Between the Many and the One


Review of The Corporation in the Nineteenth-Century American Imagination, by Stefanie Mueller

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023


By the twentieth century there was a seeming consensus in American political thought: liberalism was in crisis. This idea guided social reformers, it inspired socialists and radical labor movements, and it likewise invigorated defenders of liberal individualism. Importantly, this crisis was not confined to the United States—indeed, it was felt in nearly all industrialized European nations of the time, including England, France, and Germany. However, the American answer to this crisis is illustrative of significant political and economic changes that we are still reckoning with today: rising income inequality, racial violence, market consolidation, a hollowed and decimated public sector, and growing levels of corporate power and influence in politics. Understanding this crisis is thus central to understanding our current moment, a point that many critics and historians of (neo)liberalism, chief among them Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, have made clear.

However, to understand this crisis, we need to move the clock back even further. Likewise, we need to ask new questions and locate different archives. Doing so, we can perhaps better understand the radical political and economic shifts in the young republic that predated this crisis of liberalism. Likewise, doing so we can nuance our understandings of the tensions between individualism and collectivism in American culture as well as the political fault lines these tensions carved out. It is too simple, for instance, to say that reformers and intellectuals on the political left welcomed the demise of individualism while business leaders and conservative thinkers bemoaned it. It was none other than the titan of industry, John D. Rockefeller himself, who proudly proclaimed in 1915 that “the day of combination is here to stay. Individualism has gone, never to return” (quoted in Mueller, 13). Here Rockefeller sounds more like John Dewey than Herbert Spencer. 

While there is no doubt that Dewey and Rockefeller took their conclusions to different places and were politically at odds with one another, how are we to make sense of the fact that by the early twentieth century both could agree on the social, even collective nature of society? What changes brought about this rough consensus on the demise of classical liberalism? What role did the corporation play in challenging individualism in American politics? How did the corporation also, paradoxically, reify and give new life to liberal individualism? Stefanie Mueller’s engaging and insightful The Corporation in the Nineteenth-Century American Imagination offers compelling answers to these complex questions and profound insights on the history of liberal individualism, literary culture, and corporate power in the United States.

For Mueller, arguments regarding corporate personhood, power, and responsibility must be understood in relation to larger conversations about the relationship between the many and the one that lay at the heart of the American democratic experiment. Undertaking such a project, she offers a cultural history of the corporation in nineteenth-century America, paying particular attention to the ways in which prominent literary figures and legal cases “narrativized” the corporation. This is significant, for the nineteenth century is relatively understudied in contemporary works on corporations and corporate personhood. However, as Mueller’s work makes clear, this relative silence is to our detriment as such histories gloss over important cultural shifts and presume cultural continuity between eras. Likewise, such histories often either take for granted the economic status of corporations without attending to the ideological transformation of the corporation from a political body to an economic one, or they minimize the centrality of debates about this transformation in the history of the corporation in the United States. Indeed, this is the central and guiding story that Mueller tells, demonstrating tensions between appeals to civic republicanism and liberal individualism that crafted the corporation and American democracy itself.

Mueller’s introduction sets the stage and begins to unpack these complex shifts in American political culture. Here, she notes the difficulties of reconciling British laws of incorporation with early American forms of cooperative enterprise, as well as the still widespread understanding of corporations as public, political entities. However, with the dawn of what historian Charles Sellers has infamously called the market revolution of Jacksonian America, the corporation would come to be understood less as a political body or extension of the state and more as an economic body—an associational institution crafted from the contractual agreements of private citizens. 

Indeed, Justice Joseph Story laid the groundwork for distinguishing between private and public corporations in Dartmouth v. Woodward (1819) to make sense of extant British property in the young nation and to reconcile the growing economic power of private corporations with the values that guided the American Revolution. Yet, during this time of cultural, political, legal, and economic transformation, the corporation became a condensation symbol for popular anxieties about the American democratic experiment, as it could stand as both “a vehicle of progress” for some and a “remnant of the past” for others (31).

The question of whether the corporation was an instrument of commercial development and entrepreneurial progress or a reminder of the nation’s feudal connection to the British Monarchy also bespoke other concerns: namely, those of the connections between monopoly and empire; the corrosion of character and the loss of republican notions of a common good; fears of secrecy, collusion, and conspiracy; and anxieties regarding an incipient collectivism that might thwart the promises of political liberalism. In chapters one through five Mueller interrogates these anxieties, crafting an archive of legal and literary texts through which prominent thinkers and writers were able to provide stories that enabled the public to find meaning in the incertitude of the age and to give form to the seemingly ineffable nature of the American corporation.

Chapter one, for instance, reads the work of Washington Irving and William Austin alongside the infamous Charles River Bridge case (1837) to demonstrate how leading writers, politicians, and jurists made sense of the burgeoning corporate form during the market revolution of the 1820s and 1830s. In Chapter two, Mueller illustrates how James Fenimore Cooper’s The Bravo (1831)—along with various political cartoons of the time—works through the complexities of the Bank War and the specter of the large corporation to reflect upon larger questions of political authority and power. Chapter three turns to the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and John William De Forest to understand common allegorical tropes used to depict the corporation as formless, as lacking substance, and as a beguiling confidence game. 

