John Olin was an entrepreneur and industrialist who went on to become one of the twentieth-century’s most influential philanthropists in public policy.
Olin was born on November 10, 1892, in Alton, Illinois, the son of a businessman who owned a gunpowder mill. He attended Cornell University, majoring in chemistry. Upon his graduation in 1913, Olin joined the family business, which had grown into the Western Cartridge Company, a maker of ammunition.
Early on, Olin showed a flair for developing new products. Twenty-four patents bear his name, all for arms and ammunition manufacture and design. His best-known innovation was the Super-X shotgun shell, which extended firing range and became popular among hunters.
Olin’s real genius, however, was in finance and executive leadership. During the Depression, his company acquired Winchester Repeating Arms. In 1938, Olin helped build the large St. Louis Ordnance Ammunition Plant. When the Second World War erupted, his family firm, rechristened Olin Industries, became a major supplier of ammunition to U.S. and allied forces.
After the war, the company expanded into chemical production and other areas. Olin was fiercely competitive: “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser,” he liked to say. In 1957, Fortune ranked Olin and his brother Spencer at #31 on its list of the wealthiest Americans, estimating their net worth at $75 million.
Olin decided to use his fortune to defend America’s tradition of free enterprise and individual liberty.
In his spare time, Olin was an avid sportsman. He was featured as a hunter on the cover of the November 17, 1958 edition of Sports Illustrated. In 1974, his horse, Cannonade, won the Kentucky Derby.
The John Olin Foundation was started in 1953. For several years, it was a conventional rich man’s philanthropy, supporting the Cornell University Alumni Fund and several other causes. By 1973, however, Olin decided on a special mission: “I would like to use this fortune to help to preserve the system which made its accumulation possible in only two lifetimes, my father’s and mine,” he told Frank O’Connell, a company employee who coordinated foundation activities in the 1970s. Olin decided to use his fortune to defend America’s tradition of free enterprise and individual liberty, and support their extension to benefit as many Americans as possible.
Over the next three decades, the Olin Foundation dispensed hundreds of millions of dollars to scholars, think tanks, publications, and other organizations. This savvy underwriting shaped the direction and aided the growth of the modern conservative movement that first sprang into visibility in the 1980s. Perhaps more than any other philanthropist of the modern era, Olin succeeded by clearly defining a mission (he was as clear about what he did not want to do as what he hoped to achieve), establishing a timeline, and carefully selecting dedicated partners who shared his vision.
In 1977, Olin stepped down as his foundation’s president. William E. Simon, the former U.S Secretary of the Treasury, replaced him, leading the foundation until his death in 2000, when he was succeeded by James Piereson, the foundation’s longtime executive director. Another executive director, Michael Joyce, influenced the foundation in its early years, before joining the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation, which became a significant force with many of the same goals as the Olin Foundation. Irving Kristol, the neoconservative writer and intellectual, was an important influence on all of these men.
He wanted to use his fortune to help “preserve the system which made its accumulation possible in only two lifetimes.”
One of the Olin Foundation’s signal achievements was the establishment of Law-and-Economics centers at major colleges and universities. A brand new discipline that brought empirical rigor and clear-eyed assessment to the understanding of governance and the solving of social problems, programs in Law and Economics gained firm footholds after the foundation started devoting more resources to that cause than any other. The law schools at the University of Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Virginia, and Yale started Law-and-Economics centers in Olin’s name.
In 1982, the Olin Foundation sponsored a seminal academic conference for law students and professors that gave rise to the Federalist Society, a membership organization of conservative and libertarian law students, lawyers, judges, and professors. The Federalist Society would go on to transform legal education and shape the federal judiciary.
Olin also became a backer of alternative campus newspapers at colleges where right-of-center perspectives of various sorts were missing, or even blocked, from public debate. The foundation also supported pioneering researchers, journalists and public intellectuals in producing influential new arguments and books. These included Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind), Linda Chavez (Out of the Barrio), Dinesh D’Souza (Illiberal Education), Milton Friedman (Free to Choose), Francis Fukuyama (The End of History?), Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations), Richard John Neuhaus (The Naked Public Square), and Michael Novak (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism). Olin funding was often aimed more at generating debate than in promoting particular points of view: Fukuyama and Huntington, for instance, were friendly rivals on vital questions about the nature of global conflict.
Organizations that relied on Olin support as they grew into important roles in American intellectual life and public policy debates included the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Individual Rights, the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the Manhattan Institute, the National Association of Scholars, the New Criterion, The Philanthropy Roundtable, and many others. Olin research funding was crucial in launching new analyses that ended up driving consequential national reform movements in areas like school choice, welfare reform, and colorblind public policy.
Olin was also distinctive in how he organized his philanthropy. Before he died in 1982, he instructed his foundation to spend itself out of existence within a generation of his passing. Having observed the spectacle of the Ford Foundation turning against what many took to be the purposes of its founding donors, Olin wanted to make sure his own foundation remained true to its mission. He believed a preordained lifespan was the best protection against wandering goals at a foundation, and a disconnection from the donor’s intent.
Robust investment gains complicated Olin’s objective of dispersing all of its funding relatively quickly. At the same time, this endowment growth gave it the means to have an even larger effect during the years when it was acting. This was magnified by a disciplined focus on doing a limited number of things very well in the realm of public policy, and a decision to support a limited number of the most effective entities, rather than dispersing grants far and wide.
By early in the twenty-first century, the Olin Foundation was issuing a series of large “termination grants” to proven recipients. In 2005, the foundation held its final board meeting, completed its last round of grantmaking decisions, and closed its doors.
- John Miller, A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America (Encounter Books, 2006)