Corporate America: A History of Corporate Statehood Since 1629
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CitationBowie, Nikolas. 2018. Corporate America: A History of Corporate Statehood Since 1629. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation examines the history of “corporate statehood,” or how Americans have understood the corporation as a governmental institution. In contrast to historical accounts of “corporate personhood,” which describe how Americans have understood corporations as if they were legal or metaphorical individuals, this account focuses on the remarkable consistencies between the explicitly governmental corporations of the seventeenth century and the business and municipal corporations of the present. It is a history of how corporations supplied the institutional frameworks for American government and how the normative values associated with American government—like the existence of checks and balances or the need for representatives to govern with the consent of the governed—were reapplied to the corporate form. The dissertation argues that it is impossible to understand the development of the American state without also understanding the development of the American corporation, and vice versa.
The dissertation is divided into four chapters, each of which focuses on an event from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth century in which Americans debated the question of what a corporation actually is. The dissertation limits its geographic scope to Massachusetts—a state that has been at the forefront of corporate innovations since its founding in 1629 by the Massachusetts Bay Company. The first chapter discusses the story of that company from its founding to its dissolution by the English crown in 1684. Analyzing how colonists, English administrators, and lawyers described the company and its written charter, the chapter argues that the corporation established a model for the governmental institutions that followed it, particularly the idea that a government’s “constitution” should be written down in a charter-like document.
The second chapter describes eighteenth-century debates over the American colonies’ relationship with Great Britain. These often took the form of debates over whether the colonies were corporations like their predecessors. The chapter argues that the American Revolution began, in part, due to Americans’ strong identification of their governments with corporations like the Massachusetts Bay Company, as evidenced by the practice of every colony’s adoption of a written constitution after the Revolution when no similar document existed in Great Britain.
The third chapter discusses how corporations began the nineteenth century as public-service corporations chartered by state legislatures but ended the century as “private” entities with a much weaker relationship to their states of incorporation. The chapter argues that despite this so-called privatization of the corporation, workers and regulators continued to think of corporations as governmental institutions that could either be autocratic toward their employees or exemplars of “industrial democracy.”
The final chapter describes a Supreme Court case in the twentieth century that interpreted the U.S. Constitution to protect corporate executives from regulations that prohibited them from spending their corporations’ money on political expenditures. In response to this decision, the mayor of the city of Boston, a municipal corporation, argued for the similar constitutional treatment of cities. The chapter argues that the political campaign that followed highlighted for a twentieth-century audience the persistent institutional and conceptual similarities between business corporations and municipal corporations. It concludes that “corporate democracy,” or the idea that corporations should be governed by the same norms as other governmental institutions, remains a guiding principle into the twenty-first century.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41127189
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