How anti-slavery law created American corporate personhood

Originally published at:

I don’t get it, because corporations have been around much longer than the U.S. I think a lot of corporate law goes back to English Common Law… but IANAL.

Very informative article but the Court did not base its ruling of a corporation as a person under the RFRA on the Constitution but on the Dictionary Act.

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A corporation is not a person legal or otherwise. I don’t care what this court has to say. Perhaps we should write out the supreme court out of the constitution. I don’t think anyone would care if this court was written out and new judges appointed. The Supreme Court have divorced themselves from the country and reality.

Everything needs to change yesterday.

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Yes, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the exact same entity. A corporation under a mercantile system is likely vastly different than under the capitalist system.

Surprised to see that posted as, after reading it, it appears to be of “abominably” (to use the author’s favorite adjective) low quality. As someone else noted, the author doesn’t seem to be aware of the Dictionary Act, which was passed in 1871 and formally defined corporations as “persons” as far as Acts of Congress are concerned.


Congress formally designated corporations as persons in respects to federal law in the 19th century, not the courts.

Corporate personhood is the reason it’s possible to sue a corporation. Previously, if, I dunno, a train derailed and wiped out your house, you could sue the driver and maybe his boss and come away with a pittance, even if the accident was provably caused by institutional training and maintenance failures. Large corporations were basically 100% insulated from the consequences of bad behavior, because the flunkies on the bottom soaked up all the hurt. With corporate personhood, you can attack the corporation as an entity, hit them where it hurts and force them to change. IIRC, that’s the reason the idea came about in the first place: increasing public outrage in Britain over the abuses of rail and mining corporations, among others.

Since then, it’s obviously been perverted to provide major undeserved advantages to corporations. Those need to be rolled back. But you don’t want to abolish corporate personhood entirely.


There’s a lot of misunderstandings surrounding corporate personhood. Corporations need to be considered as legal persons in order for them to be sued, own property and enter into contracts. Corporate personhood should not be up for debate. Whether they should have all the rights and protections that human persons have is another question.

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I’m a lawyer who is a bit of a civil procedure geek and who tries to do a certain amount of public education. I run into this disconnect between what the law means by corporate personhood and what the public thinks it means all the time.

Is anyone who wants to abolish corporate personhood willing say here what they think the implications of that would be? I’m not trying to expose anyone’s ignorance here. I’d just like to get a feeling for what people are trying to say so that I don’t end up talking past people who don’t have any legal background.


Do you even internet? save some bandwidth:


The invention of “corporate personhood” did not rise out of inventive legal theorizing by pro-business attorneys plying their (witch)-craft during America’s gilded-age. The “entity” as an idea was spirited into existence by pro-business lawyers working within the judiciary as clerks who used their position to wantonly add any language they desired to the decisions of the justices for whom they served.

Thom Hartmann, the liberal radio host and activist, has written about this subject in short and long form. Here’s a link pointing a very readable, 2-part essay on the history of corporate personhood and its extra-legal invention from whole-cloth.

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This history of corporate personhood starts in 1819?? It needs to start at least two and a half centuries before, for the start of corporations in English law. Or, around the 12th century for corporations in canon law.

You could at least quote Blackstone’s 1769 Commentaries on the Law, which succinctly gathered together legal thought of the past century, and which has an entire book on corporations. It starts out, after a brief discussion of “natural persons”: THESE artificial persons are called bodies politic, bodies corporate, (corpora corporata) or corporations…

Corporate personhood was absolutely established in the law long before the United States became a nation. Anyone who says otherwise is absolutely ignorant.

Interesting, thanks for the link!

Myself, I don’t know anyone who wants to revoke all corporate standing as legal entities. I know plenty of people who’d like to legally clarify the difference between the rights of born human individuals, versus the rights of (theoretically) immortal corporate fictions.

I’m curious about what you think should happen. Does the move to ammend get it (mostly) right? Or would a federal law suffice?

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I’ve seen plenty of people yell “END CORPORATE PERSONHOOD” as a blanket statement, presumably because they don’t understand the implications of what they’re asking for.

This is very interesting info, thank you! There is something I am curious about now. Would it be (legally) possible to have class action lawsuit in CIVIL court against the banks for the misdeeds leading up to last/current financial crisis? It might not create the level of satisfaction that a bunch of bankers serving prison sentences would, but it should theoretically manage to do better than the pathetic payoff the government has thus far extracted.

Class actions are typically multiple plaintiffs versus one defendant, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for what you’re talking about. The problem is going to be coming up with a legally recognizable kind of harm; the law mostly isn’t very good on harms like “you completely screwed up my neighborhood.”

I think that the second part of the proposed amendment (money is not free speech) goes in the right direction.

The first part (“Artificial entities established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution”) would be disastrous. Do you want your ISP to have no rights against unreasonable search and seizure? You could fix that a bit by another amendment getting rid of the idea that individuals lose their 4th amendment rights when their information goes to a third party, but I’d still prefer that the government not have free reign to search corporate offices.

Keep in mind too that advocacy organizations are usually corporations. Would it be a good idea to say that the ACLU or the EFF has no due process rights, so that a government can, say, dissolve it on a whim?

Most of what people want could be done statutorily. The Hobby Lobby decision was a statutory interpretation case. The result would have been completely different if the Religious Freedom Restoration Act had a clause saying that its provisions only applied to “natural persons.”


Ah, so Congress could amend the RFRA to state that it is applicable only to natural persons, and the HL decision evaporates?