The word "corporation" derives from corpus, the Latin word for body, or a "body of people". By the time of Justinian (reigned 527–565), Roman law recognized a range of corporate entities under the names universitas, corpus or collegium. These included the state itself (the Populus Romanus), municipalities, and such private associations as sponsors of a religious cult, burial clubs, political groups, and guilds of craftsmen or traders. Such bodies commonly had the right to own property and make contracts, to receive gifts and legacies, to sue and be sued, and, in general, to perform legal acts through representatives. Private associations were granted designated privileges and liberties by the emperor.
Entities which carried on business and were the subjects of legal rights were found in ancient Rome, and the Maurya Empire in ancient India. In medieval Europe, churches became incorporated, as did local governments, such as the Pope and the City of London Corporation. The point was that the incorporation would survive longer than the lives of any particular member, existing in perpetuity. The alleged oldest commercial corporation in the world, the Stora Kopparberg mining community in Falun, Sweden, obtained a charter from King Magnus Eriksson in 1347.
In medieval times, traders would do business through common law constructs, such as partnerships. Whenever people acted together with a view to profit, the law deemed that a partnership arose. Early guilds and livery companies were also often involved in the regulation of competition between traders.
issued by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), dating from 1623, for the amount of 2,400 florins
The progenitors of the modern corporation were the chartered companies, such as the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Hudson's Bay Company, which were created to lead the colonial ventures of European nations in the 17th century. Acting under a charter sanctioned by the Dutch government, the Dutch East India Company defeated Portuguese forces and established itself in the Moluccan Islands in order to profit from the European demand for spices. Investors in the VOC had issued paper certificates as proof of share ownership, and were able to trade their shares on the original Amsterdam Stock Exchange. Shareholders were also explicitly granted limited liability in the company's royal charter.
In England, the government created corporations under a royal charter or an Act of Parliament with the grant of a monopoly over a specified territory. The best-known example, established in 1600, was the East India Company of London. Queen Elizabeth I granted it the exclusive right to trade with all countries to the east of the Cape of Good Hope. Some corporations at this time would act on the government's behalf, bringing in revenue from its exploits abroad. Subsequently, the Company became increasingly integrated with English and later British military and colonial policy, just as most corporations were essentially dependent on the Royal Navy's ability to control trade routes.
Labeled by both contemporaries and historians as "the grandest society of merchants in the universe", the English East India Company would come to symbolize the dazzlingly rich potential of the corporation, as well as new methods of business that could be both brutal and exploitative. On 31 December 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted the company a 15-year monopoly on trade to and from the East Indies and Africa. By 1711, shareholders in the East India Company were earning a return on their investment of almost 150 per cent. Subsequent stock offerings demonstrated just how lucrative the Company had become. Its first stock offering in 1713–1716 raised £418,000, its second in 1717–1722 raised £1.6 million.
A similar chartered company, the South Sea Company, was established in 1711 to trade in the Spanish South American colonies, but met with less success. The South Sea Company's monopoly rights were supposedly backed by the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713 as a settlement following the War of the Spanish Succession, which gave Great Britain an asiento to trade in the region for thirty years. In fact the Spanish remained hostile and let only one ship a year enter. Unaware of the problems, investors in Britain, enticed by extravagant promises of profit from company promoters bought thousands of shares. By 1717, the South Sea Company was so wealthy (still having done no real business) that it assumed the public debt of the British government. This accelerated the inflation of the share price further, as did the Bubble Act 1720, which (possibly with the motive of protecting the South Sea Company from competition) prohibited the establishment of any companies without a Royal Charter. The share price rose so rapidly that people began buying shares merely in order to sell them at a higher price, which in turn led to higher share prices. This was the first speculative bubble the country had seen, but by the end of 1720, the bubble had "burst", and the share price sank from £1000 to under £100. As bankruptcies and recriminations ricocheted through government and high society, the mood against corporations and errant directors was bitter.
In the late 18th century, Stewart Kyd, the author of the first treatise on corporate law in English, defined a corporation as:
a collection of many individuals united into one body, under a special denomination, having perpetual succession under an artificial form, and vested, by policy of the law, with the capacity of acting, in several respects, as an individual, particularly of taking and granting property, of contracting obligations, and of suing and being sued, of enjoying privileges and immunities in common, and of exercising a variety of political rights, more or less extensive, according to the design of its institution, or the powers conferred upon it, either at the time of its creation, or at any subsequent period of its existence.
— A Treatise on the Law of Corporations, Stewart Kyd (1793–1794)
Modern company law
Due to the late 18th century abandonment of mercantilist economic theory and the rise of classical liberalism and laissez-faire economic theory due to a revolution in economics led by Adam Smith and other economists, corporations transitioned from being government or guild affiliated entities to being public and private economic entities free of governmental directions.
Adam Smith wrote in his 1776 work The Wealth of Nations that mass corporate activity could not match private entrepreneurship, because people in charge of others' money would not exercise as much care as they would with their own.
