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History of corporations—introduction

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The corporation has a commanding presence in today's world. In power, wealth, and geographic reach, the only rivals of the largest corporations are national governments—and then only the largest of them. But we know surprisingly little about the history of the corporation.

When I published my first article on shareholder voting rights in 1998, the corporation—as a distinctive legal entity—was not on the mental landscape of historians. More often than not, the word corporation was used as a euphemism for "big business." As a result, we knew much more about the history of "big business" than about corporations as a distinctive legal form for organizing business enterprise, especially during the "rise of big business" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Since the corporate governance scandals of the 1990s, this has changed. Historians, particularly those working on the U.S. and the U.K., are now digging deep into the history of corporations. For an introduction to the historical literature, check out my Readings on the history of corporations and, on current debates, the corporate governance sites listed below.

To encourage research on the history of the corporation and to inform the interested reader, this section of my website offers a gateway to research on the history of the corporation, my own and that of others. To explore its pages, use the links below or on the upper menu.

My research on the history of corporations would not have been possible without generous funding from the University of Wisconsin Graduate School, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University. I am grateful to all of them for their support (and their patience).

Policy issues

Scholarly concerns about corporate governance—centering on the separation of ownership and control—date back at least to the 1920s (see Wells, "The Birth of Corporate Governance" [2010], on my Readings on the history of corporations page) and practical concerns back to the third edition (1784) of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. After a flurry of debate in the 1930s and 1940s, scholarly interest in corporate governance subsided until the 1990s, when it again became an urgent public policy issue.

The intervening decades have seen an outpouring of research and commentary on corporate governance in history, law, economics, policy studies, and business scholarship, especially in the U.S.

For an introduction to the range of current debates, sample some of the websites listed here.

Corporate governance today

Corporate Governance (—"founded in 1995 to provide news, commentary and a network for those interested in transforming [what was then] an arcane subject."

OECD Corporate Governance—promotes good corporate governance in OECD countries.

Purpose of the Corporation, Aspen Institute—"focuses on rethinking common misperceptions about corporate purpose and explores ways that company-specific notions of their higher purpose can enable longer-term thinking in business."

Program on Corporate Governance, Harvard Law School

Business Roundtable's Corporate Governance Committee

AFL-CIO Capital Stewardship Program