Sumners Foundation: Strengthening Liberty and Citizenship through Civics Education  

“Liberty is a privilege that must continually be fought for, if we are to preserve it. … If our democracy is to be saved, and if we are to win through the difficulties and dangers in which we are involved, the aggregate will, wisdom, strength and determined purpose to do it must come from the body of the private citizenship of this country.” – Rep. Hatton W. Sumners

As the country gathers to celebrate its independence on July Fourth, it is important to recognize those who have been involved in not only its founding, but those who preserve, protect and defend our Constitution.  

Hatton W. Sumners, born and raised on a farm in Tennessee, was determined to study law despite lacking the funds to pursue his educational ambition. In 1894, the Sumners family relocated to Dallas, Texas, where the 20-year-old future congressman persuaded Dallas City Attorney Alfred P. Wozencraft to allow him to “read law” in his office. This eventually resulted in Sumners passing the State Bar of Texas in 1897. Two years later, Sumners was elected prosecuting attorney of Dallas County, serving two nonconsecutive terms before being elected to Congress in 1912.

Sumners was a stalwart defender of the principles of the Unites States Constitution, successfully leading the challenge to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposal to pack the Supreme Court with new justices, where he rightly argued that it violated the separation of powers. His heroic act of countering his party’s president and preserving the integrity of our Constitution cost Sumners his chance at being appointed to the Supreme Court.

Throughout his life, Sumners pursued a love of knowledge and self-education. He established the Sumners Foundation two years after his voluntary retirement from Congress to “encourage the study, teaching and research into the science and art of self-government, to the end that the American people may understand the fundamental principles of democracy and be guided thereby in shaping governmental policies.”

This year celebrates the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Sumners Foundation, which has invested $86 million in over 200 organizations “whose programs educate citizens about the fundamental principles of American democracy.”

“It was important to Congressman Sumners for citizens to understand that the power of the government comes from the people, from its active citizenry. Power over our lives as Americans does not flow from our government to its people but rather from the people to the government,” said Lon Williams, chairman of the Foundation’s board of trustees. “Further, our individual rights and obligations as citizens are grounded on equal opportunity for all.”

This year, the Sumners Foundation will also celebrate the 65th year of its Sumners Scholars program, which is a merit-based program that requires successful candidates to demonstrate academic excellence, a sense of civic responsibility and the potential for leadership.

The Scholars program is aimed at undergraduate, doctoral and law school students who demonstrate high academic standards and actively participate in self-government. Providing full tuition and fees in addition to a living allowance, the three-year law school scholarship requires recipients consistently rank at the top one-third of their class, be civically engaged and possess the capacity for leadership. The two-year undergraduate Sumners scholarships offer rising juniors awards $15,000 per year and requires each scholar to maintain at least a 3.50 GPA for renewal each semester.

The Sumners Foundation trustees expect each Sumners Scholar to demonstrate understanding and appreciation of America’s representative democracy. Students must also learn hands on by actively participating in the democratic process on the local, state or national levels. By committing their time by actively engaging in civics, students learn how their participation can better their community and assist the Foundation in carrying out its charitable purposes.

Over the past 65 years, Sumners Scholars have pursued careers including law, education, technology and entrepreneurship. 

One of the first participants in the law school Sumners Scholars program was Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.

Hecht grew up on a farm in Clovis, New Mexico, and attended Yale University. He worked throughout his four years to afford the tuition and board with the goal of attending law school and becoming the first lawyer in his family. But the cost of law school was way beyond his family’s reach and Hecht had to figure out a way to pay for it. His research led him to learn about the impact Sumners had on the country and the Sumners Foundation’s full scholarship offered at Southern Methodist University Law School.

“The Foundation talked about paying back after you got out and I was very receptive to that,” Hecht said.

Hecht remains involved with the Sumners Scholars program and in the fall of 2023, the trustees invited him to join the board.

“It’s just life changing for me. They’re changing lives, giving these kids opportunities they might not have been able to have without that financial security for sure.”

For questions about the Roundtable’s work related to civics education or to learn more about the Sumners Foundation or it’s Scholar program, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Portfolio Director Clarice Smith.

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