How can a corporation be legally considered a person?

Regarding corporate “personhood”…

Cecil’s article from September 19

OK, omit the discussion about money (a substitute for material goods) equaling opinion (and First Amendment protections of corporate campaign contributions). Or don’t. If a corporation has a status of “personhood” in the United States, why can it also not have a status of citizenship and thereby vote?

Have we come full circle? Those with the power to vote at the time of the birth of our nation had to be white, male, wealthy property owners. Is this were we are headed again?

If a corporation can own something (including money), then it is already in some ways a legal person. And if a corporation can’t own anything, it has no reason to exist.

That’s first-week-of-law-school stuff. The hard part is the question of how much of a “person” a corporation can be.

So property makes a legal person. If I don’t own property I am not a person…legally?

Hummmm. Maybe first year of law school, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense.

No. That’s first-week-of-logic stuff.

Do rocks own things? Do toothbrushes own things? Does the color brown own things? Does Portuguese grammar own things? Does the Straight Dope Message Board own things?


What does own things? People. People, and corporations, and governments (which are a kind of corporation).

No, you missed the question and instead answered that persons own stuff and rocks don’t.
I asked, is it property that makes a “person?”

Do you mean to say owning stuff makes a person?
If I don’t own stuff I must be a rock. Clever.

Are not corporations owned?

He said: “If a corporation can own something (including money), then it is already in some ways a legal person.”

And you replied: “So property makes a legal person. If I don’t own property I am not a person…legally?”

Do you see where you went astray? It’s the difference between “can” and “does”.

This is the business school guy chiming in…

It has to do with the nature of what a corporation is. Single-proprietor businesses and partnerships aren’t legally separate entities from the proprietor(s). In other words, if the company folds and creditors come knocking, they have claim to the proprietor(s) personal assets.

Corporations on the other hand, are legally incorporated into a new legal entity. Not a “person”, mind you, but a separate legal entity with existence and assets separate from those of the owners. If a corporation folds, and the creditors come knocking, they have claims to the assets of the corporation, but not to the personal assets of the owners.

That’s what they mean- corporations are separate legal entities from its owners- you can sue the company, you can loan to the company, etc… but the owners aren’t responsible for the debts of the company or the conduct of the company beyond certain shareholder vote issues like electing a new board of directors.

No. Correlation between the ability to own property and the state of being a separate legal entity does not imply causation.

Why fixate on the ability to own property? Corporations can enter contracts and they can sue and be sued.

Don’t you also want to know, "is it the ability to sue that makes a “person”?

What about that burning question, "is it the ability to enter contracts that makes a “person”?

Or are you simply trying to draw a strained parallel between property ownership and voting rights in modern times?

Nothing strained about it.

We have a mix of ontological and legal questions yet only answers about “the law.”

What is the nature of voice - voting - free speech?

Evidently is has been decided in the past (the law, precedent) that corporations are a “kind of” person and therefore have the right to a voice in political debate. But their voice is evident only through cash and their ability to sway; corporations themselves cannot vote. Begging the question, why?

That isn’t what “begging the question means”.

But to answer the question: because corporations can be created more or less at will.

QUOTE]*Originally posted by AndrewT *
**He said: “If a corporation can own something (including money), then it is already in some ways a legal person.”

And you replied: “So property makes a legal person. If I don’t own property I am not a person…legally?”

Do you see where you went astray? It’s the difference between “can” and “does”. **
I think it’s a matter of faulty syllogistic logic.

Let A = entity
Let B = property
Let C = legal person

All A can own some B
All entities that can own some B are legal persons.
Therefore All A are legal persons.

Note that B is not distributed. Therefore, A’s non-ownership of B does not preclude C.

Your example is a bit of a mess:

A = corporations
B = entities capable of holding property
C = in some sense, legal persons

All A are B
All B are C
Therefore, all A are C.

…which is perfectly valid.

Her logic, on the other hand, isn’t a syllogism at all, not even a false one. It’s simply an invalid transformation.

All B are C
Therefore all not-B are not-C.

Which is about as logical as Lewis Carroll’s “Things that are greater than the same are greater than one another”.

