Is Wal-Mart a Person?

From the editor: This is such an important idea, that it deserves to be read by everyone. Expect more information on the 14th Amendment in the upcoming print edition of The Liberty Voice. Please circulate this information widely.

Thom Hartmann Tells Why It Is–Kind of–But Not Really

Hat tip: Buzz Flash and GARY!

…corporations are asserting that they…should stand side-by-side with humans in having access to the Bill of Rights. Nike asserted…that these corporations have First Amendment rights of free speech. Dow Chemical…asserted it has Fourth Amendment privacy rights and could refuse to allow the EPA to do surprise inspections of its facilities. J.C. Penney asserted…that it had a Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from discrimination — the Fourteenth Amendment was passed to free the slaves after the Civil War — and that communities that were trying to keep out chain stores were practicing illegal discrimination. Tobacco and asbestos companies asserted that they had Fifth Amendment rights to keep secret what they knew about the dangers of their products.


Thom Hartmann is a familiar name to regular BuzzFlash readers, thanks to his contribution of monthly book reviews. He also hosts a syndicated radio talk show, heard on radio stations from coast to coast, the Sirius Satellite Radio system, on CRN, and on As the author of Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights, he has given us a history lesson in how corporations have insinuated themselves into the U.S. Constitution and claimed for themselves the rights that were meant for living, breathing human beings. Here Thom Hartmann answers our questions about personhood, rights, constitutional history and big business as it impacts politics and each and every American.

* * *

BuzzFlash: Let’s start with the basic premise of Unequal Protection. In essence, what is “corporate personhood” in terms of current American law?

Thom Hartmann: “Corporate personhood” is the notion that a corporation has the rights of a person under the Constitution.
Read more.
Prior to the founding of this nation, with the exception of a brief period in Greece, the history of the previous 7000 years of what we called “civilization” was that one of three types of rulers were the sole holders of rights. Society was ruled by either warlord kings; theocratic popes, mullahs or variations thereof; or the very rich. And they ruled both by virtue of their personal wealth, power, or knowledge of a god’s will, and because they represented a ruling institution (the kingdom, church, or either land or a corporation).

Largely through the power of their institutions, they were the sole holders of “rights,” and all the non-institutional humans — the serfs, common people, and even the very tiny precursor of the middle class, the mercantilists and guildsmen — had only “privileges,” which could be revoked more-or-less at will by the holders of the rights.

The extraordinary experiment that was the basis of American democracy in a constitutionally limited republic was to flip this pyramid upside down. The Founders of this republic said in the Declaration of Independence, and the Framers of the Constitution proclaimed in the preamble to the Constitution, that humans — “all men” to quote the Declaration, “We the People” to quote the Constitution — were the sole holders of rights from that point forward.

This was firmly nailed into the Constitution by the addition of the Bill of Rights, which gave humans a huge club they could use to beat back government if it ever were to become oppressive.

Thus, with the founding of America, for the first time, only humans could hold rights. Institutions — churches, civic groups, corporations, clubs, even government itself — held only privileges. Of course, you’d want government — that is, We the People through our elected representatives — to control the privileges of institutions like corporations. And that’s what we did. For example, to prevent kingdom-like accumulations of wealth that could, as Jefferson noted, “threaten the state” itself, corporations in the first hundred or so years of this nation couldn’t exist longer than 40 years, and then had to be dissolved. Their first purpose had to be to serve the public, and their second purpose to make money. Their books and all their activities had to be fully open and available to inspection by We the People. Their officers and directors could be held personally liable for crimes committed by the corporation.

This held as a legal doctrine until the end of the 1800s, and even after that largely held until the Reagan Revolution, when corporations began reaching back to an obscure headnote written by a corrupt Supreme Court clerk in an otherwise obscure railroad tax case in 1886.

But today corporations are asserting that they — and only they — should stand side-by-side with humans in having access to the Bill of Rights. Nike asserted before the Supreme Court last year, as Sinclair Broadcasting did in a press release last month, that these corporations have First Amendment rights of free speech. Dow Chemical in a case it took to the Supreme Court asserted it has Fourth Amendment privacy rights and could refuse to allow the EPA to do surprise inspections of its facilities. J.C. Penney asserted before the Supreme Court that it had a Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from discrimination — the Fourteenth Amendment was passed to free the slaves after the Civil War — and that communities that were trying to keep out chain stores were practicing illegal discrimination. Tobacco and asbestos companies asserted that they had Fifth Amendment rights to keep secret what they knew about the dangers of their products. With the exception of the Nike case, all of these attempts to obtain human rights for corporations were successful, and now they wield this huge club against government that was meant to protect relatively helpless and fragile human beings.

