This section is from the book "Popular Law Library Vol8 Partnership, Private Corporations, Public Corporations", by Albert H. Putney. Also available from Amazon: Popular Law-Dictionary.
An early common law definition of a corporation is "a franchise created by the King, and is a body constituted by policy, with a capacity to take and do." 1
The famous definition of Chief Justice Marshall in the Dartmouth College Case2, was as follows:
"A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible and existing only in contemplation of law. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it, either expressly or as incidental to its very existence. These are such as are supposed best calculated to effect the object for which it was created. Among the most important are immortality, and, if the expression may be allowed, individuality; properties by which a perpetual succession of many persons are considered as the same, and may act as a single individual. They enable a corporation to manage its own affairs, and to hold property without the perplexing intricacies, the hazardous and endless necessity, of perpetual conveyances for the purpose of transmitting it from hand to hand. It is chiefly for the purpose of clothing bodies of men, in succession, with these qualities, and capacities, that corporations were invented, and are in use. By these means, a perpetual succession of individuals are capable of acting for the promotion of the particular object, like one immortal being."
1 4 Comyn. Digest, p. 465.
2 Dartmouth College vs. Wood-ard, 4 Wheaton, quoted with approval in many decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States, and by the Supreme Courts of the various states.
The best recent definition is probably the following:
"A corporation is a collection of natural persons, joined together by their voluntary action or by legal compulsion, by or under the authority of an act of the legislature, consisting either of a special charter, or of a general permissive statute, to accomplish some purpose, pecuniary, ideal, or governmental, authorized, by the charter or governing statute, under a scheme of organization, and by methods thereby prescribed or permitted; with the faculty of having a continuous succession during the period prescribed by the legislature for its existence, of having a corporate name by which it may make and take contracts, and sue and be sued, and with the faculty of acting as a unit in respect of all matters within the scope of the purposes for which it is created." 3
Among other definitions which have been given, are the following:
"An artificial person, created by the Legislature."4
"A collection of individuals united in one body, under such a grant of privileges as secures a succession of members without changing the identity of the body, and constitutes the members for the time being, one artificial person, or legal being, capable of transacting some kind of business like a natural person."5
"A legal person with a special name, composed
3 Definition of Seymour D. Thompson, in 10 Cy., pp. 143-4, substantially the same as the definition given in Thompson on Corporation, Sec. 1.
4 South Carolina K. Co. vs. Mc -Donald, 5 Ga., 531, 535.
5 People vs. Watertown, 1 Hill (N. Y.), 616, 620 (quoted in Sandford vs. New York, 15 How. Pr. (N. Y.), 172; Niagara County vs. People, 7 Hill (N. Y.), 504, 507.) of such members and endorsed with such powers and such only as the law prescribes." 6
"A franchise possessed by one or more individuals who subsist as a body politic, under a special denomination, and are vested by the policy of the law with the capacity of perpetual succession, and of acting in several respects, however numerous the association may be, as a single individual."7
"An intellectual body, created by law, composed of individuals united under a common name, the members of which succeed each other, so that the body continue always the same, notwithstanding the change of the individuals who compose it, and which, for certain purposes, is considered as a natural person."8