Capturing Legal Education and Law

The Corporate Roots of Conservative Legal Thought

John M. Olin’s legacy and the capture of American legal institutions

Lisa Fanning

November 7, 2022

To any law student, past or present, The Federalist Society needs no introduction. It is impossible, today, to attend any law school in the country without becoming intimately familiar with Society’s presence in legal academia. However, to the many that have been fortunate enough to remain unaware of the “student organization” that has taken over legal academia and American jurisprudence, a description is both complicated and necessary.

The Federalist Society self-defines as an organization “founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.” Founded in 1982 by a small group of fringe conservative law students studying at the University of Chicago and Yale University, the Society now claims more than 10,000 students across all 204 American Bar Association accredited law schools in addition to the over 65,000 members of its Lawyers Division. 

The question becomes: how did The Federalist Society grow from the disenfranchisement of a few radical students to hold a now ubiquitous claim on conservative legal thought in law schools, legal practice, and the American judiciary? Far from a purely organic movement of similarly inclined youths, The Federalist Society can credit its success to the efforts of several billionaires that made it their life’s mission to push back against what they considered an attack on conservativism, and more importantly, free-market capitalism. Through both direct support of the Society and broader funding of the conservative legal counterintelligentsia, especially the academics movement of Law and Economics, these businessmen ensured their outsized and enduring legacy.

The first and arguably most important of these oligarchic philanthropists was John M. Olin. 

Son of weapons-manufacturing millionaire Frank Olin, John Olin spent his career building upon his father’s legacy and turned Olin Industries into a major supplier of ammunition to the United States military. Olin Industries owed much of its success to the first and second World Wars, during which the US Government purchased millions of dollars’ worth of ammunition from the company. Today, Olin boasts that it is the #1 producer of small ammunition globally, a status that has allowed it to continue profiting from global violence.

It is as unsurprising as it is paradoxical that the inheritor of a weapons manufacturing business that’s success was largely subsidized by government contracts during the second world war has “free market” ideological tendencies. Though his own success came as a result of government-sanctioned violence, Olin believed fiercely in the importance of capitalism unencumbered by state regulation. 

The progressive movement of the 1970’s terrified him, and he was deeply concerned by the largely Black student-run uprisings at his alma mater, Cornell University. He presumably was less concerned about the global oppression of Black people, as Olin Industries was the first US company charged with illegal sales of firearms to South Africa during the Apartheid arms embargo. The Winchester arm of Olin Industries was found to have shipped 3,200 firearms and 20,000,000 rounds of ammunition to the minority white government in Pretoria in support of its oppression of Black South Africans.

As an octogenarian, Olin decided to dedicate much of his fortune defending the institutions that allowed him to hoard it: “My greatest ambition now is to see free enterprise reestablished in this country. Business and the public must be awakened to the creeping stranglehold that socialism has gained here since World War II.” He did so through the John M. Olin Foundation, Olin Industries’ philanthropic arm. 

My greatest ambition now is to see free enterprise reestablished in this country. Business and the public must be awakened to the creeping stranglehold that socialism has gained here since World War II.”

Underlying the facial motive of defending free markets and conservative ideals was a potentially more potent stimulus for Olin’s philanthropic mission. In 1973, Olin Industries came under fire for multiple controversies surrounding its environmental practices. Aside from ammunition, Olin Industries was and remains a mass producer of specialty chemicals. 

Olin was incensed by actions pursued by the EPA to protect local populations from his company’s rampant abuses, including the poisoning of Saltville, VA residents with mercury in their water supply. Saltville was a company town run by Olin Industries for nearly 80 years until 1972—at which point it argued it could not afford the cleanup required by new EPA regulations and left the town desolate, unemployed and environmentally plundered. Now a Superfund site—a term the EPA reserves for the worst toxic dumps—Saltville is home to “a 76-acre cauldron of chemical waste near Perryville Road – the festering legacy of the company that dominated this speck of a town in far southwestern Virginia.”