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Corporate power has sidelined Lincoln's vision

Abraham Lincoln’s two-minute speech at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, delivered 150 years ago today, during the country’s bitter civil war, looks back to the founding principles of the American revolution and forward to a democratic society for all.

How the ideals Lincoln championed in the war against the slave-owning south were soon abandoned by his successors and the new, unified American state, is lost among the events marking his historic address.

Lincoln harked back to 1776, when American colonists threw off the yoke of the British crown, wrote their own constitution and proclaimed themselves independent. The president claimed that it was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”, although the original constitution did not stretch to Afro-Americans or women. 
Nevertheless, the American Revolution shook the modern world, gave birth to the concept and practice of representative democracy, and was the precursor to the great events in France in the following decade. 
Significantly, as the Reclaim Democracy campaign points out, the colonists also freed themselves from control by English corporations. The country’s founders retained a “healthy fear of corporate power” and barred them from attempting to influence elections or public policy. The campaign explains:

For 100 years after the American Revolution, legislators maintained tight control of the corporate chartering process... Citizens governed corporations by detailing operating conditions not just in charters but also in state constitutions and state laws. Incorporated businesses were prohibited from taking any action that legislators did not specifically allow. States also limited corporate charters to a set number of years.

Attempts to introduce the European model of shareholder ownership and legal independence were thwarted for several decades. But the corporations ignored the restrictions. “They converted the nation’s resources and treasures into private fortunes, creating factory systems and company towns. Political power began flowing to absentee owners, rather than community-rooted enterprises.”
While Lincoln was giving his address in honour of the dead Union soldiers, the world around him was changing in more ways than he perhaps grasped. The Civil War had made many corporations rich and they were openly buying people in Washington and state capitals. “During this time, legislators were persuaded to give corporations limited liability, decreased citizen authority over them, and extended durations of charters,” says Reclaim Democracy.

So Lincoln’s declaration at the end of his oration that the end of the war would bring “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was already being hollowed out by corporate power.

Before long, the courts applied doctrines that placed the protection of corporations and their property at the centre of constitutional law, sidelining the citizen sovereignty that followed 1776.

Ironically, it was the 14th Amendment to the constitution, adopted in 1868, and which protected the rights of freed slaves, that was used to grant corporations “personhood”, giving them human rights. Since then, the corporations have established unbridled power over the American political process.

Back in 1961, president Dwight Eisenhower, himself a former general, in his farewell address, warned against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex”, adding: “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
In the half century since, matters have deteriorated. What the corporations want, they more or less get. Deregulation? No problem. Bail-outs. Just a phone call away. More weapons production? Ring the Department of Defence.

Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer with two million employees, can remain staunchly anti-union, while suggesting its poorly-paid workers donate food to their impoverished colleagues! Monsanto has a free rein when it comes to untested genetically-modified crops while a delayed government report into fracking is over-reliant on data supplied by the industry itself.

Reclaim Democracy wants to end the power of the corporation and restore the charter system that was established after 1776. In all honesty, that will require a new American Revolution to achieve.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
19 November 2013

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