ref: The Lincoln Encyclopedia, Archer H. Shaw (Macmillan, 1950, NY)


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Our Hidden History of Corporations
in the United States

 

When American colonists declared independence from England in 1776, they also freed themselves from control by English corporations that extracted their wealth and dominated trade. After fighting a revolution to end this exploitation, our country's founders retained a healthy fear of corporate power and wisely limited corporations exclusively to a business role. Corporations were forbidden from attempting to influence elections, public policy, and other realms of civic society.

Initially, the privilege of incorporation was granted selectively to enable activities that benefited the public, such as construction of roads or canals. Enabling shareholders to profit was seen as a means to that end.

The states also imposed conditions (some of which remain on the books, though unused) like these:

* Corporate charters (licenses to exist) were granted for a limited time and could be revoked promptly for violating laws.

* Corporations could engage only in activities necessary to fulfill their chartered purpose.

* Corporations could not own stock in other corporations nor own any property that was not essential to fulfilling their chartered purpose.

* Corporations were often terminated if they exceeded their authority or caused public harm.

* Owners and managers were responsible for criminal acts committed on the job.

* Corporations could not make any political or charitable contributions nor spend money to influence law-making.

For 100 years after the American Revolution, legislators maintained tight controll of the corporate chartering process. Because of widespread public opposition, early legislators granted very few corporate charters, and only after debate. Citizens governed corporations by detailing operating conditions not just in charters but also in state constitutions and state laws. Incorporated businesses were prohibited from taking any action that legislators did not specifically allow.

States also limited corporate charters to a set number of years. Unless a legislature renewed an expiring charter, the corporation was dissolved and its assets were divided among shareholders. Citizen authority clauses limited capitalization, debts, land holdings, and sometimes, even profits. They required a company's accounting books to be turned over to a legislature upon request. The power of large shareholders was limited by scaled voting, so that large and small investors had equal voting rights. Interlocking directorates were outlawed. Shareholders had the right to remove directors at will.

In Europe, charters protected directors and stockholders from liability for debts and harms caused by their corporations. American legislators explicitly rejected this corporate shield. The penalty for abuse or misuse of the charter was not a plea bargain and a fine, but dissolution of the corporation.

In 1819 the U.S. Supreme Court tried to strip states of this sovereign right by overruling a lower court's decision that allowed New Hampshire to revoke a charter granted to Dartmouth College by King George III. The Court claimed that since the charter contained no revocation clause, it could not be withdrawn. The Supreme Court's attack on state sovereignty outraged citizens. Laws were written or re-written and new state constitutional amendments passed to circumvent the Dartmouth ruling. Over several decades starting in 1844, nineteen states amended their constitutions to make corporate charters subject to alteration or revocation by their legislatures. As late as 1855 it seemed that the Supreme Court had gotten the people's message when in Dodge v. Woolsey it reaffirmed state's powers over "artificial bodies."

But the men running corporations pressed on. Contests over charter were battles to control labor, resources, community rights, and political sovereignty. More and more frequently, corporations were abusing their charters to become conglomerates and trusts. They converted the nation's resources and treasures into private fortunes, creating factory systems and company towns. Political power began flowing to absentee owners, rather than community-rooted enterprises.

The industrial age forced a nation of farmers to become wage earners, and they became fearful of unemployment--a new fear that corporations quickly learned to exploit. Company towns arose. and blacklists of labor organizers and workers who spoke up for their rights became common. When workers began to organize, industrialists and bankers hired private armies to keep them in line. They bought newspapers to paint businessmen as heroes and shape public opinion. Corporations bought state legislators, then announced legislators were corrupt and said that they used too much of the public's resources to scrutinize every charter application and corporate operation.

Government spending during the Civil War brought these corporations fantastic wealth. Corporate executives paid "borers" to infest Congress and state capitals, bribing elected and appointed officials alike. They pried loose an avalanche of government financial largesse. During this time, legislators were persuaded to give corporations limited liability, decreased citizen authority over them, and extended durations of charters. Attempts were made to keep strong charter laws in place, but with the courts applying legal doctrines that made protection of corporations and corporate property the center of constitutional law, citizen sovereignty was undermined. As corporations grew stronger, government and the courts became easier prey. They freely reinterpreted the U.S. Constitution and transformed common law doctrines.

One of the most severe blows to citizen authority arose out of the 1886 Supreme Court case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Though the court did not make a ruling on the question of "corporate personhood," thanks to misleading notes of a clerk, the decision subsequently was used as precedent to hold that a corporation was a "natural person."

From that point on, the 14th Amendment, enacted to protect rights of freed slaves, was used routinely to grant corporations constitutional "personhood." Justices have since struck down hundreds of local, state and federal laws enacted to protect people from corporate harm based on this illegitimate premise. Armed with these "rights," corporations increased control over resources, jobs, commerce, politicians, even judges and the law.

A United States Congressional committee concluded in 1941, "The principal instrument of the concentration of economic power and wealth has been the corporate charter with unlimited power...."

Many U.S.-based corporations are now transnational, but the corrupted charter remains the legal basis for their existence.



A HISTORY OF CORPORATE RULE & POPULAR PROTEST

CORPORATE GREED, CORRUPTION, & THE COMING COLLAPSE OF AMERICA AS WE KNOW IT





THE CORPORATION

The Corporation is today's dominant institution, creating great wealth but also great harm. This 26 award-winning documentary examines the nature, evolution, impacts and future of the modern business corporation and the increasing role it plays in society and our everyday lives.




Bakan, an internationally recognized legal scholar and professor of law at the University of British Columbia, takes a powerful stab at the most influential institution of our time, the corporation. As a legal entity, a corporation has as its edict one and only one goal, to create profits for its shareholders, without legal or moral obligation to the welfare of workers, the environment, or the well-being of society as a whole. Corporations have successfully hijacked governments, promoting free-market solutions to virtually all of the concerns of human endeavor. Competition and self-interest dominate, and other aspects of human nature, such as creativity, empathy, and the ability to live in harmony with the earth, are suppressed and even ridiculed. Bakan believes that, like Communism, this ideological order cannot last and that corporate rule must be challenged to bring balance and revive the values of democracy, social justice, equality, and compassion. This eye-opening look at a system "programmed to exploit others for profit" has been made into a provocative film documentary that could be the next Bowling for Columbine. David Siegfried Copyright American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.




"Unequal Protection should be in the hands of every thinking American. If we do not awaken soon, democracy will be replaced by a new 'Third Reich' of corporate tyranny. To be aware of the danger is the responsibility of each of us. No one has told us the truth better than Thom Hartmann. Read it!"--Gerry Spence, author of Give Me Liberty



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