American corporate law has long drawn a bright line between for-profit and non-profit corporations. In recent years, hybrid or social enterprises have increasingly put this bright-line distinction to the test. This Article asks what we can learn about the purpose of the American business corporation by examining its history and development in the United States in its formative period from roughly 1780-1860. This brief history of corporate purpose suggests that the duty to maximize profits in the for-profit corporation is a relatively recent development. Historically, the American business corporation grew out of an earlier form of corporation that was neither for-profit nor nonprofit in today’s parlance but rather, served a multitude of municipal, religious, charitable, educational, and eventually business purposes in early nineteenth-century New England. The purposes of early American business corporations—rather than maximization of profit to private shareholders— were often overtly public, involving development of local transportation, finance, and other much-needed economic infrastructure. With the rise of factory-based manufacturing, railroads, and other capital-intensive industries in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the advent of general incorporation statutes, the purpose of the American business corporation shifted fundamentally from public to private. By 1860, the stage was set for the modern firm.

This Article concludes that the corporation has no intrinsic purpose. The corporation’s defining features are separate legal personality and the ability to aggregate capital toward any otherwise lawful end, whether for-profit or nonprofit. Social enterprises today more closely resemble the early American business corporation than the profit-maximizing modern firm. Social enterprise should be seen less as a legally uncertain novelty than a return to the business corporation’s nineteenth-century American roots. Finally, this Article suggests potential limitations for social enterprise.