Fifty years ago, a former governor of New Jersey and son of famed inventor Thomas Edison spent his last years trying to counter the radical extremes of social change during the 1960s.
“In the next 50 years, we hope to continue to expand our programs and our influence.” –@TFASorg’s Steve Slattery
In response to some of what he saw on college campuses and in the streets, Charles Edison teamed with other conservatives in February 1967 to create a Washington-based educational organization that would become the Fund for American Studies.
“Activists were burning and blowing up buildings on college campuses. And trying to convince young people that communism was preferable to capitalism,” Steve Slattery, executive vice president of the Fund for American Studies, told The Daily Signal.
Though Edison died in July 1969 just shy of his 79th birthday, today the organization he founded hosts multiple programs teaching young people what it calls “limited government, free-market economics, and honorable leadership.”
The Fund for American Studies will celebrate its 50th anniversary Thursday with a luncheon featuring Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and a gala dinner dance where guests will include former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Lee Edwards, a historian of the conservative movement who is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation, said he is grateful for the work of the Fund for American Studies.
“The academic empire of the 50-year-old Fund for American Studies, with its 11 institutes that span the globe from Washington, D.C., to Hong Kong, attests to the old saw that a good idea can have exceedingly good consequences,” Edwards told The Daily Signal.
Charles Edison was one of the celebrated inventor’s six children. A businessman and inventor himself, he broke with a family tradition of Republicanism when he ran for governor of New Jersey in 1940 as a Democrat after serving first as assistant Navy secretary and then Navy secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1962, however, he helped found New York state’s Conservative Party.
Joining Edison in 1967 to start what initially was called the Charles Edison Youth Fund were some heavyweights of the conservative movement: then-Rep. Walter Judd, R-Minn., also a physician and missionary to China; Marvin Liebman, a political activist and fundraiser who later became a gay rights advocate; David R. Jones, an educator who served as the fund’s CEO; and William F. Buckley Jr., writer, commentator, and founder of National Review.
In an email to The Daily Signal, Slattery attributed this quote to the younger Edison: “The honorable man cherishes the heritage made available to him by the Founding Fathers of his nation and by thousands of years of history in which men strove for freedom and decency.”
In 1985, by Edison’s stipulation that it not continue to bear his name, the organization became the Fund for American Studies. By its counting, it has taught nearly 17,000 students over 50 years, helping them achieve in fields including journalism, public policy, and academics.
“The first TFAS program hosted 56 students,” Slattery said. “By the late 1980s, we sponsored just two summer programs for college students. Today we have seven U.S. summer programs, two semester programs, and four international programs, which together educate 750 students each year.”
The organization’s programs soon reached beyond its home in Washington: It provided classes in Europe in 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. It hosted a summer program at Charles University in the Czech Republic to teach former Soviet citizens about democratic values and the free-market system. And it offered programs in Hong Kong and Chile.
“In the next 50 years, we hope to continue to expand our programs and our influence,” Slattery said.
Looking forward, the Fund for American Studies plans to expand its economic programs to high schools. The initiative started when the organization partnered with a sister group, the California-based Foundation for Teaching Economics, in 2014. It offers one-week and one-day programs that teach economic fundamentals to students.
The organization also plans to hire more campus leaders for a new scholarship program next year. The program will provide merit-based scholarship opportunities to students with financial needs.
Gorsuch will speak Thursday at the fund’s “Defending Freedom Luncheon” at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest Washington.
In the evening, the organization expects more than 700 guests at its anniversary gala at the National Building Museum in the heart of Washington. Roger Ream, the fund’s president since 1998, will outline new ventures, Slattery said.
Besides Rumsfeld, featured guests include Paula Dobriansky, former under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, and ABC News anchor David Muir.
Slattery said it will be a celebration of the vision of the fund’s founder.
“We continue Governor Edison’s legacy by working to develop honorable leaders with an appreciation for the political, economic, and moral values for which the Founding Fathers fought the American Revolution,” he said.
Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.