A brief and readable history of

the destruction of American democracy by the corporation.

Thanks to Hendrik USA(TM) via e-mail By Kalle Lasn

THE HISTORY OF AMERICA is the one story every kid knows. It's a story of fierce individualism and heroic personal sacrifice in the service of a dream. A story of early settlers, hungry and cold, carving a home out of the wilderness. Of visionary leaders fighting for democracy and justice, and never wavering. Of a populace prepared to defend those ideals to the death. It's the story of a revolution (an American art form as endemic as baseball or jazz) beating back British Imperialism and launching a new colony into the industrial age on its own terms.

It's a story of America triumphant. A story of its rise after World War II to become the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world, "the land of the free and home of the brave", an inspiring model for the whole world to emulate. That's the official history, the one that is taught in school and the one our media and culture reinforce in myriad ways every day.

The unofficial history of the United States is quite different. It begins the same way in the revolutionary cauldron of colonial America but then it takes a turn. A bit-player in the official history becomes critically important to the way the unofficial history unfolds. This player turns out to be not only the provocateur of the revolution, but in the end its saboteur. This player lies at the heart of America's defining theme: the difference between a country that pretends to be free and a country that truly is free.

That player is the corporation.

The United States of America was born of a revolt not just against British monarchs and the British parliament but against British corporations.

We tend to think of corporations as fairly recent phenomena, the legacy of the Rockefellers and Carnegies. In fact, the corporate presence in pre-revolutionary America was almost as conspicuous as it is today. There were far fewer corporations then, but they were enormously powerful: the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, the British East India Company. Colonials feared these chartered entities. They recognized the way British kings and their cronies used them as robotic arms to control the affairs of the colonies, to pinch staples from remote breadbaskets and bring them home to the motherland.

The colonials resisted. When the British East India Company imposed duties on its incoming tea (telling the locals they could buy the tea or lump it, because the company had a virtual monopoly on tea distribution in the colonies), radical patriots demonstrated. Colonial merchants agreed not to sell East India Company tea. Many East India Company ships were turned back at port. And, on one fateful day in Boston, 342 chests of tea ended up in the salt chuck.

The Boston Tea Party was one of young America's finest hours. It sparked enormous revolutionary excitement. The people were beginning to understand their own strength, and to see their own self-determination not just as possible but inevitable.

The Declaration of Independence, in 1776, freed Americans not only from Britain but also from the tyranny of British corporations, and for a hundred years after the document's signing, Americans remained deeply suspicious of corporate power. They were careful about the way they granted corporate charters, and about the powers granted therein.

Early American charters were created literally by the people, for the people as a legal convenience. Corporations were "artificial, invisible, intangible," mere financial tools. They were chartered by individual states, not the federal government, which meant they could be kept under close local scrutiny. They were automatically dissolved if they engaged in activities that violated their charter. Limits were placed on how big and powerful companies could become. Even railroad magnate J. P. Morgan, the consummate capitalist, understood that corporations must never become so big that they "inhibit freedom to the point where efficiency [is] endangered."

The two hundred or so corporations operating in the US by the year 1800 were each kept on fairly short leashes. They weren't allowed to participate in the political process. They couldn't buy stock in other corporations. And if one of them acted improperly, the consequences were severe. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson vetoed a motion to extend the charter of the corrupt and tyrannical Second Bank of the United States, and was widely applauded for doing so. That same year the state of Pennsylvania revoked the charters of ten banks for operating contrary to the public interest. Even the enormous industry trusts, formed to protect member corporations from external competitors and provide barriers to entry, eventually proved no match for the state. By the mid-1800s, antitrust legislation was widely in place.

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