The U.S. government is formed of persons.
Corporations are persons.

Wrong, I’m afraid.

The correct wording would be:

The U.S. government is formed of persons.
Corporations have been given a small set of specified legal rights to act as if they were persons in carefully limited and delimited situations.

Therefore corporations can’t vote.

Since you have been told several times that corporations are persons “in some sense”, or “in some ways”, I can only assume that you are deliberately yanking our chains. I’m not going to play anymore.

Why would they need to vote when they already own the current US administration?

And votes only mattered back in the days when they actually counted them.

hi, all,
here’s the new guy chiming in.
this subject is one i’ve been very concerned about for some time, since it has such a bearing on what happens to our democracy. while what bump said above is legally true, the big question is SHOULD it be? that ties into kennedy’s question of how much of a person a corp. should be.

if the board of directors is NOT legally responsible for the company’s conduct, who is? doesn’t that give unscrupulous folks a carte blanche to create a “business” that enables them to blatantly break the law, and then claim THEY didn’t do it, the “corporation” did? that seems to be the way things are heading…

obviously, there’s a major problem with that – the fact that a corporation only exists on paper and in the minds of the biological people who recognize it. the law is an extension of that necessary fiction, but to extend civil rights to such a fictional entity gravely endangers the civil rights of biological people, since no one can jail a corporation for the same crimes individuals get imprisoned for regularly. theoretically (and in older laws), biological people have ultimate authority over such corporations, and the only way we can maintain authority is to make them see their existence is a PRIVILEGE, not a right. the only way to do that is to hold the individuals running a company accountable for that company’s acts – ALL of its acts.


Welcome to the SDMB, denari. The B/D can be legally responsible for illegal acts of the corporation, as can be the officers who authorize such action, as witness Enron and other corps in the news lately. Altho the corporation cannot be jailed, of course, responsible officers and board members can. Of course, a corpn can be sued civilly, along with responsible officers and board members.

That would be Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518 (1819) which was codified under the Fourteenth Amendment in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 118 U.S. 394 (1886) . Nothing more. It was a creation of the USSC, period.

A good writeup on this is at studying the psychology of the corporation as a person and how it exists as a legal fiction.


SONG -- Mr. Goldbury 

          Some seven men form an Association
               (If possible, all Peers and Baronets),
          The start off with a public declaration
               To what extent they mean to pay their debts.
          That's called their Capital; if they are wary
               They will not quote it at a sum immense.
          The figure's immaterial--it may vary
               From eighteen million down to eighteenpence.

                    I should put it rather low;
                    The good sense of doing so
               Will be evident at once to any debtor.
                    When it's left to you to say
                    What amount you mean to pay,
               Why, the lower you can put it at, the better.

Chorus:             When it's left to you to say, etc.

          They then proceed to trade with all who'll trust 'em
               Quite irrespective of their capital
          (It's shady, but it's sanctified by custom);
               Bank, Railway, Loan, or Panama Canal.
          You can't embark on trading too tremendous--
               It's strictly fair, and based on common sense--
          If you succeed, your profits are stupendous--
               And if you fail, pop goes your eighteenpence.

               Make the money-spinner spin!
               For you only stand to win,
          And you'll never with dishonesty be twitted.
               For nobody can know,
               To a million or so,
          To what extent your capital's committed!

Chorus:             No, nobody can know, etc.

          If you come to grief, and creditors are craving
               (For nothing that is planned by mortal head
          Is certain in this Vale of Sorrow--saving
               That one's Liability is Limited),--
          Do you suppose that signifies perdition?
               If so, you're but a monetary dunce--
          You merely file a Winding-Up Petition,
               And start another Company at once!

               Though a Rothschild you may be
               In your own capacity,
          As a Company you've come to utter sorrow--
               But the Liquidators say,
               "Never mind--you needn't pay,"
          So you start another company to-morrow!

Chorus:             But the liquidators say, etc.

King:     Well, at first sight it strikes us as dishonest,
          But if its's good enough for virtuous England--
          The first commercial country in the world--
          It's good enough for us.

– W. S. Gilbert, “Utopia, Limited”