Research Handbook on the History of Corporate and Company Law
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Research Handbook on the History of Corporate and Company Law

Edited by Harwell Wells

Understanding the corporation means understanding its legal framework, but until recently the origins and evolution of corporate law have received relatively little attention. The topical chapters featured in this Research Handbook, contributed by leading scholars from around the world, examine the historical development of corporation and business organization law in the Americas, Europe, and Asia from the ancient world to modern times, providing an invaluable resource for both further historical research and scholars seeking the origins of present-day issues.
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Chapter 18: For- and non-profit special corporations in America, 1608–1860

Robert E. Wright


Chapter 18 traces the origins of both the for- and non-profit corporations in the US by studying corporations in the era of ‘special chartering’, when each corporation had to seek its charter from a state legislature. Defining the corporation as an organization with the right of perpetual succession, the author documents that over 22,000 corporations were granted charters via special incorporation in the US between adoption of the Constitution and the Civil War, and provides data strongly indicating that as many non-profit corporations, ranging from churches to fraternal societies, were also formed during this period. If anything, he points out, his study may undercount, as his data does not include many small associations that formed under articles of incorporation and asserted corporate rights without actually seeking charters. Corporations existed in all sections of the nation, and drew in a broad spectrum of Americans as shareholders and participants. As the first American treatise on corporation law put it, ‘[t]here is scarcely an individual of respectable character in out community, who is not a member of, at least, one private company or society which is incorporated’. Wright shows his readers that even early on the US was not anti-corporate but rather teeming with individuals eager to form and join corporations.

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