Essay: The Legal Power of Corporations in the 19th Century

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This essay focuses on The Legal Power of Corporations in the 19th Century in the United States. As Americans look back over the past year, some of the most important news events have been about corporate scandals. The most expensive of these – to workers and investors – was the collapse of Enron due to the malfeasance of its top executives.

As Americans look back over the past year, some of the most important news events have been about corporate scandals. The most expensive of these – to workers and investors – was the collapse of Enron due to the malfeasance of its top executives. These scandals have required Americans to reexamine the power of the corporation in our society and to ask whether there are sufficient legal safeguards – and whether such safeguards as do exist are sufficiently well enforced – to protect individuals against the power that corporations have as a result of their wealth. This is not the first time that such a period of examination of the power of corporate power and wealth has been an important thread in the discourse of American public life: In the last decades of the 19th century many Americans also saw the power of corporations as being a threat both to workers and to investors. Much of our contemporary legal protections against the power of corporations stems from the abuses of this era, a time when courts were often all too sympathetic with the desires of corporate titans to make money any way that they could. Whether the courts acted the way that the Constitution dictated that they should is debatable, but courts in the 19th century (as in the 20th and 21st) were of course subject to political influences as much as to scholarly readings of our founding document.

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