Funding Fathers: The Unsung Heroes of the Conservative Movement
by Nicole Hoplin and Ron Robinson
248 pp., $27.95
The success of the American conservative movement over the past 60 years can be traced, I believe, to the complementary actions of four remarkable groups of individuals. First came the philosophers, men of ideas such as F. A. Hayek, Richard Weaver, Whittaker Chambers, and Russell Kirk, who wrote seminal works like The Road to Serfdom, Ideas Have Consequences, Witness, and The Conservative Mind.
Next came the popularizers, men of interpretation, who took the ideas of the philosophers and translated them into a common idiom. Prominent among these popularizers of concepts—like the free market and ordered liberty—were the late William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review, George Will, the columnist and television commentator, and Rush Limbaugh, the radio talkmeister.
They were followed by the politicians, the men of political action, who responded to the intellectual climate created by the philosophers and popularizers by developing conservative policies and platforms. They include what I call the Four Misters: “Mr. Republican,” Senator Robert A. Taft; “Mr. Conservative,” Senator Barry Goldwater; “Mr. President,” Ronald Reagan, and “Mr. Speaker,” Newt Gingrich.
But none of these thinkers, journalists, and politicians would have been successful without the generous and far-sighted support of a fourth group—the philanthropists, men of means and vision who underwrote their books, magazines, and political campaigns. The indispensable role of the conservative philanthropists is revealed in Funding Fathers: The Unsung Heroes of the Conservative Movement, a fascinating, fast-paced book. The authors are certainly well-qualified: Nicole Hoplin is an editor and author who serves as director of foundation relations for Young America’s Foundation (YAF), while Ron Robinson has earned a deserved reputation as one of conservatism’s most successful “generals” as YAF president.
The authors examine the lives and careers of 11 Golden Donors—disparate in their business pursuits, but similar in their commitment to economic, political, and individual freedom. They include a German immigrant, a Chicago publisher, a law school dean, a chicken farmer, the son of a Texas oil millionaire, three California entrepreneurs, a Michigan pharmacist, a beer baron, and a Russian inventor.
Born in Germany, William Volker immigrated with his family to Chicago in the 1870s, knowing only five English words, including “hello” and “goodbye.” Determined to head his own business, he worked 90-hour weeks and never took a vacation, finally settling in Kansas City, where he established William Volker and Company, a wholesaler of picture frames and window shades.
Under his personal leadership, the company soon turned a profit and remained profitable, even during the Great Depression. But Volker was not in business just to make money but—consistent with his strong Christian beliefs—to give money to those who needed it and could make good use of it. “It is estimated,” write Hoplin and Robinson, “that Mr. Volker gave away nearly one-third of his income each year.” One nephew in particular became closely associated with Volker’s business and his philanthropy: Harold Luhnow. When Volker retired in 1938, Luhnow became president of the company and later of the William Volker Charities Fund, the first conservative philanthropic foundation. From the beginning, the fund’s philosophy was simple: “Ideas do not originate in monuments but in the minds of individuals.”
Consequently, when the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek, not yet a Nobel Laureate, approached Luhnow in 1947 for support of an international conference of classical liberal thinkers, Luhnow approved a grant of $2,000 toward the travel expenses of 17 Americans to Mont Pelerin, Switzerland. Without the Volker Fund’s help, the Mont Pelerin Society might never have been formed, and Western civilization would have been deprived of one of its most influential institutions. Between 1974 and 2002, for example, eight Society members won Nobel Prizes in economics.
In subsequent years, the Volker Fund also helped the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (later the Intercollegiate Studies Institute), the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), and the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS). The fund underwrote the works of individual authors such as Richard Weaver and Murray Rothbard, and sponsored a series of lectures by Milton Friedman at Indiana’s Wabash College, which formed the basis of his classic book Capitalism and Freedom.
Summing up the contributions of William Volker and Harold Luhnow, the authors of Funding Fathers salute their perseverance and their risk-taking. The work of Volker-sponsored scholars, Hoplin and Robinson write, materially shifted the government’s response to social ills and political problems toward a greater respect for freedom and liberty.
The Chicago businessman Henry Regnery used his own wealth to found the Henry Regnery Company, which beginning in the late 1940s published a series of seminal works such as William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, and Freda Utley’s The China Story. Regnery once explained his philosophy this way: “I’m not in the business to see how much money I can make but to see that every significant book which can contribute to the highest values sees the light of day.”
Regnery was also one of the three incorporators of the weekly Human Events, the oldest conservative publication in America, preceding National Review by more than a decade. Regnery’s family foundation, the Marquette Foundation, underwrote the cost of the esteemed quarterly journal Modern Age for many years. Regnery’s generosity over the years, write Hoplin and Robinson, built much of the intellectual foundation on which the conservative movement rests today.
Twenty-nine-year-old William F. Buckley Jr. traveled from coast to coast for over a year in pursuit of the necessary funds—approximately a half-million dollars—to begin publishing National Review, which became and remains the indispensable journal of American conservatism. In the 50 years since its inception in 1955, according to Hoplin and Robinson, the magazine has lost more than $25 million, nearly $500,000 annually. Much of that deficit was made up through Buckley’s annual fundraising letter and—I learned recently—his turning over to the magazine all his book royalties and lecture, television, and syndicated column fees. I estimate that Bill Buckley’s personal contributions to National Review over the years were in excess of several million dollars.
