The Historical and Political Origins of the Corporate Board of Directors


Prompted by the litany of complaints about corporate boards – as once again highlighted by recent corporate scandals – this paper seeks to add to the literature on why corporation laws in the United States (and, indeed, around the world) generally call for corporate governance by or under a board of directors. Moreover, this paper takes a very different approach in searching for an answer. Instead of theorizing, this paper examines historical sources in order to look at how and why an elected board of directors came to be the accepted mode of corporate governance. This will entail a reverse chronological tour all the way back to the antecedents of today’s corporate board in fourteenth through sixteenth century companies of English merchants engaged in foreign trade. The central insight of this chronology is that the corporate board of directors did not develop as an institution to manage the business corporation. Rather, it is an institution the business corporation inherited when the business corporation evolved out of societies of independent merchants. This paper also shows how these merchant societies based their adoption of the antecedents of today’s corporate board on widespread political theories and practices in medieval Europe that, although hardly democratic, often called for the use of collective governance by a body of representatives. The discovery of the historical and political origins of the corporate board, besides being interesting in its own right, suggests that the current frustration with corporate boards may arise from confusing an institution designed to achieve political legitimacy through consent of the governed, with the goal of assuring efficient management of a business on behalf of passive investors.


Business Organizations Law | Law and Politics | Legal History

Date of this Version

August 2004