Since medieval times, corporations have been legal formats created by the government, such as the Crown, Governor, Legislature, etc., to enable citizens to do business as a group. As the American colonies developed and won their independence, corporations for the most part remained in the background. (The Boston Tea Party, wherein the Sons of Liberty dumped 342 crates of British East India Company tea into the ocean, was a notable exception.) The vast majority of Americans at the time lived and worked on small family farms.
The real threat was the unilateral, unaccountable power of King George III, and the founders of a new nation, skeptical of that kind of power, formed a government of checks and balances to prevent any one branch from getting too powerful. Although corporations were not mentioned in the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson famously noted that representative government’s purpose was “to curb the excesses of the monied interests.”
After the American Revolution, corporations remained small institutions, chartered at the state level for specific public purposes, such as banking, education, religion, helping the poor, constructing roads or canals, etc. Corporations could only exist for a limited time, could not make any political contributions, and could not own stock in other companies. Their owners were responsible for criminal acts committed by the corporation, and the doctrine of limited liability for shareholders did not yet exist.
Governments kept a close watch on how these corporations were being run, regularly revoking charters if corporations were not serving the public interest. For example, in 1832, President Andrew Jackson refused to extend the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, and the State of Pennsylvania revoked 10 banks’ charters.
Slowly though, corporations were gaining power. Arising out of the Industrial Revolution, a new wealthy class began influencing policy making, changing the rules governing the corporations they owned. Charters grew longer and less restrictive. The doctrine of limited liability – allowing corporate owners and managers to avoid responsibility for harm and losses caused by the corporation – began to appear in state corporate laws. Charter revocation became less frequent, and government functions shifted from keeping a close watch on corporations to encouraging their growth.
In January 2010, using a logic that defied common sense, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission five Supreme Court Justices suddenly transformed corporations into human beings, with a power that flesh and blood humans do not have: they can spend unlimited amounts of money in order to buy elections.
It now appears that the only way the Citizens United decision can be overturned is by a constitutional amendment. In January a Hart Research survey found that 87% of Democrats, 82% of Independents and 68% of Republicans favored the passage of such an amendment.
I believe that if the Occupy Wall Street movement were to channel all its energy into calling for a constitutional convention to overturn this ridiculous decision, its goal of breaking the tie between big money and Washington could be accomplished. Passage of such an amendment might even bring a little sanity to the current political climate.
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