Building the ACLU

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1921

Charles Garland, age 21, told the executor of his father’s estate that he would not accept the inheritance left to him because it came from “a system which starves thousands.” When they saw press reports describing this decision, radical activists Upton Sinclair and Roger Baldwin urged Charles to accept the money and devote it to left-wing political causes. Baldwin, who had just founded the American Civil

Liberties Union, managed to persuade the young man. Garland used his father’s money to establish the American Fund for Public Service, commonly known as the Garland Fund, in 1921.

A board was appointed whose members included the prominent socialist Norman Thomas and Benjamin Gitlow, a founding member of the Communist Party USA. Garland attached few requirements, letting the trustees decide how to disburse the money. The fund resolved not to support political parties or religious organizations, preferring radical journalism, labor unions, and Marxist causes.

The ACLU turned out to be the fund’s most consequential grantee. Garland money was crucial in helping the ACLU grow into an influential policy organization promoting free speech, secularism, gay rights, and other liberal causes. By 2015, annual spending by the ACLU topped $134 million.

The Garland Fund dissolved in 1941 after spending all of its assets.

  • Gloria Garrett Samson, The American Fund for Public Service: Charles Garland and Radical Philanthropy, 1922-1941 (Greenwood Press, 1996)
  • Merle Curti, “Subsidizing Radicalism: The American Fund for Public Service, 1921-41,” Social Service Review (September 1959)
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