|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
A couple months ago the Supreme Court ruled that restricting corporate political spending amounted to restricting free speech. In this view, corporations are pretty much equivalent to people. Would that have seemed reasonable to the Founding Fathers?
In a word, no.
I read this opinion carefully — I'm trained as a historian, not a lawyer. Chief Justice Roberts lays out an ideologically pure view of corporations as associations of citizens — leveling differences between companies, schools and other groups. So in his view Boeing is no different from Harvard, which is no different from the NAACP, or Citizens United, or my local neighborhood civic association. It's lovely prose, but as a matter of history the majority is simply wrong.
Let me put it this way: the Founders did not confuse Boston's Sons of Liberty with the British East India Company. They could distinguish among different varieties of association — and they understood that corporate personhood was a legal fiction that was limited to a courtroom. It wasn't literal. Corporations could not vote or hold office. They held property, and to enable a shifting group of shareholders to hold that property over time and to sue and be sued in court, they were granted this fictive personhood in a limited legal context.
Early Americans had a far more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of corporations than the Court gives them credit for. They were much more comfortable with retaining pre-Revolutionary city or school charters than with creating new corporations that would concentrate economic and political power in potentially unaccountable institutions. When you read Madison in particular, you see that he wasn't blindly hostile to banks during his fight with Alexander Hamilton over the Bank of the United States. Instead, he's worried about the unchecked power of accumulations of capital that come with creating a class of bankers.
So even as this generation of Americans became comfortable with the idea of using the corporate form as a way to set priorities and mobilize capital, they did their best to make sure that those institutions were subordinate to elected officials and representative government. They saw corporations as corrupting influences on both the economy at large and on government — that's why they described the East India Company as imperium in imperio, a sort of "state within a state." This wasn't an outcome they were looking to replicate.