Corporations have a long history of power in the U.S.
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
– Thomas Jefferson, 1816
The struggle between democratic forces and big corporations has been a dominant theme in American history since the beginning.
The American Revolution was fought to free ourselves from the Crown and the Crown corporations that were instruments of colonial rule and exploitation.
And in our first seven decades or so, corporations were considered mostly unnecessary. Family farms and businesses were taking care of the nation’s needs. Only a few corporations were chartered by state legislatures for public purposes, such as canal building, that were considered beyond the resources of family businesses.
These few corporations were kept under tight state control. Charters were limited to a fixed number of years, and required corporations to dissolve if their charters were not renewed. Furthermore, the companies were limited to those business activities listed in the charter, and were subject to strict control by all shareholders and by the chartering legislatures.
Corporate interests tried but failed to change this state of affairs. In Dodge vs. Woolsey, 1855, the Supreme Court affirmed that the Constitution confers no inalienable rights on a corporation, ruling that the people of the states have not “released their power over the artificial bodies which originate under the legislation of their representatives.”
All this changed as a result of the Civil War and its aftermath. Huge corporate profits resulting from military procurement contracts allowed newly strengthened industrial interests to take advantage of the governmental disarray and rampant corruption that characterized the postwar decades.
The corporate interests virtually bought the nation’s legislators and a great many of its judges. Legislatures and courts gave the corporations unheard-of new powers.
Abraham Lincoln saw what was happening early on. Shortly before his death, he said: “Corporations have been enthroned. … An era of corruption in high places will follow … until wealth is aggregated in a few hands … and the Republic is destroyed.”
And so it was until the Great Depression.
At the same time, however, the awful suffering of the great mass of workers caused the growth of radical worker and socialist movements. These uprisings scared the big industrialists sufficiently so that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to convince at least some of them not to engage in an all-out resistance to the more moderate New Deal reforms.
These reforms, while not undoing all the legal gains won by the corporations in the preceding decades, were sufficient, along with the nation’s post World War II prosperity, to create a strong middle class and a seemingly more balanced society.
Perhaps it was that same prosperity that not only gave our increasingly huge corporations the wealth to mount a second assault on the government and the courts, but also exalted the egos and whetted the greed of the wealthy to their present extent.
Now, like the most depraved addicts, they just can never get enough wealth and power. This second assault, which began in the later 1970s and has gained increasing steam since, looks almost unstoppable at present.
The great question today is whether we can find the means to break the “corpocracy” and take back our government within the present constitutional framework, or whether we will have to either resort to violent revolution or just suffer with it until it collapses of its own weight.
Sooner or later, it will self-destruct, because the corpocracy has completely forgotten the simple wisdom of our greatest industrialist. It was Henry Ford who famously said, “You have to pay your workers enough so they can afford to buy your cars.”
Obviously, when you don’t do that, finally you can’t sell any cars and then the whole corpocracy collapses. After all, the global corporations are not going to be able to sell their products to the Chinese and other workers making pennies per hour.
“What Do We Really Want?” appears on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. Mary Boland is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother, and a longtime resident of Carbondale. Follow her on twitter@grannyboland.
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