Book Review: Unequal Protection

by Thom Hartmann

Unequal Protection offers some valuable new insights into the role of corporations in early U.S. history and the process through which corporate lawyers successfully promoted the “corporate personhood” doctrine.

We often have written the application of Bill of Rights protections to corporations arose from the 1886 Supreme Court ruling in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, but Hartmann’s new research has added rich detail to the story.

You may have read accounts of Santa Clara citing the Court record that “The Court does not wish to hear argument” on the question of whether the 14th Amendment applies to corporations, and “we are of the opinion that it does.” But the Court made no such decision because the Constitutional question never arose in deciding the case (though arguments on the topic were heard). Justice Field, an adamant supporter of corporate personhood, proved as much in his concurring opinion when he lamented that the Court did not rule on the matter.

In fact, the Court record that subsequently was cited to claim Bill of Rights protections for corporations reflects nothing more than the spoken opinion of one Chief Justice Waite and a clerk. Notably, Justice Waite was appointed directly to the Supreme Court with no experience as a judge–he came straight from a position as a railroad lawyer.

The truth behind Santa Clara is just one of many engaging stories presented in Unequal Protection . Beyond illustrative history, Hartmann explores the real-life impacts of corporate personhood, including how corporations: hide accounting crimes and evidence of cancer-causing products by claiming the “right” against self-incrimination; block inspectors investigating toxic emissions and workplace dangers by claiming the “right” of privacy; defy local, state and national attempts to regulate the worst of their abuses by claiming the “right” to be free of discrimination.

Hartmann also provides a compelling argument that the current corporate hegemony was not what the American revolutionaries, be they Federalists or Democratic Republicans, envisioned for the United States . Even better, Hartmann offers specific actions to remedy the usurpation of our sovereign right to govern ourselves and the institutions we create. He helps deliver our message of why citizens must move beyond single-issue struggles and towards the assertion of democratic control of our economy and institutions.

Unequal Protection is recommended to all readers who wish to expand their knowledge of history relevant to our struggles against illegitimate corporate power or who wish to gain new insights on solving current problems in that realm.

Editor’s note: You may also be interested in checking out Thom Hartmann’s 2004 illustrated story book, We the People: A Call to Take Back America, which covers corporate personhood and other topics in an entertaining and easily accesible format.