Corporate “Personhood”

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Huffpost is pretty lefty, but this one’s pretty solid:

WASHINGTON — Of all the Occupy Wall Street refrains, one of the most memorable is, “I refuse to believe that corporations are people until Texas executes one.” But, clever as it is, the quip looks to the wrong end of the life cycle: The only thing more corrupt than the legal concept of corporate personhood is the way a Gilded Age judge birthed it.

The discontented have been occupying the streets for a long time. But the convulsions with which the ruling class in America reacted to the Paris Commune of 1871 make Fox News’ coverage of Occupy Wall Street sound fawning.

The Paris Commune was the first international incident followed daily in the United States. While President Barack Obama complains about the 24-hour news cycle today, its roots stretch back to Cyrus Field’s transcontinental telegraph cable, which allowed the elites of America to focus intently on the two-month uprising and ultimate slaughter of thousands of Parisians. Cyrus Field’s brother and his family were in Paris at the time, and a third brother, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field, obsessively tracked the news back in the states. It was the Paris uprising that transformed Stephen Field from a mundanely corrupt judge in the paid service of the railroads to a zealous crusader for all corporations, with the aim of suppressing what he and other leaders saw as the threat of democracy from below.

For much of the first U.S. century, it was an accepted fact that the people, through their legislators, had the power to pass laws that businesses were required to obey. After the Civil War, Reconstruction-era statutes and constitutional amendments — particularly the 14th Amendment — strictly limited the ability of legislators to restrict the rights of the recently freed African Americans.

In a historic irony, it was the protections contained in those Reconstruction laws that corporations sought to grab for their own. Justice Field was the hand they used.

The common understanding of how the corporation became a legal person says that a Supreme Court reporter of decisions erroneously said as much in a case summary and that error became an unremovable stain, coloring every decision after. But that reading of history whitewashes what was, in fact, a coordinated effort to win citizenship for corporations.

The idea of corporate personhood was once viewed as nonsense. A corporation was formed to limit the financial liability of its owners in pursuing their business: If the corporation went broke, debtors couldn’t come after its owners. That such a company might also have all the rights of citizens was a concept on the fringes. Yet by force of judicial will, Field pulled it right into the mainstream.

He began with his dissenting opinion in the 1873 Slaughter-House cases, decided by the Supreme Court on a 5-4 vote. Writing for the minority, Field asserted that the freedom of a corporation to pursue its business interests was “the distinguishing privilege of all citizens of the United States.”

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