Henry Ford 1863-1947
American industrialist and essayist.
One of the most esteemed figures in American industry, Henry Ford is credited with devising and implementing the continuous assembly line, thus making possible the era of mass-production, mass-marketing, and the modern, consumer society. Ford's efforts are additionally thought to have shaped American culture in the early twentieth century, tremendously speeding the process of urbanization by making the automobile available to the middle and working classes. Ford is also popularly regarded as a humanitarian who worked to elevate the economic status of the common man. This near-heroic view of the man, however, has been complicated by the study of Ford's paradoxical and controversial private persona, which contemporary critics have attempted to reconstruct in order to more fully understand this pioneering but enigmatic American.
Ford was born in Springwells Township, an area that is now occupied by Dearborn, Michigan, in 1863. He grew up on his father's farm and attended public school during the winter months between 1871 and 1879. In bis youth Ford displayed an extraordinary mechanical aptitude and excelled in mathematics at school. Though his father hoped that he would continue working on the farm, he left to find work in nearby Detroit in 1879. He undertook a series of apprenticeships in Detroit, working at the Flower Brothers Machine Shop and then the Detroit Drydock Company by day, and augmented his income by repairing watches in the evening. He met his wife, Clara Bryant, in 1886 and married her two years later. The couple lived together on forty acres of land provided by Ford's father on the condition that it be used for farming. Ford instead cleared the land of trees and sold the lumber for industrial purposes. By 1891 the timber was gone and Ford returned to find work in the city, this time as an engineer. He worked for the Edison Illuminating Company between 1893 and 1899, quickly rising through the ranks. During this period, he also designed and constructed his first "horseless carriage," an automobile prototype that Ford called a "quadricycle."
His desire to produce an improved version of the vehicle led to the creation of the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899, with Ford as its chief engineer. The company proved unsuccessful and Ford turned his attention to automobile racing, for which he gained a measure of national notoriety by 1901. He then parlayed his successes into the creation of the Ford Motor Company in 1903. The company grew rapidly, and by 1906 Ford had become its primary shareholder. He then began to make his pronouncement that he would produce a car "so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one" into a reality with the unveiling of the Model 'T' in October of 1908. The vehicle proved extremely popular, with sales reaching the one million mark in seven years and totaling fifteen million by the late 1920s. Meanwhile, Ford was making a name for himself as a humanitarian. In 1914 he raised employee wages to five dollars per day (more than double the average for factory workers at the time) and initiated an eight hour work day (lowering the number of hours from a standard of ten to twelve). Ford's reputation suffered, however, from his public stance against World War I. His lost bid for a seat in the United States Senate in 1916 also prompted a bitter reaction from Ford, who blamed the defeat on the machinations of international financiers and Jewish political influence. By 1920 Ford, already one of the most wealthy men in the country, had solidified his control of the Ford Motor Company as sole owner and weathered numerous lawsuits. His public anti-Semitism, however, continued to grow, peaking in the early 1920s with the printing of a series of essays attacking Jews. The articles appeared in his Dearborn Independent, a weekly periodical published between 1919 and 1927 in which Ford frequently offered his opinions and insights. After litigation, Ford eventually apologized for the views he had represented. Despite incredible growth in the 1920s, Ford's company began to suffer by the end of the decade, slipping from its position as America's largest automaker to third rank behind General Motors and the Chrysler Corporation by 1936. Disputes over management and labor, particularly his refusal to negotiate with the United Auto Workers union until 1941, damaged both the company and Ford's reputation. Failing health and growing signs of senility forced him into retirement in 1945, allowing his grandson Henry Ford II to take control of the company. Ford died less than two years later at his home in Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford's writings are generally brief essays or statements containing his views on a variety of subjects, ranging from personal observations to his perspective on the world of technology and industry. 365 of Henry Ford's Sayings (1923) is a collection of aphorisms that testifies to Ford's growing popularity as a national hero in the 1920s. Today and Tomorrow (1926) and My Philosophy of Industry (1929) present his vision of America's current and future strengths, while Edison as I Know Him (1930) is a personal reminiscence of a man Ford ardently admired. Perhaps Ford's most wellknown publication is the series of essays entitled The International Jew, which first appeared in the Dearborn Independent in 1922. Violently anti-Semitic, these articles postulate a worldwide Jewish conspiracy at the center of nearly all of the problems of modern civilization and notably accuse Jews of instigating World War I, as well as labelling Judaism as an insidious enemy of Christianity. After considerable bad press and a public suit of libel was brought against Ford, he formally retracted any anti-Semitic statements he may have made in The International Jew.
