Abstract: Corporate Responsibilities: Company, City, and Colony in the Early Modern British Empire

Philip Stern


This paper rethinks the nature of the corporation by considering it in the wider context of its various forms—company, city, and colony—in shaping the British imperial constitution. Beginning with a consideration of the theoretical debates over corporations in the early modern period, it examines various parallel and often simultaneous attempts of the British state to regulate and control those different corporations, through various legal instruments, political pressure, and commercial policy. Reflecting on the origins of the corporation as a form of government and public society, it then traces the mechanisms in which all of these forms of corporation came under simultaneous assault in the 'long' eighteenth century, as various agents of a growing colonial state sought to reconceive the nature of public authority overseas. It concludes by considering the role of empire in shaping our ideas about the corporation, as well as by reevaluating the nature of modern forms of corporate fiduciary responsibility in light of the corporation's long history as a quite public form of governance.