BuzzFlash: You overturn some interesting misconceptions about the Boston Tea Party. Can you explain what the Boston Tea Party was really about and what it shows about the revolutionaries’ attitudes toward large multinational commercial enterprises that were intertwined with the British government?

Thom Hartmann: Sure. This was a particularly fascinating one for me. When I started writing Unequal Protection, it was the result of having spent about four years reading the letters and personal writings of Thomas Jefferson. I wanted to talk about the Founders’ and the Framers’ vision for this new nation they were bringing into being. And Jefferson noted a few times “that incident in the Boston harbor,” which triggered the general insurrections in Boston, the Boston Massacre, and the whole chain of events that led to the Declaration of Independence.

It wasn’t called the Boston Tea Party until the 1830s, after Jefferson had died. Anyhow, I wanted to know more about it, so I went off in search of a good book on the topic.

What I found was there were really no good modern books in print, at least that I could find, examining the Tea Party. Most were just children’s books, and terribly inaccurate. Part of this was probably because the participants had all sworn a 50-year oath of silence, and none survived to tell the tale but one. Which is what led me to find, rather serendipitously in an obscure antiquarian bookstore, a copy of “Retrospect of the Boston Tea Party with a Memoir of George R.T. Hewes, a Survivor of the Little Band of Patriots Who Drowned the Tea in Boston Harbor in 1773,” printed in Oswego, New York by S. S. Bliss in 1834.

In this book, Hewes, who was a teenager at the time of the Tea Party (which he named in 1834), tells that the whole point of this million-dollar (in today’s terms) act of vandalism was to protest a tax cut — a corporate tax break — that the British had given to the East India Company, which would allow it to unfairly compete with and wipe out the thousands of small entrepreneurial tea importers and tea shops that dotted the colonies.

I’d thought I remembered from school that the Tea Act of 1773 was a tax increase, so I had to check the Encyclopedia Britannica, which, sure enough, said that the Tea Act was a tax cut. So what the colonists were protesting was the principle of taxation without representation, but what they meant was what today would be termed “tax breaks for multinational corporations while the average person gets screwed.”

Anyhow, I was so transfixed by Hewes’ account, which had remained hidden since 1834 — the book was apparently published by a little local press in his hometown — that I reprinted a good chunk of it, which is still eminently and brilliantly readable, in Unequal Protection.

As Hewes noted:

“The [East India] Company, however, received permission to transport tea, free of all duty [tax], from Great Britain to America” allowing it to wipe out its small competitors and take over the tea business in all of America. “Hence, it was no longer the small vessels of private merchants, who went to vend tea for their own account in the ports of the colonies, but, on the contrary, ships of an enormous burthen, that transported immense quantities of this commodity, which by the aid of the public authority, might, as they supposed, easily be landed, and amassed in suitable magazines.

“Accordingly the Company sent its agents at Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, six hundred chests of tea, and a proportionate number to Charleston, and other maritime cities of the American continent. The colonies were now arrived at the decisive moment when they must cast the dye, and determine their course.”

It was a real shock to me to discover that the event that kicked over the first domino leading directly to the American Revolution was a direct-action protest against multinational corporate power, and that discovery, along with the really incredible discovery I made when I read that 1886 tax case that supposedly gave corporations human rights, led me to change the scope and title of the book from one about Jefferson — I later wrote that one — and instead into a book about the history of corporate power in America.

BuzzFlash: What changed after the Revolution? You date the rise of “corporate personhood” to the post Civil-War era and the 14th Amendment. Can you briefly explain?

Thom Hartmann: Well, I’ve described how corporations were held on a short leash by the states after the Revolution. And they largely stayed that way until after the Civil War. During the Civil War, Lincoln had lifted many limitations on corporate size and behavior in order to get more war materials. He also hugely subsidized the railroads to expand across America, to transport munitions and soldiers. By the late 19th century, over 180 million acres of American land had been given, free and clear, to the railroads for their expansion. They’d become the largest and most powerful corporations — both in terms of wealth and in terms of their ability to control transportation — that America had ever seen. They completely transformed the face of America, and transformed our politics as well. So it was in this environment that the railroads began to try to influence or corrupt government to enhance their own power and profits.