Chapter four reads Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don (1885) with and against the California Tax Cases to unpack complex questions of national unity and racial anxiety that were unfolding in the new frontier of the American West. In Chapter five, Mueller attends to the work of Ida Tarbell and Frank Norris to present two different understandings of the vast political and economic changes of the nineteenth-century: Tarbell’s critical interpretation of Rockefeller’s economic conquest and Norris’s celebration of the new “corporate individualism” (190). 

Finally, the book concludes by gesturing toward continued developments in our cultural understanding of the corporation in the twentieth century. Here, Mueller reminds us that though the American legal system came to adopt the natural entity theory and new form of corporate individualism, the corporation remains but a legal fiction. Behind the veil, the corporation is always and only the many disguised as the one.

I find the strengths of this text to lie primarily in its analytical clarity, its corrective contributions to extant studies of the history of corporate personhood in the United States, and its attention to the rhetorical and cultural (as much as the legal )dynamics of the construction of the corporation. Regarding analytical clarity, though Mueller’s work engages nearly a century of American history and navigates several ideas, authors, and texts, the central thrust of her argument regarding the many and the one is always front and center. As I have already suggested, for instance, this idea guides her argument about the cultural significance of the transition from a collective understanding of the corporation as a political body to an economic one, as well as the shifting nature of liberal individualism in the U.S. after the Jacksonian era. Likewise, these arguments serve as correctives to the relative inattention to the nineteenth century in contemporary studies of the corporation mentioned above. However, as a scholar of rhetoric, I greatly appreciate Mueller’s attentiveness to narrative, metaphor, personification, metonymy, synecdoche, and other rhetorical devices in fashioning our understanding of the corporation in early-American thought.

Moving beyond a narrow, Platonist understanding of rhetoric, Muller’s work attends to the epistemic and constitutive functions of rhetorical discourse, highlighting how rhetoric is not merely persuasive but is rather a central component of how we create and understand our social worlds. Principal metaphors used to describe the corporation—the octopus, the hydra-headed monster, the soulless golem, the confidence man, and so on—are not just linguistic flourishes that marked the polemics of the time. Rather, they are rhetorical sites that allow us to shift our understanding, create meaning, cast value judgments, and even guide legal and jurisprudential thinking. Tapping into the cultural imaginary and observing the ways leading literary figures discussed the corporation thus tells us much about the conceptual frameworks available at the time for making sense of the crises of the age of incorporation. 

Likewise, I appreciate and am sensitive to Mueller’s ultimate claim which, as I read it, appears to be that a return to civic republicanism is necessary to reign in the ubiquity of corporate power, of an individualism gone awry, and to rebuild a stable notion of the common good. This is particularly salient in an era of neoliberalism in which, as scholars such as Wendy Brown and Bonnie Honig have argued, the demos has been undone and we are left with little in common.

However, following the work of Roberto Esposito, as I do in my book Persons of the Market, I might argue that the seeming antinomies of community and individualism, of communitas and immunitas, are in fact inscribed upon one another. From the perspective of Esposito, then, the effort of the corporation to mask itself as the one as opposed to the many is an attempt to grant itself political immunity from the demands of democratic government, from the power of the state, and to protect itself from the threats of community. In other words, it is an attempt to exercise rights of exit over rights of voice. However, this very move highlights their dependence upon the state and upon the communities to which they belong in a manner of dialectical enjoinment. The entangled nature of the individual and community complicate a simple return to republicanism.

Certainly, a greater sense of community, of things held in common with one another is required. So, too, is a need to attend to the political nature of corporate bodies. However, attempts to revive ancient notions of republicanism to combat corporate power runs the risk of missing the ways in which the corporation is bound within the biopolitical problematic of (neo)liberal governance and of modernity itself—a point that Joshua Barkan makes clear and that, in some ways, Mueller’s own work on the political nature of the corporation in the nineteenth century indicates. 

This is particularly the case when she discusses the complexities of personhood and racialization that surrounded late-nineteenth century debates regarding Chinese migrants and corporate personhood. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, what these debates highlight is the rhetorical working through of the biopolitical problematic of liberal political theory and its contractual, self-sovereign notion of personhood, and (which Mueller argues) demonstrates the ways in which the Chinese migrant offered a specter of collectivist, feudal culture that might threaten the liberalism of the white man’s republic. Discussion of the people and the things held in common thus must also be able to confront who counts as part of “the people” and what counts as an issue of “common” identification.

What is needed, then, is simultaneously an affirmative biopolitical project capable of grappling with questions of the human, the person, and of life itself, as well as a renewed sense of community and a commitment to the res publica. Here, the work of Miguel Vatter may prove useful as he attempts to fuse Italian biopolitical theory with a republicanism that has been re-tooled to the material conditions of late capitalism and corporate power. If we follow Vatter, we might argue that what exists between the many and the one is life in common, the vitality of labor, and a form of living together that highlights the complex entanglements of individual and community—key ideas that leading writers about the corporation in nineteenth century America were grappling with in rather sophisticated ways.




Posted on 28 September 2023

KEVIN MUSGRAVE is assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Modern Languages at Southeast Missouri State University. He is the author of Persons of the Market: Conservatism, Corporate Personhood, and Economic Theology, published by Michigan State University Press in 2022.