Corporations as people

Are corporations considered people? Do they have first amendment rights, or any right at all? If they are, if they have rights, aren’t they also liable under the responsibilities people have, as well? How does that work? Is that legally different than what’s happening now?

Confused, I am.


  1. They are “persons” as a legal fiction – in that a person, not a car or toaster or dentist’s office (as opposed to the dentist practicing in it), is what has legal existence to act by contract, in court, etc.

  2. They have no “rights” other than to exist by virtue of being corporations – but they have a set of specific rights given them in their charters. These rights include to incur debt, enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and several others. In addition, specific rights to engage in certain forms of business are extended to each corporation, variable according to what it is chartered as. General Motors, for example, has no right to set itself up as a bank, though it could cause a daughter corporation to be created that has the right to engage in banking.

  3. (And contrary to what I said in #2, for reasons that will become obvious) As persons, they have certain rights congruent with what they are, for example freedom of speech. the right to a fair, speedy trial, etc. Not all the panoply of constitutional rights apply to them, but rather the ones that match up with their status as legal persons distinct from their shareholders or executives.

  4. As was discussed in another recent thread, the reason is that only persons can engage in legal transactions (from selling a pack of gum to being involved in a multi-billion dollar lawsuit), and the full title, “limited liability corporations,” makes clear the value of setting up a separate legal identity – your liability as a shareholder of a corporation is limited to your investment. The guy suing GM for several million dollars because his car went kablooey at turnpike speed, causing him permanent disability, cannot come after you for that several million – your liability is limited to the money you already invested in the corporation.

Once again. I posted this in another thread (with minor changes).

This is the most egregious piece of judicial legislation EVER but it is the foundation of all arguments today about corporate rights. Once it is granted that a corporation is a person, it’s a short step (in our case 110 years) to the point this person has been fully anthropromorphized into a human being, just another joe except without joe’s frailities like dieing , not having former Congressmen sitting on his board of directors and not having shitloads of money. Too bad, joe.

Oh yeah. joe’s also expected to pick up after himself and be responsible for his debts.

Adhay, limited liability corporations existed in England well before the Revolution (ever hear of the South Seas Bubble?). In fact, the idea that a parish church was a ‘person’ at law separate from its pastor and churchwardens dates back to the Middle Ages.

And equating “law” with statute flies in the face of how law has been created in the English-speaking world since, quite literally, “time immemorial.” The courts – all the courts, from the Farmburg Police Court on up to SCOTUS – create case law with every case they consider. SCOTUS did not “create” personhood for corporations, but recognized it; it was a legal fiction, a concept implicit in contract law, long before that decision.

Here’s a good podcast on “Corporate Personhood,” from

It is quite true that corporations as legal fictions were recognized in each of the original thirteen states. But they were also closely regulated.

It’s not. Check out Society for the Propagation of the Gospel v Pawlet (1823) and Providence Bank v Billings (1830), both of which predate the decision, and say that corporations have the came rights as people.

Or, in English law, as Blackstone put it:

Blackstone, that 18th century English jurist? Cite away. His notions didn’t seem to affect our early laws limiting corporations, if you’re going to give any credence to my previous post.

I don’t give much credence to your previous post, or at least I don’t think the evidence you’ve quoted backs what you claim it does. (I also dispute its characterization of the Second Bank of the US as tyrannical, but that’s neither here nor there) Early American law based itself on British common law, and whatever limitations their corporate charters gave to them, it didn’t get rid of the idea of corporate personhood.

As Chief Justice Marshall put it in Providence Bank

Or in Dartmouth College (bolding mine)

Also, if you look at Bank of the US v Deveaux (1809), you’ll see Marshall stating:

My point has been that corporate personhood is a SCOTUS creation dating from after the Civil War.

This froma timeline of corporate personhood.

[emphasis mine]

Nothing about personhood with all the rights of citizens. As late as 1877, the SC was ruling to the contrary.

Munn v. Illinois doesn’t touch on personhood because corporate personhood was recognized before that.

Look at the Dartmouth College decision again:

“individuality – properties by which a perpetual succession of many persons are considered as the same, and may act as a single individual.”

That’s a legal person…a thing that can act in its own right rather than merely being the instrument of something else. This isn’t a question of when the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th amendment applied to corporations, or when corporate persons had the rights of citizens. This is about when corporate personhood was established. And it was established long before 1889.

Oh, have your it your way.:slight_smile:

Here’s a little historical piece that shouldn’t upset anyone. At the end, there is a cite of English Law regarding corporations.