But government fought back. When Santa Clara County sued the Southern Pacific Railroad, that was the beginning of the end. It was actually a tax case, about whether the railroad had to pay property tax on the fence posts it owned along the right-of-way of its railroad through Santa Clara County, on the terms of the County’s assessor or the State of California’s assessor. The railroad argued that by having different tax rates in different states, they were being discriminated against under the 14th Amendment. This was, by the way, an argument the railroads had brought before the Supreme Court many times. It had always previously been rebuffed, sometimes in strong terms.

For example, in 1873, one of the first Supreme Court rulings on the Fourteenth Amendment, which had passed only five years earlier, Justice Samuel F. Miller minced no words in chastising the railroads for trying to claim the rights of human beings.

The fourteenth amendment’s “one pervading purpose,” he wrote in the majority opinion, “was the freedom of the slave race, the security and firm establishment of that freedom, and the protection of the newly-made freeman and citizen from the oppression of those who had formerly exercised unlimited dominion over him.”

But in the 1886 case, we are told by over a hundred years’ worth of history books and law books, the Supreme Court decided that corporations were, in fact, persons, and entitled to human rights, including the right of equal protection under the law — freedom from discrimination.

What was really amazing to me was that when I went down to the old Vermont State Supreme Court law library here in Vermont, and read an original copy of the Court’s proceedings in the 1886 “Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad” case, the Justices actually said no such thing. In fact, the decision says, at its end, that because they could find a California state law that covered the case “it is not necessary to consider any other questions” such as the constitutionality of the railroad’s claim to personhood.

But in the headnote to the case — a commentary written by the clerk, which is NOT legally binding, it’s just a commentary to help out law students and whatnot, summarizing the case — the Court’s clerk wrote: “The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

That discovery — that we’d been operating for over 100 years on an incorrect headnote — led me to discover that the clerk, J.C. Bancroft Davis, was a former corrupt official of the U.S. Grant administration and the former president of a railroad, and in collusion with another corrupt Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Field, who had been told by the railroads that if they’d help him get this through they’d sponsor him for the presidency.

I later discovered that the folks who run POCLAD — the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy — had already figured this out, and that there had been an obscure article written about it in the 1960s in the Vanderbilt Law Review, but it was, for me, like running down a detective mystery. So that was when the foundations for corporate power were laid in the United States, and they were laid on the basis of a lie.

BuzzFlash: Okay, if the “business of America is business,” what is wrong with corporations having human rights?

Thom Hartmann: Well, when Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business and the chief ideal of the American people is idealism,” he was being a bit disingenuous. This was during the so-called Roaring ’20s, and Coolidge and the Republicans were by then completely captured by the huge corporate interests and empires that had arisen in America during the Robber Baron era that preceded him.

The business of America, according to most of the founders (Hamilton probably would have disagreed), was human rights for humans, democracy, and limits on BOTH government power and ALL other forms of institutional power, from church power to corporate power.

A corporation today can have an infinite lifespan. It doesn’t fear death. It doesn’t fear pain or incarceration. It doesn’t need fresh water to drink or clean air to breathe. It doesn’t need health care or retirement. It can own others of its own kind. It can change citizenship in a day. It can tear off a part of itself and create a new corporation in an hour. It can amass virtually infinite wealth without that wealth ever having to pass through probate or being subject to estate/inheritance taxes.

This is exactly why the Founders, Framers, and early state governments explicitly limited corporate power. And as corporations rose in power, after having corrupted the Supreme Court and then the Congress, and then the Presidency (starting, big time, with Grant), this is why American Presidents began sounding alarm bells.

President Thomas Jefferson said, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” Jefferson even went so far as to suggest that banning monopolies in commerce should be written into the Bill of Rights. In 1787 when James Madison sent the first draft of the new Constitution to him, Jefferson noted in a letter that he would “insist on annexing a bill of rights to the new Constitution, i.e. a bill wherein the Government shall declare that, 1. Religion shall be free; 2. Printing presses free; 3. Trials by jury preserved in all cases; 4. No monopolies in commerce; 5. No standing army.”

President James Madison said, “There is an evil which ought to be guarded against in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by corporations. The power of all corporations ought to be limited in this respect. The growing wealth acquired by them never fails to be a source of abuses.”

