Session III — Corporate Personhood

In Session II we noted the 1886 Supreme Court decision that gave corporations the same rights and protections as human beings, and in this session we explore that phenomenon in depth. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1868 in order to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. Section 1 reads as follows:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privilege or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The U.S. Constitution and the country’s legal foundations were rooted in the sanctity of property rights and the individual. So it was clear to corporate lawyers, following the burst of corporate growth and influence during the Civil War, that it would be necessary to get the Supreme Court to declare the corporation equivalent to a “person” with the same 14th Amendment protection of the laws. Only with this designation could the corporate form pursue growth, wealth, and power free from the restraining will of the people.

In 1936 the dean of the John Marshall Law School said, “In the entire Constitution and the Amendments thereto, the word ‘person’ is used thirty-four times; in thirty-three times, it refers only and can refer only to creatures of flesh and blood. And in the 14th Amendment the word is used five times, is obvious that natural persons alone can be meant, as only natural persons can be born or naturalized, become citizens...” Nevertheless, in 1886 lawyers for the Southern Pacific Railroad achieved their goal with the Supreme Court declaring that the 14th Amendment applied to corporations.

This session explores the cultural impact of this decision. What has it meant for the role of us human persons, and the organizing of people’s movements for full inclusion and personhood, when the biggest, wealthiest, and most powerful “persons” are our own corporate creations?


1 – “The Birth” and “The Rule,” by Kalle Lasn and Tom Liacas (2 pages)

2 – “Gangs of America,” by Ted Nace pages 5-7 (2 pages)

3 – “Timeline of Personhood Rights and Powers,” by Jan Edwards (5 pages)

4 – “Should Not the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States be Amended?” excerpts by Edward T. Lee (2 pages)

5 – “Corporations Behave as if They are More Human than We Are,” by George Monbiot (1 page)

6 – “Corporate Citizens,” by Carl Pope (1 page)

7 – Corporate Personhood Resolution, City of Point Arena (2 pages)

8 – “Democracy in St. Thomas,” by James Allison (2 pages)

9 – “Tea Time in Humbolt County (CA),” by Jim and Tomi Allison (2 pages)


Discussion Questions:

1. In what ways do so-called “corporate persons” have more rights under the law today than human persons? What are the differences in the limits and resources of each?

2. How does the existence of these artificial “persons” affect (a) our sense of self and our identity, and (b) our relationship to the natural world and the other living creatures in it?

3. What is meant by the term “judge-made law” and what has been its impact?

4. How has the evolution of our democracy been shaped by the conferring of personhood status to corporations at a time when it was denied to the majority of human beings?

5. What can be gained when a community organizes to pass a resolution against corporations having personhood status under law?

Supplementary Materials:

“The Santa Clara Blues: Corporate Personhood versus Democracy,” by William Meyers. History and analysis of how corporations acquired the rights of human beings. Available free online at

? “Can Corporations be People?” Workshop, Jan Edwards and Molly Morgan, Minneapolis, June 2002. Available as DVD or videotape from Leslie Reindl, phone #651-633-4410, or Excellent history overview and legal timeline. About 40 minutes long.

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