Do corporate acts always count as some person’s actions?

A post by guest blogger Prof. Lisa Siraganian (Johns Hopkins University)

Scholars of corporate legal finance tend not to spend a lot of time worrying about how the corporation relates to novels, poems, literary movements. Or to political cartoons, like Udo Keppler’s fascinating 1910 magazine illustration of the shadowy corporation (more on that one below). But maybe they should. That’s what I argue in my new book, Modernism and the Meaning of Corporate Persons, out just now as part of the Law and Literature series from Oxford University Press, edited by Professors Robert Spoo and Simon Stern.  

Udo J. Keppler, “Get after the substance, not the shadow,” Puck 68, no. 1757 (November 2, 1910). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division, Washington, D.C.

The story begins with the fateful US Supreme Court decision, Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which legitimatized the American legal fiction of corporate personhood in 1886. After that decision, the development of the idea that law could endow a nonhuman entity with certain rights expanded into American culture. And, not surprisingly, the notion that an eerie, insubstantial corporation could be considered similar to persons bothered many actual people throughout the first decades of the twentieth century.

In the book, I explore how and why the possibility that large collective organizations might mean to do what they do—and might mean like us, like persons—both excited and worried American creative writers, artists like Keppler, and theorists of the corporation. In roughly the first half of the twentieth century, these ideas stimulated new thoughts about what it means to act as a person or as a group. It also sparked new thoughts on what it means to intend to act at all. Of course, versions of that conversation continue today, most often as debates on blogs, scholarship, and in heated media discussions, whether on legal personhood, corporate social responsibility, veil-piercing, or corporate criminal liability. But the earlier deliberations on similar issues have remained, until now, an untapped resource to understand corporate action, worked out in entirely different forms. 

For example, consider the law reviews and treatises on contracts and agency law by US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and law professor Ernst Freund. Or, alternatively, take the inventive modernist poems of Gertrude Stein and the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby and The Love of the Last Tycoon. Whichever you choose, you can find each writer trying to work out the following problem. Namely, if you can’t be sure how to represent or describe a corporate entity, or who exactly intended what a corporation said or acted, then how can you really know what that corporation meant when it “said” something or acted in a certain way? But knowing, or not knowing, mattered. It would determine what you might fairly expect from the various human persons when they work for a corporation. And it would impact how society should treat (or regulate) these corporate entities and what they did in the world. Continue reading “Do corporate acts always count as some person’s actions?”