President Andrew Jackson said, “In this point of the case the question is distinctly presented whether the people of the United States are to govern through representatives chosen by their unbiased suffrages or whether the money and power of a great corporation are to be secretly exerted to influence their judgment and control their decisions.”

President Martin Van Buren said, “I am more than ever convinced of the dangers to which the free and unbiased exercise of political opinion — the only sure foundation and safeguard of republican government — would be exposed by any further increase of the already overgrown influence of corporate authorities.”

President Grover Cleveland, after the Santa Clara County case was decided, said, “As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”

President Theodore Roosevelt said, “I again recommend a law prohibiting all corporations from contributing to the campaign expenses of any party. Let individuals contribute as they desire; but let us prohibit in effective fashion all corporations from making contributions for any political purpose, directly or indirectly.” Teddy Roosevelt added, “The fortunes amassed through corporate organization are now so large, and vest such power in those that wield them, as to make it a matter of necessity to give to the sovereign — that is, to the Government, which represents the people as a whole — some effective power of supervision over their corporate use. In order to insure a healthy social and industrial life, every big corporation should be held responsible by, and be accountable to, some sovereign strong enough to control its conduct.” And in April of 1906, Teddy Roosevelt went even further, saying, “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”

Theodore Roosevelt could have been speaking for the Founders when he said, “We stand for the rights of property, but we stand even more for the rights of man. We will protect the rights of the wealthy man, but we maintain that he holds his wealth subject to the general right of the community to regulate its business use as the public welfare requires.”

Franklin Roosevelt talked about the corporate “royalty” that had resulted from the changes in corporate law in the late 1800s, adding:

“It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. …And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man….

“A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor — other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

“Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government….

“Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair….

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.”

It’s not like this battle between democracy and the cancer of corporate personhood has happened in secret. Presidents and patriots have been warning us of it — loudly — since the very creation of our nation.

BuzzFlash: Part 3 of your book deals with the unequal consequences of granting corporations rights originally reserved to American citizens. Chapter 18, in that part, covers one of our favorite BuzzFlash topics, the media. How does the rise of “corporate personhood” affect the media?

Thom Hartmann: The media in America are almost entirely now — with the exception of the web — corporate owned and operated. As a result of this, and the incredible consolidation brought about by Reagan suspending enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and Clinton’s signing the Telecommunications Act, we have corporations that are mandated by law to act first and foremost in their own self-interest and in the interest of profitability. That interest is often in conflict with the historic mission of the Fourth Estate to inform the public. Thus, today the “free press” that Jefferson spoke so eloquently about is largely gone in our television, radio, and newspapers.

As I mentioned earlier, corporations like Sinclair Broadcasting are asserting their supposed rights as persons, their rights under the Bill of Rights, to fight back against citizens and government efforts to constrain them or force them to serve the public interest before serving themselves.

Ultimately, this is neither good for the media — which is being increasingly discredited — nor is it good for our republic and the idea of democracy, which requires an educated and informed citizenry to operate properly. When, for example, about 70 percent of the people who voted for Bush did so because, in part, they thought that Iraq and Hussein had something to do with 9/11 and that weapons of mass destruction were found in that nation — when neither of these things is true — speaks volumes to the terrible job the corporate media is doing in fulfilling any obligation to inform Americans.

Over the short term, this works to the profit of media corporations who are embraced by politicians like Bush, and who then return to Bush both approbation and contributions which work to his benefit. But over the long term, if unchecked, it could mean the death of democracy in America.

Of all the forms of concentrated corporate power in America that are harming our citizens, concentrated corporate media power is the most pernicious, for this simple reason.

BuzzFlash: You have a chapter in Part 3 on “Unequal Protection from Risk.” But, obviously, Bush disagrees with you and believes tort lawyers file frivolous suits against corporations who should voluntarily monitor their risk. Why am I as an individual legally responsible for my behavior but Bush is saying that a corporation shouldn’t be in many cases?

Thom Hartmann: This is one of the great flaws in the concept of corporate personhood. How can you have an institution asserting the rights of humanity without having either the physical frailties or the social responsibilities of humans?

Corporations, by their form, have no social conscience. Because their first obligation is — by law — to enhance profit, they are not committed to a community or a nation, or even to the basic humanity of the rest of us. And they can’t be held to account by threat of the loss of freedom, as can humans.

