This is for those who are mystified, upset, angry, or whatever else about Citizens United. Without doubt I learned more from this book by Adam Winkler than I have learned from any book in months and some of it shocked me. It is this month’s assignment if one is a member of the PBS/New York Times online book club.
The first English settlement, Jamestown, was a corporation. The people who first lived there were all employees of that corporation and could not own anything themselves. Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded as a corporation as were several other colonies and Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yale. In the first business related case before the Supreme Court in 1809, Bank of the United States vs. Derveaux, the bank won. It was the first Supreme Court case which dealt with the constitutional rights of corporations. With occasional exceptions, since that first case, the Supreme Court has generally sided with businesses.
Corporate and business donations to presidential campaigns began over a hundred years ago with the election cycle of McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan. Marcus Alonzo Hanna realized just how much money could matter and transformed the campaign process. He created the first national advertising campaign. This new strategy required money, lots more than the traditional campaigning methods. Where did he acquire this money? Corporations. He coined the phrase, “There are two things important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
In a case in 1916, Dodge Brothers vs. Ford Motor Company, Ford lost because of his testimony when he said he had the right to make business decisions in the interests of the general public even if stockholders had to sacrifice. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that they could not commit to the concept that “a general purpose and plan to benefit mankind at the expense of stockholders” is acceptable.
Although there have been periods of time when the Supreme Court of the US has been prone to limit the rights of corporations, they have been brief in comparison to periods where corporate rights were increased by Supreme Court decisions. The extension of corporate rights to free speech began long ago in Britain. However, in the US, the Fourteenth Amendment was used in the case of Grosjean vs. American Press Company to guarantee free speech rights to corporations. This case decades ago is, along with many other cases, a precursor to Citizens United.
If you want to understand how corporations have increasingly attained rights, I highly recommend this book. It will give you new insights into where we are now and how we got to this point regarding the rights of corporations in the United States.