Corporations have grown to be a threat to our democracy. Thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions, they are now claiming personhood, to be a citizen just like you and me. How did this happen? It began during the founding years of this country.
Our nation’s founding patriots had a deep distrust of corporations, and for good reason. The British Colonies were corporations chartered by the king and given the right to govern — such as the Virginia Corporation and the Massachusetts Bay Company — and British laws forced the colonists to trade under disadvantageous terms with the East India Co., the mother of all British crown corporations. So the American Revolution overthrew not only King George III’s sovereignty over the colonies but also the power of the first huge corporations, and people of the era understood this. The distrust of corporations ran so deep that Thomas Jefferson proposed, unsuccessfully, that freedom from monopolies be included in the Bill of Rights. He later wrote, “I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Early charters specified the corporation’s purpose and expired at the end of a set term. If corporations overstepped their boundaries, their charters could be — and not infrequently were — revoked. Corporations could not own shares in other corporations, so mergers and acquisitions and subsidiaries were unknown.
President Abraham Lincoln made an alarming observation in a letter in 1864: “Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
It is happening now … and I fear that our lawmakers are so bound up in ideology and corruption that they are incapable of doing the right thing. One corrective solution is a federal constitutional amendment to insert into corporate charters the conditions of their existence. The corporation is not a person or a citizen with any rights whatsoever guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
American democracy might end “not with a bang but a whimper,” the collective whimper of “We the People” when we come to understand, too late, that we have simply let our authority slip away, without noticing, in what amounts to a self-inflicted coup.
NELSON ENOS, WEST PALM BEACH