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Are Corporations People? The History, Law, and Theory of Corporations and Personhood

Course registration will be available for this course once it is scheduled.

Course Description

Is Apple or Exxon-Mobile or Walmart a person? With recent Supreme Court cases like Citizens United v. FEC, citizens, policy-makers, and scholars have become increasingly concerned that corporations are considered people in the eyes of the law. Yet the notion of corporate forms enjoying the rights and privileges of human citizens is far from new. In this course, we will explore this longer history through landmark Supreme Court cases that reveal how corporate forms have come to attain rights over time, sometimes at the cost of human people themselves.

Corporations are everywhere in our world. If anything, the largest corporations today even outstrip some governments in their wealth, scope of operations, and power to set policy. In the US, Supreme Court cases like Citizens United v. FEC and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby have further cemented corporations as entities protected by constitutional rights and religious privileges. The story of how corporations have become so prevalent and powerful in our time, however, is also the history of how corporations have come to acquire the rights and privileges of persons. It is the history of how two influential legal concepts have intersected over time: the corporate form and legal personhood. In this course, we will trace how these two concepts have developed together politically and legally. Though careful readings of prominent Supreme Court cases like Dartmouth College v. Woodward, Dred Scott v. Sanford, and Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad—and investigations of their broader social and economic contexts—we will unearth how the history of corporate personhood is deeply intertwined with histories of the legal personhood of Native Americans, slaves, and labor.

This course aims to prepare high school students to become more effective college students, more informed citizens, and more critical consumers. By the end of the course, students will be able to think and talk confidently about the changing role of corporations in our world, to better understand the history that precedes this changing role, and to critically consider what role corporations ought to play in the future. They will become conversant with cutting-edge research on corporations in history, law, political science, and sociology—giving them a strong foundation to take college courses in these fields.

Prerequisites: Besides a strong proficiency in English, there are no formal class prerequisites to taking this course. Students should expect significant reading of often dense texts and a fair amount of writing throughout; this is a reading and writing intensive course. Students should also be prepared to develop their public speaking and class discussion skills in a course that will introduce the college-level seminar format. It is recommended that students come in with some background in and knowledge of American history. Students should also have an interest in and some general knowledge of recent news and controversies about corporations in popular media to better contextualize the course.