The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

Earhart Foundation
Lee Edwards - 12/22/11

Earhart Foundation (no “the”) was founded in 1929 by Michigan entrepreneur and philanthropist Harry Boyd Earhart. It concentrates its support on the work of graduate students, scholars, and researchers; of 305 grants in 2000, 78 percent were in support of individuals. Daniel J. Boorstin, historian and former Librarian of Congress, wrote that the foundation has “shown a faith in the individual scholar which has itself been an inspiration in this collaborative age.” And in a field where the intent of the founder is often ignored or perverted, Earhart Foundation respects scrupulously the free-market, pro-America philosophy of H. B. Earhart.

Born in 1870 in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, Harry Earhart was the son of a village storekeeper. He was the first cousin, once removed, of the famous woman pilot, Amelia Earhart. Guided by only an eighth grade education and a brief commercial course, Harry Earhart launched a business career that included stints as a cargo broker on the Great Lakes and as a designer and salesman of logging machinery before he began manufacturing lubricating oil in Detroit.

The growth of the automobile industry led to the distribution of allied petroleum products, and in 1912 Earhart organized the White Star Refining Company. Under his energetic leadership, the company came to operate its own oil refineries and to sell its products throughout the Midwest and in Canada. White Star operates today as a part of Exxon Mobil Corporation. Earhart retired from White Star in 1932 at the age of 62.

Earhart devoted the final two decades of his life to philanthropy and the Earhart and Relm foundations. Earhart Foundation, founded in 1929, was a “family” foundation that initially concentrated its support on charitable and religious causes. But it soon broadened its mission to include research and education for leadership that would “eliminate” social ills rather than simply “relieve the results of social ills.”

In 1949, in response to what Harry Earhart regarded as increasing threats to the free enterprise system and “the great American heritage,” Earhart Foundation was reorganized, now emphasizing the support of research into economic freedom as the sine qua non of a truly free society. The following year, the Relm Foundation was created with a corporate life of twenty years and a similar mission. With the same trustees and staff, the two foundations differed only in their activities, with Earhart dispensing the H. B. Earhart Fellowships and Relm being responsible for nearly all the programs. In 1977, Relm’s trustees terminated the foundation and transferred all its remaining assets to Earhart Foundation to implement H. B. Earhart’s philanthropic goals.

Harry Earhart died at his home near Ann Arbor, Michigan, on October 21, 1954; he was eighty-four. Writing about his entrepreneurial spirit and philanthropic philosophy, Earhart Foundation president James A. Kennedy explained that Harry Earhart was an individualist with “a strong sense of responsibility to his fellow man and with a profound affection for his native land.” Underlying his many philanthropies was an insistence that “giving should serve to strengthen recipients rather than to make them increasingly and perhaps permanently dependent upon help from others.”

With the coming of the chaotic 1970s, Earhart trustees realized that the ideas of liberty were being challenged in the field of culture as well as economics and politics. They decided to expand the foundation’s program to include support of research and writing in history, philosophy, and literature—the essential transmitters of traditional values.

In 1985, the foundation adopted a statement of the basic philosophy that guided H. B. Earhart and “which should continue to guide Earhart Foundation, its trustees and its members.” It begins, “Harry Boyd Earhart believed profoundly that the free, competitive American enterprise system, based upon the Christian ethic, was the highest form of social organization in history.” It is to preserve and foster such beliefs, states the foundation’s history, “that he entrusted his resources to Earhart Foundation.”

With current assets of about $73 million, Earhart Foundation is small compared to giants like MacArthur, Pew, and Lilly, with their billions of dollars, but in the words of Michigan history professor Stephen Tonsor, few foundations “have been so imaginatively and brilliantly managed” in the pursuit of nonestablishment solutions to social problems.

In the early days, Earhart and Relm “were nearly alone” in their patronage of the conservative movement. They assisted members of all three groups that then constituted that movement—the anticommunist cold warriors, the cultural conservatives, and the free- market economists. However, as Richard Ware, longtime president of the Earhart Foundation, pointed out, both Earhart and Relm worked with “outside” individuals and organizations sharing “some but not all of the conservative philosophy.” Scholarship of high quality and a willingness to allow “chips to fall where they may” have been the hallmarks of staff recommendations and trustee decisions. “I believe,” said Ware in summary, “we have played a defensible role in the use of venture capital in the competition for ideas.” That mission was ably carried forward by Ware’s successor as president, David Kennedy, and more recently by foundation president Dr. Ingrid Gregg.

Among those supported by Relm-Earhart over the decades have been six Nobel laureates in economics: F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, George J. Stigler, James M. Buchanan, Ronald H. Coase, and Gary Becker. Since the early 1950s, more than 2,500 graduate students have received assistance as H. B. Earhart Fellows. In the field of political philosophy, support was extended to Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. In international affairs, the work of Peter Bauer was funded along with such institutions as the Mont Pelerin Society and the Institute of Economic Affairs in London.

In 1964, the Relm Foundation joined the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (then known as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists) in creating the Richard M. Weaver Fellowships, of which almost four hundred have been awarded, including those awarded to Edwin J. Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and James Gwartney, author of one of the most popular college economics textbooks in the country.

One of those who received an Earhart fellowship in 1960 was Thomas Sowell, probably the most influential black conservative intellectual in America. When Richard Ware retired as Earhart president in 1985, Sowell wrote him that the foundation’s support had made “the difference between my finishing and not finishing my graduate work.” In a larger context, added Sowell, Earhart was one of the few institutions “that helped keep alive certain kinds of scholarship that might otherwise have been buried under the prevailing academic orthodoxy and intolerance.” In so acting, Sowell said, the foundation “rendered a service not simply to individual scholars but to the nation.”

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