"Jack and the Giant Joint-Stock", a cartoon in Town Talk
(1858) satirizing the 'monster' joint-stock economy that came into being after the Joint Stock Companies Act 1844
The British Bubble Act 1720's prohibition on establishing companies remained in force until its repeal in 1825. By this point, the Industrial Revolution had gathered pace, pressing for legal change to facilitate business activity. The repeal was the beginning of a gradual lifting on restrictions, though business ventures (such as those chronicled by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit) under primitive companies legislation were often scams. Without cohesive regulation, proverbial operations like the "Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company" were undercapitalised ventures promising no hope of success except for richly paid promoters.
The process of incorporation was possible only through a royal charter or a private act and was limited, owing to Parliament's jealous protection of the privileges and advantages thereby granted. As a result, many businesses came to be operated as unincorporated associations with possibly thousands of members. Any consequent litigation had to be carried out in the joint names of all the members and was almost impossibly cumbersome. Though Parliament would sometimes grant a private act to allow an individual to represent the whole in legal proceedings, this was a narrow and necessarily costly expedient, allowed only to established companies.
Then, in 1843, William Gladstone became the chairman of a Parliamentary Committee on Joint Stock Companies, which led to the Joint Stock Companies Act 1844, regarded as the first modern piece of company law. The Act created the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies, empowered to register companies by a two-stage process. The first, provisional, stage cost £5 and did not confer corporate status, which arose after completing the second stage for another £5. For the first time in history, it was possible for ordinary people through a simple registration procedure to incorporate. The advantage of establishing a company as a separate legal person was mainly administrative, as a unified entity under which the rights and duties of all investors and managers could be channeled.
However, there was still no limited liability and company members could still be held responsible for unlimited losses by the company. The next, crucial development, then, was the Limited Liability Act 1855, passed at the behest of the then Vice President of the Board of Trade, Mr. Robert Lowe. This allowed investors to limit their liability in the event of business failure to the amount they invested in the company – shareholders were still liable directly to creditors, but just for the unpaid portion of their shares. (The principle that shareholders are liable to the corporation had been introduced in the Joint Stock Companies Act 1844).
The 1855 Act allowed limited liability to companies of more than 25 members (shareholders). Insurance companies were excluded from the act, though it was standard practice for insurance contracts to exclude action against individual members. Limited liability for insurance companies was allowed by the Companies Act 1862.
This prompted the English periodical The Economist to write in 1855 that "never, perhaps, was a change so vehemently and generally demanded, of which the importance was so much overrated. " The major error of this judgment was recognised by the same magazine more than 70 years later, when it claimed that, "[t]he economic historian of the future. . . may be inclined to assign to the nameless inventor of the principle of limited liability, as applied to trading corporations, a place of honour with Watt and Stephenson, and other pioneers of the Industrial Revolution. "
These two features – a simple registration procedure and limited liability – were subsequently codified into the landmark 1856 Joint Stock Companies Act. This was subsequently consolidated with a number of other statutes in the Companies Act 1862, which remained in force for the rest of the century, up to and including the time of the decision in Salomon v A Salomon & Co Ltd.
The legislation shortly gave way to a railway boom, and from then, the numbers of companies formed soared. In the later nineteenth century, depression took hold, and just as company numbers had boomed, many began to implode and fall into insolvency. Much strong academic, legislative and judicial opinion was opposed to the notion that businessmen could escape accountability for their role in the failing businesses.
In 1892, Germany introduced the Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung with a separate legal personality and limited liability even if all the shares of the company were held by only one person. This inspired other countries to introduce corporations of this kind.
The last significant development in the history of companies was the 1897 decision of the House of Lords in Salomon v. Salomon & Co. where the House of Lords confirmed the separate legal personality of the company, and that the liabilities of the company were separate and distinct from those of its owners.
In the United States, forming a corporation usually required an act of legislation until the late 19th century. Many private firms, such as Carnegie's steel company and Rockefeller's Standard Oil, avoided the corporate model for this reason (as a trust). State governments began to adopt more permissive corporate laws from the early 19th century, although these were all restrictive in design, often with the intention of preventing corporations for gaining too much wealth and power.
New Jersey was the first state to adopt an "enabling" corporate law, with the goal of attracting more business to the state, in 1896. In 1899, Delaware followed New Jersey's lead with the enactment of an enabling corporate statute, but Delaware only became the leading corporate state after the enabling provisions of the 1896 New Jersey corporate law were repealed in 1913.
The end of the 19th century saw the emergence of holding companies and corporate mergers creating larger corporations with dispersed shareholders. Countries began enacting anti-trust laws to prevent anti-competitive practices and corporations were granted more legal rights and protections.
The 20th century saw a proliferation of laws allowing for the creation of corporations by registration across the world, which helped to drive economic booms in many countries before and after World War I. Another major post World War I shift was toward the development of conglomerates, in which large corporations purchased smaller corporations to expand their industrial base.
Starting in the 1980s, many countries with large state-owned corporations moved toward privatization, the selling of publicly owned (or 'nationalised') services and enterprises to corporations. Deregulation (reducing the regulation of corporate activity) often accompanied privatization as part of a laissez-faire policy.