The impression of Ford during his lifetime has been largely allied with the success of his Ford Motor Company. As his popularity grew, reaching its zenith in the mid-1920s, Ford became one of the world's richest men and an individual of near folk hero status in the minds of many Americans. His anti-Semitic remarks in the 1920s and stubborn opposition to labor unionism in the 1930s, as well as his vocal hostility to the war effort in the early 1940s led to a marked decline in his popularity late in life. Contemporary critics and biographers have since inquired into the nature of Ford's personality and discovered that he was a man of deep-set inconsistencies: at times visionary, charitable, and forward-looking, at others ignorant, bitterly selfish, and reactionary in his views. Such explorations of his personality, however, have done little or nothing to change the estimation of Ford as among the most compelling, innovative, and influential industrialists in world history.
The Case Against the Little White Slaver (essay) 1916
Ford Ideals: Being a Selection from "Mr. Ford's Page" (aphorisms)
1922 The International Jew (essays) 1922
365 of Henry Ford's Sayings (aphorisms) 1923
Today and Tomorrow (essay) 1926
My Philosophy of Industry (essay) 1929
Edison as I Know Him (essay) 1930
Moving Forward (nonfiction) 1930
Things I've Been Thinking About (essay) 1936
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SOURCE: "How Philanthropic Is Henry Ford?" in Love and Justice, edited by D.B. Robertson, Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1957, pp. 98-102.
[Niebuhr was an American theologian who worked and wrote extensively on applying the insights of Christianity to the analysis and solution of social problems. A pastor in Detroit at the time the following essay was written, Niebuhr wrote many books, including Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932), Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History (1937), The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941-1943), and The Structure of Nations and Empires: A Study of the Recurring Patterns and Problems of the Political Order in Relation to the Unique Problems of the Nuclear Age (1959). In the following essay, he compares the myth of Henry Ford—particularly regarding the extent of his philanthropy—with Ford's actual behavior. Niebuhr concludes that the myth reflects little more than the diligence of Ford's "publicity agents."]
Henry Ford is America. If we may judge men not so much by their achievements as by their hopes, not so much by what they are as by what they want to be, Henry Ford reveals the true nature of the average American. Henry Ford is not a typical businessman. If he were, he could not be a typical American. There is a sentimental quality in American life which the...
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SOURCE: "The World As Ford Factory," in The Superfluous Man: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945, Edited by Robert M. Crunden, University of Texas Press, 1977, pp. 81-4.
[Davidson was one of the major figures in the Southern Agrarian literary and critical movement that started at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s and included writers such as John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren. The Agrarians were politically conservative and espoused the value of agricultural life and labor; consequently, they were highly critical of industrialization. In the following essay, he criticizes Ford's materialistic, mechanistic, and capitalistic ideals.]
There is magnificence in this new book of Henry Ford's—this book of the splendid title, Moving Forward, which comes to us with the additional signature of Samuel Crowther as a kind of shrewd Boswellian collaborator. The title itself is a magnificent rebuke to Mr. Ford's fellow-industrialists, now wallowing sadly in the trough of business depression. And with what magnificent gall does Mr. Ford advise us, at this time of all times, that "the day when we can actually have overproduction is far distant"; that the five-day week and the eight-hour day must be still further curtailed; and that the familiar Ford doctrine of raising wages and lowering prices must go on indefinitely. Whether these pronouncements are wise or fool-hardy, I am not...
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SOURCE: The American Earthquake, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958, pp. 214-48.
[Wilson was one of the foremost literary critics in the United States. A prolific writer who also produced poetry, plays, novels, journalistic nonfiction, and historical studies, Wilson was at all times concerned with the social reality that gives human actions, and the products of human actions, context and meaning. In the following essay, originally published in 1931, he presents a portrait of life in the auto industry, examining the reality against the various myths of Ford legend.]
On the dreary yellow Michigan waste with its gray stains of frozen water, the old cars wait like horses at the pound. Since the spring before last, Henry Ford has been buying them up at twenty dollars apiece, and people drive them in every day. Old, battered, muddy roadsters, sedans, limousines, touring cars and trucks—in strings of two or three they are dragged off to the disassembly building, following foolishly and gruesomely like corpses shaken up into life, hoods rickety and wheels turning backwards. Once inside, they are systematically and energetically dismantled: the flat road-ruined tires are stripped away; the rush-flare of an acetylene torch attacks the stems of the steering wheels; the motors are cleaned out like a bull's tripes and sent to make scrap iron for the blast furnace; the glass is taken out and kept to replace broken factory...
