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History of corporations


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 Readings on corporations and, on contemporary debates, the corporate governance sites listed at the bottom of this page.

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.

My research, and this website, 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).

Contemporary corporate governance

The governance of corporations emerged as a urgent public policy issue in the 1990s and has generated an outpouring of scholarship and commentary in law, economics, policy, and business circles, especially in the U.S. For an introduction to current debates, sample some of these websites:

    Corporate Governance (CorpGov.net)—"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 Goverance Committee
    AFL-CIO Capital Stewardship Program