This type of situation demonstrates the absurdity of corporate personhood. As Delphin M. Delmas, the man who argued Santa Clara County’s side of that case against the Southern Pacific Railroad before the Supreme Court said in his arguments:

“The shield behind which [the Southern Pacific Railroad] attacks the Constitution and laws of California is the Fourteenth Amendment. It argues that the amendment guarantees to every person within the jurisdiction of the State the equal protection of the laws; that a corporation is a person; that, therefore, it must receive the same protection as that accorded to all other persons in like circumstances.

“To my mind, the fallacy, if I may be permitted so to term it, of the argument lies in the assumption that corporations are entitled to be governed by the laws that are applicable to natural persons. …

“When the law says, ‘Any person being of sound mind and of the age of discretion may make a will,’ or ‘any person having arrived at the age of majority may marry,’ I presume the most ardent advocate of equality of protection would hardly contend that corporations must enjoy the right of testamentary disposition or of contracting matrimony.”

The Fourteenth Amendment, Delmas said, was written to free human beings, not corporations.

“Wherever man is found within the confines of this Union, whatever his race, religion, or color, be he Caucasian, African, or Mongolian, be he Christian, infidel, or idolater, be he white, black, or copper-colored, he may take shelter under this great law as under a shield against individual oppression in any form, individual injustice in any shape. It is a protection to all men because they are men, members of the same great family, children of the same omnipotent Creator.

“In its comprehensive words I find written by the hand of a nation of sixty millions in the firmament of imperishable law the sentiment uttered more than a hundred years ago by the philosopher of Geneva, and re-echoed in this country by the authors of the Declaration of the Thirteen Colonies, proclaim to the world the equality of man….

“Its mission was to raise the humble, the down-trodden, and the oppressed to the level of the most exalted upon the broad plane of humanity – ‘to make man the equal of man; but not to make the creature of the State -‘ the bodiless, soulless, and mystic creature called a corporation – ‘the equal of the creature of God.’

“Therefore, I venture to repeat that the Fourteenth Amendment does not command equality between human beings and corporations…”

Delmas, whose other legacy is that he single-handedly (and without a fee) saved California’s last redwood forests, made a brilliant argument before the Supreme Court. And, in the ultimate irony, the Court agreed with Delmas, but today we ignore the ruling itself and instead rely on a non-legal headnote that was published two years later, just after the Chief Justice had died and could no longer refute it.

BuzzFlash: Is there any relationship between your theory and the increasing dominance of corporations in the political electoral process? Heck, the recent coronation could have just as well been the Super-Bowl in terms of corporate sponsorship. We’re just waiting for Bush to sell corporate naming rights to the White House.

Thom Hartmann: There’s a direct thread here. Before the era of corporate personhood, the consensus was that corporations can’t vote and therefore have no role in electoral politics. Corporate personhood, although it hasn’t yet given corporations the right to vote, turned that on its head.

It’s interesting that in one of the most recent cases decided by the Supreme Court expanding corporate personhood, Chief Justice Rehnquist dissented. The case was First National Bank of Boston versus Bellotti, in 1978, and the bank was asserting that, as a “person,” it had the right of “free speech” to interfere in politics. This was the case that kicked wide the door to corporations corrupting our political process in the last twenty-five years, and has led directly to the corporate capture and manipulation of Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Dubya as well as the majority of both houses of Congress, the Republican Party, and the DLC wing of the Democratic Party.

In opening his dissent, Rehnquist said: “This Court decided at an early date, with neither argument nor discussion, that a business corporation is a “person” entitled to the protection of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific R. Co., 118 U.S. 394, 396 (1886).”

This makes it pretty clear that neither Rehnquist nor his clerks actually read the Santa Clara case, but, as has been done for over a hundred years, were relying on the headnote. But, to his credit, Rehnquist disagreed with the headnote, saying:

“Early in our history, Mr. Chief Justice Marshall described the status of a corporation in the eyes of federal law: ‘A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of creation confers upon it, either expressly, or as incidental to its very existence. These are such as are supposed best calculated to effect the object for which it was created.'” Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 4 Wheat. 518, 636 (1819).

Rehnquist then added, brilliantly in my opinion:

“The appellants herein either were created by the Commonwealth or were admitted into the Commonwealth only for the limited purposes described in their charters and regulated by [435 U.S. 765, 824] state law. 2 Since it cannot be disputed that the mere creation of a corporation does not invest it with all the liberties enjoyed by natural persons, United States v. White, 322 U.S. 694, 698 -701 (1944) (corporations do not enjoy the privilege against self-incrimination), our inquiry must seek to determine which constitutional protections are “incidental to its very existence.” Dartmouth College, supra, at 636.