Clarence (Pat) Manion was the dean of the Notre Dame Law School from 1941 to 1952 and host of the popular weekly radio program, The Manion Forum, from the mid-1950s until his death in 1979. But his most important contribution to conservatism was to persuade Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona in 1959 to write a “little” book about Americanism.
Dean Manion came up with the title, The Conscience of a Conservative, personally paid Goldwater an author’s advance of $1,000, and started a publishing house of his own, Victor Publishing Company, to print and distribute the book when no mainline publisher showed interest. It was a risky venture, but Manion was determined to “implant Barry Goldwater’s name in the minds of conservative Americans,” and promote him as a candidate for President of the United States.
The 125-page book made publishing history, selling one million copies in its first three years and 3.5 million copies in all. It also made political history, transforming Goldwater into the political spokesman of the conservative movement and preparing the way for his nomination for president in 1964. Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson, but his presidential bid, based on conservative ideas from beginning to end, was, in the words of William A. Rusher, the “political alternative to the regnant liberalism—almost fated, in fact, to replace it sooner or later.”
Ronald Reagan might not have become the 40th president of the United States if three California businessmen—Henry Salvatori, Holmes Tuttle, and A. C. (Cy) Rubel—had not underwritten the telecast of “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan’s eloquent 1964 address promoting Barry Goldwater for president. That telecast electrified conservatives, made Reagan a political star overnight, and convinced Salvatori, Tuttle, and Rubel that Reagan—who had never sought public office—should run for governor of California in 1966. Reagan’s eight successful years as governor of the nation’s most populous state laid the political foundation for his winning 1980 presidential bid.
The story of Antony Fisher, who pioneered the establishment of a free-market institute in Great Britain, and later founded the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which has helped set up more than 100 free-market think tanks around the world, is familiar to conservatives, perhaps, but not the general public. The arresting first sentence of the Fisher chapter reads: “Antony Fisher was a chicken farmer who started breeding chickens with twenty-four eggs he smuggled from the United States.” The two dozen eggs led to a production and distribution empire that made chicken the most widely consumed meat in Britain.
Tempted to enter politics, Fisher was counseled by F. A. Hayek, then teaching at the London School of Economics, to follow a different path. Hayek said that, in his view, “the decisive influence in the battle of ideas and policy was wielded by intellectuals whom he characterized as the ‘second-hand dealers in ideas.’” He urged Fisher to form a ”scholarly research organization“ that would supply intellectuals in the academy and journalism with studies of the free market and its application to current affairs.
In 1955, Fisher launched the Institute of Economic Affairs. By the mid-1970s, it was the leading free-market think tank in Great Britain, the organization to which Margaret Thatcher turned for guidance when she was elected prime minister and determined to restore Britain’s economic vitality. Hoplin and Robinson recount the scene of Thatcher slamming Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table of the Conservative Party’s research department and declaring, ”This is what we believe!“
In the last chapters of Funding Fathers, we meet Gerald (Spike) Hennessy, a successful pharmacist who spent much of his life and treasure helping Hillsdale College become one of the most outstanding liberal arts colleges in the nation. As the wealthiest member of the school’s board of trustees, Hennessy ensured that Hillsdale would maintain its academic independence and forego all government loans, grants, and subsidies—and avoid the federal rules and regulations that would inevitably have accompanied them.
We encounter Joseph Coors Sr., the head of one of the most successful brewing companies in America, who in 1973 ”invested“ $250,000 in a brand-new research organization headed by a group of young congressional staffers. The untested, unknown organization was the Heritage Foundation, today recognized by liberals and conservatives alike as one of the most influential think tanks in Washington, D.C., and the nation. According to historian George Nash, Heritage has ”assumed the role of facilitator, liaison, and clearinghouse for the entire conservative public policy network.“
The last conservative philanthropist we meet is John Engalitcheff, who was born a Russian prince and died an American inventor, almost in the arms of President Ronald Reagan at a White House reception. Amassing a personal fortune of $100 million, Engalitcheff donated much of it to prevent the spread of communism and preserve American freedom.
Recipients of his generosity included the American Security Council Foundation and its Coalition for Peace Through Strength, the Fund for American Studies and its several student institutes at Georgetown University and other schools overseas, and Young America’s Foundation, which used the funds to help purchase and preserve Reagan’s hilltop ranch, Rancho del Cielo (”Ranch in the Sky“), near Santa Barbara, California. The Reagan Ranch, write Hoplin and Robinson, ”is used to inspire young people with the value that both Ronald Reagan and John Engalitcheff cherished: freedom.“
There are commonalities among the philanthropists skillfully described in Funding Fathers. They are entrepreneurs used to taking risks—they understand that not every ”investment“ will be successful. They are patient and take the long view—they do not expect immediate results. They know that the right book or the right journal or the right political candidate can make a powerful difference in the history of a nation. Their gifts are based on a firm commitment to furthering conservative ideas and policies. They regard their philanthropy as a way of repaying America for what it has given them in opportunity and prosperity.
As Hoplin and Robinson write, the contributions were not ordinary bequests to deserving causes but calculated ”investments in America’s future.“ Once and future philanthropists will find much by which to guide their giving in this perceptive examination of conservatism’s Golden Donors—men of means and vision whose benevolence has made the conservative movement a powerful political movement in America.
Lee Edwards is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation and the author of numerous books about the leading individuals and institutions of American conservatism.