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Roman law first developed the concept of corporations, and England adopted the concept long before the founding of the United States. As the states became independent from England in 1776, they too adopted corporations as distinct legal entities and assumed jurisdiction over them. Today, the federal government continues to leave the control of corporations primarily to the states.

Corporations did not become commonplace in the United States until the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century. They then quickly developed as an efficient manner in which to conduct a large enterprise while at the same time offering a degree of protection to investors and owners from legal liability. Investors and owners increasingly were drawn to the idea of the corporation, and today, corporations are a mainstay in domestic and international business.

There are several types of corporations. Private corporations exist to make money for their investors and owners. Non-profit corporations, such as charities, exist to help a certain group of citizens or the general public. Municipal corporations are cities. Quasi-public corporations are entities such as telephone or electric companies that exist to make a profit as well as provide a service to the general public. A public corporation exists to make a profit, but it is distinguishable because it has a large number of investors known as shareholders. Shareholders own portions, known as shares, of the public corporations and may buy, sell, or trade their shares. Closely-held corporations have shareholders also but usually a much smaller group of shareholders. Often, closely-held corporations are owned by members of a family. Shareholders in closely-held corporations usually run the business, whereas shareholders in public corporations usually do not.

Inside History