“The free flow of information is in no way diminished by the Commonwealth’s decision to permit the operation of business corporations with limited rights of political expression. All natural persons, who owe their existence to a higher sovereign than the Commonwealth, remain as free as before to engage in political activity.”

In this dissent, Rehnquist demonstrated the difference between a classical conservative, as he is, and the new corporatists who call themselves conservatives. Interestingly, this interview would probably be just as interesting and agreeable to readers of the website of William F. Buckley Jr. as it is to the readers of BuzzFlash. This is an issue on which both classic conservatives and classic liberals agree.

BuzzFlash: In Part 4 of Unequal Protection, you have chapters on a “New Entrepeneurial Boom” and “A Democratic Marketplace.” Can you briefly explain what these concepts mean?

Thom Hartmann: History tells us that when corporate power is unrestrained, and corporations grow so large that the largest among them come to control and then stifle the marketplace, the result is the corruption of democracy followed by economic collapse. We saw it in the serial tax-cuts and deregulation of the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations, which led directly to the Great Depression. And we’re seeing it writ large today, with the same consequences. Democracy is under assault and America is becoming impoverished.

The breakup of AT&T was the last significant enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, pushed back in the late 1970s. The result was an explosion of innovation as both the research division of AT&T and the “Baby Bells” became relatively autonomous. It paved the way for competition in the industry, dramatically lowered prices for consumers, and, interestingly, over a relatively short period of time actually increased shareholder value for former AT&T stockholders.

There are only a handful — probably fewer than five hundred — corporations that abuse or assert corporate personhood in the United States. Yet the harm they do to our economy and our republic is enormous. If they were denied personhood, we could root corruption out of government, get corporations out of politics, and make America safe and hospitable for entrepreneurs and small- and medium-sized businesses again, leading to an explosion in economic activity. And both the stockholders and the employees of these mega-corporations would benefit — along with the rest of us — if they were broken back down in size to where they were before the merger mania that Reagan allowed.

BuzzFlash: Okay, let me toss out two corporate names and see if you can free associate any “corporate personhood” issues with them: Wal-Mart and Monsanto?

Thom Hartmann: Neither has argued personhood issues before the Supreme Court or in other venues, to the best of my knowledge, but both make extensive use of the precedent of others who have. One of the reasons it’s so hard for communities to fight against big-box retailers has to do with personhood rights against discrimination and of free speech to influence politicians and communities. And chemical and genetic-engineering companies, of course, make use of the benefits of personhood precedents for the reasons mentioned earlier.

BuzzFlash: Finally, you begin the Introduction to your book with a lovely quotation by Anne Frank: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe people are good at heart.” Why did you begin ‘Unequal Protection’ with that quotation?

Thom Hartmann: Because this is a huge issue, and a huge “force” on the other side of it. Corporations have, once again, become the “economic royalists” that FDR talked about in 1936. They’ve seized control of most of our media, most of our government, and most of the details of our daily lives.

Yet I still believe that we can return America to the ideals of democracy on which it was founded. I believe that because it’s burned into our DNA as Americans. Even though we haven’t always been true to the ideals of our founding, we’ve always held those ideals high. And I believe that as more and more Americans find out about this issue — and the movement to revoke corporate personhood is growing rapidly — we will rise up and take back our nation.

There are some really great groups working on this, and working on it very hard. There’s,,,, and There’s a pile of information on this topic on my website at

Plug “corporate personhood” into a search engine and you’ll see that there’s a broad movement to roll it back, and this movement is accomplishing many very important goals — such as over 100 communities in Pennsylvania that have now, with the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, passed laws saying that they won’t recognize corporations as persons. There are movements in states from Vermont to California to pass resolutions denying corporate personhood. So I have great hope and I’m not willing to lose faith in my ideals, or those of my nation. Because, in spite of everything, I agree with Anne Frank that people — real, human persons — are good at heart.

BuzzFlash: Thank you for bringing the issue to us.

Thom Hartmann: You’re welcome.


Thom Hartmann bio:

1 Comment

  1. Keren

    January 28, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Really a brilliant article. Thank you for your enthusiastic research and thorough correlations. May God bless America with wisdom and self-discipline.

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