Kyle Edward Williams

Corporation words

The principal sources for the development of the corporation in the ancient world come from ancient Roman law. There are a handful of key terms.

One is collegium. It was used to refer to guilds, social clubs, religious groups, burial societies–things like that. If Plutarch’s life of Numa Pompilius has any merit, it seems as if this could be traced back to the beginnings of Rome itself. The collegia become more significant much later when the emporers surpressed and regulated them. Small corporations concerned even with such innocuous things as putting out a city’s fires had become known to rulers like the emporer Trajan and Pliny the Younger as sources of rival political power. Roman collegia seem to have possessed some legal personality. (See Jonathan S. Perry, The Roman Collegia: The Modern Evolution of an Ancient Concept (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006), 6-7.)

Another word is societas, which Lewis & Short define as a fellowship, association, union, community, society (implying union for a common purpose; cf.: conjunctio, consociatio; and not a mere assembly; cf.: circulus, coetus; conventus, sodalitas;). There is some obvious overlap between these words, but the distinctive emphasis of societas is that it primarily refers to a partnership.

The final word was universitas, which as the English cognate implies meant simply “the whole.” Another meaning in Roman law was, according again to Lewis & Short, “A number of persons associated into one body, a society, company, community, guild, corporation, etc.”

These different Latin terms took on layers of meaning in the Middle Ages, particularly in ecclesiastical canon law, and played a role in disputes over political theory in the early modern period.

Victor Hugo painting of the devilfish in ink.

Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. Priorities for Action: Final Report. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. (H/T Chad Wellmon)

Nike In the Global Economy, a speech by Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight on May 12, 1998 at the National Press Club.

Ferdinand Pecora. Cover of Time on June 12, 1933. He became the face of the Pecora Commission, which provoked a reckoning with corporate governance in the early 1930s.

Protests against Dow Chemical’s production of napalm for the war in Vietnam enveloped the company in the late 1960s.

Juanita Kreps, Secretary of Commerce under Jimmy Carter between 1977-1979. She proposed a social performance audit for big business but was quickly forced to walk it back.

General Motors Corporation, Annual Report (1970).

From Archie Carroll, “The Pyramid of Corporate Social Responsibility: Toward the Moral Management of Organizational Stakeholders,” Business Horizons (July 1991).

Senator Estes Kefauver on the cover of Time on March 12, 1951.

Adolf Berle gives a speech at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, circa 1950.

Organizational chart from Alfred Chandler, Jr. The Visible Hand (1977).