Author Interview: Evelyn Atkinson

Author Interview: Evelyn Atkinson

Today we share an interview with Evelyn Atkinson, who published an article in our special issue on the Fourteenth Amendment in March 2020, titled “Slaves, Coolies, and Shareholders: Corporations Claim the Fourteenth Amendment.” Evelyn is a doctoral fellow at the American Bar Foundation and Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Chicago. She received her J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School and her B.A. in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College. Evelyn’s work focuses on the history of corporate personhood in the nineteenth century, particularly the relationship between popular claims for corporate accountability and the development of the legal doctrine of corporate constitutional personhood. Her scholarly publications have appeared in Law & Social Inquiry, Law and History Review, Yale Journal of Law & Humanities, and Harvard Journal of Law & Gender. She is the recipient of the Fishel-Calhoun Article Prize from the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, as well as the Law & Social Inquiry Graduate Student Paper Competition Prize, for her article, “Creating the Reasonable Child: Risk, Responsibility, and the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine.”


Thank you so much, Evelyn, for participating in this exciting special issue and for speaking with us about your research. How did you initially come across this court case that forms the centerpiece of your article?

I discovered the case, In re Tiburcio Parrott, really as part of an educated guess. I noticed that in corporate constitutional rights cases of this time there seemed to be a number of references to cases involving Chinese litigants, and I got curious. So I traced the citations back and discovered that they all seemed to be rooted in this particular case. And I wondered how could this be, that the court is making this very explicit comparison between Chinese laborers and wealthy corporations. I had read a bit about Chinese labor on the West Coast in this period and wondered if there wasn’t some sort of connection in the public mind that helped the court draw this analogy. So I started down this rabbit hole and sure enough, I uncovered the In re Tiburcio Parrott case.

Since many of our readers are not legal historians, before we go much further, can you quickly explain what the “In re” in In re Tiburcio Parrott means? What kind of court case was this?

In this instance, “In re” designates a habeas corpus case.  Habeas corpus is a constitutional right that allows prisoners to challenge their imprisonment in front of a judicial tribunal. Importantly, the writ was used to protect African Americans during Reconstruction with the Judiciary Act of 1867, which gave federal courts the power to hear habeas cases from people who had been detained under state law.  So there’s an incongruity here in the Parrott case – a right that very recently had been expanded in order to protect freed people from discriminatory state laws is now being used by the director of a wealthy corporation.

Thank you! That explanation is helpful. As you dug into your research, what questions guided your investigation, and what do you ultimately argue in the article?

The question that I’m most interested in involves the relationship between public discourse and the law. I ask how the way conflicts are framed in popular culture, such as via newspapers and cartoons, as well as in political forums like state legislative debates and constitutional convention records, plays into the way the lawyers present their arguments in court and the way the judges ultimately write their opinions. This connection between Chinese immigrants and corporations started out as a hunch, and as I researched I found more and more evidence that indeed, the popular and political conversations around Chinese immigrants and corporations were in fact deeply intertwined. The Parrott case turned out to be the one where they came together explicitly.

My central argument is that cases involving the 14th Amendment claims of Chinese laborers and corporations, like Parrott, were instrumental in establishing the expansive interpretation of the equal protection clause that the Supreme Court endorsed in the late nineteenth century. So in sum, the equal protection clause jurisprudence that provided the gateway for twentieth century constitutional protections of African-Americans, women, LGBT persons, etc. was based on this initial litigation involving Chinese immigrants and corporations. There is an irony here, obviously, that corporate persons obtained robust equal protection rights before freed people. And yet, I would even go so far as to argue that the corporate litigation involving equal protection is ultimately what made robust civil rights protections in the twentieth century possible (though that’s a subject for a future article!).

One of the themes that stood out to me is the tension in American society and jurisprudence between free labor and unfree labor, and how those terms had meanings that were grounded in a local context. In the West, for instance, the reference point was not so much the enslavement of African Americans as it was systems like Mexican peonage or coolie labor. What were the implications of the Parrott case for other groups who continued to experience labor exploitation?

This is a really important and complicated question.  In 1870s-1880s California, popular and political discourse presents Chinese “coolies” as essentially slaves.  The putatively unfree labor of Chinese workers drags down the wages of free white men, the Workingmen claim, which threatens to reduce them to slaves and undermine an American democratic system built on the idea of individual freedom.  Yet in the Parrott case, the federal court doesn’t examine the realities of Chinese labor but holds that Chinese laborers have the constitutional right to contract their labor as they see fit and that state law can’t impinge on that right.  The court also ignores the economic power of the large corporations over actual working conditions, and holds that corporations have the same right to use their property – here, to contract for labor to maximize the value of their property – as individual persons.  This is very similar reasoning to what you see later in the Progressive Era in cases involving minimum wage and maximum hour regulation, that even people who in reality are subject to oppressive working conditions outside their control are deemed to be “free” laborers capable of contracting on an equal footing with their employers regardless of discrepancies in economic power.  So there’s a stark dichotomy between “free” and “unfree” labor in law that ignores the gradations of labor freedom and the realities of inequality in a capitalist labor economy.

On pp. 55 and 56, you frame this story as part of the “Greater Reconstruction.” I think that’s really important. Can you explain how this story about 1880s California helps Civil War historians broaden our understanding of this period? And our understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment more specifically?

It’s striking how rarely historical scholarship on Reconstruction and its aftermath includes the role of corporations – particularly the connections between corporate rights and key questions involving race, personhood, and citizenship in this period. The corporate and Chinese 14th Amendment cases in 1880s California highlight these connections.  As I show, the 14th Amendment opened the door to robust corporate claims of constitutional rights, which in turn influenced how the Amendment was applied to racial and other minorities. The conference that Scott Heerman and Michael Bernath put together on “The Many Fourteenth Amendments” – out of which this special volume of the journal emerged – gave me the chance to argue for the importance of including corporations in the history of the Greater Reconstruction.  I think they were convinced and I hope your readers will be as well.

Thank you again, Evelyn, for participating in this interview! Your work is an excellent example of how Civil War historians can—and should—consider stories that are outside the period between 1861 and 1865. We hope readers will read your entire article.

Thank you! I am glad for the journal’s interest in my work and look forward to many future conversations.


Readers, we hope you’ve enjoyed this interview, and if you have questions for Evelyn, please drop her a line in the comments below! You can access her article by subscribing to the journal or visiting Project Muse.

One Reply to “Author Interview: Evelyn Atkinson”

  1. Very interesting! Adds depth to the entire subject. There are quite a few more modern examples that could be explored as well.

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