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SOURCE: "The Wheel of Fortune: Henry Ford," in The Quick and The Dead, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931, pp. 115-48.
[In the following essay, Bradford presents a generally positive overview of Ford's life and career.]
On the whole it may be said that the United States of America has always been a country of work. During the last three hundred years, with the developing means of transportation, repeated shocks of energy have come to this country, a flood of wanderers, representing the pushing, eager, active, restless elements of a score of European peoples, has pressed over, determined to make its way and its fortune, sometimes by illegitimate means, but more often by earnest, indefatigable, incessant toil. No doubt of late years the habit of work has somewhat faded, not owing to indolence, but to increasing luxury and distraction. Yet it may be safely said that it is work that has made the power and the prosperity of America.
Assuredly no American has ever been more of a worker than Henry Ford. He worked from his early childhood, all the time. The son of a well-to-do farmer in Michigan, of energetic, Scotch-Irish stock like Woodrow Wilson, Ford was born in 1863. He was early accustomed to the drudgery of the farm. As drudgery he hated it, and that hatred was a large element in all his later effort. Even as a boy he dabbled in mechanics, played with engines and...
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SOURCE: "Tin Lizzie," in America is West: An Anthology of Middle-western Life and Literature, edited by John T. Flanagan, The University of Minnesota Press, March 15, 1945, pp. 587-94.
[Dos Passos was one of the most important American novelists of the twentieth century. His most highly regarded works—including Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the three volumes of his U.S.A. trilogy: The 42nd Parallel (7950), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)—reflect a Modernist literary sensibility and a passion for liberal social and political ideals. After feeling personally betrayed by the actions of communists around the world in the 1930s, Dos Passos became increasingly reactionary in his politics, and his later writings are bitterly satirical of American liberalism. In the following essay, a "thumbnail" biographical sketch of Ford taken from the novel The Big Money, he presents a poetic and generally positive portrait of the industrialist.]
"Mr. Ford the automobileer," the featurewriter wrote in 1900,
"Mr. Ford the automobileer began by giving his steed three or four sharp jerks with the lever at the righthand side of the seat; that is, he pulled the lever up and down sharply in order, as he said, to mix air with gasoline and drive the charge into the exploding cylinder.… Mr. Ford...
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SOURCE: "Henry Ford's Seven Years' Calumnies Against Jews," in History of Bigotry in the United States, Random House, Inc., 1943, pp. 333-48.
[In the following essay, Myers examines the anti-Semitic articles Ford published in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent. The articles were originally published in a column entitled "The International Jew."]
Parallel to certain years of the Ku Klux Klan a centralized and intensive agitation was carried on exclusively against Jews by a publication owned and financed by one of the richest and most conspicuous of American industrialists. This was Henry Ford. Born, in 1863, on a farm near Greenfield, Michigan, he had been reared there until the age of fifteen, when he entered upon a job in a Detroit machine shop, and for many years thereafter was a mechanic in various concerns. The automobile had been invented in France and some cars exported to America, but their expensiveness made them available to the rich only. Seeing the automobile's field for general use, Ford harbored the idea of a product to be made by mass manufacturing methods and to be sold at a rate within the reach of the many. With eleven associates he organized the Ford Motor Company, in 1903, on a slim capital. The spirit of the times, demanding this new form of transportation, swept his company on to extraordinary success. In ten years alone, its assets increased to $250,000,000, and millions...
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SOURCE: "Henry Ford," in The Reputation of the American Businessman, Harvard University Press, 1955, pp. 142-75.
[In the following essay, Diamond surveys the obituary assessments of Ford's life and cultural significance as reported in both mainstream and alternative news media.]
In 1923, Arthur H. Vandenberg, editor and publisher of the Grand Rapids Herald, sharpened his pen to prick the rapidly swelling "Henry Ford for President" bubble. "Ford has to his debit," the editor wrote, "more erratic interviews on public questions, more dubious quotations, more blandly boasted ignorance of American history and American experience, more political nonsense, more dangerous propaganda, than any other dependable citizen that we have ever known."
On April 9, 1947, the same Arthur H. Vandenberg, now senior United States Senator from Michigan, rose on the floor of the Senate to appraise the automobile manufacturer once again. "Mr. Ford's death," the senator said,
ends one of the most thrilling and greatest careers in the life of this country. It is the vivid epitome of what one man can do for himself and for his fellow men under our system of American freedoms. Through his own irresistible genius and courage he not only rose from humble obscurity to fame and fortune, but he also founded a new national economy of mass production which blessed his hundreds of...
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SOURCE: "Fixation and the Twenty-Five Track Mind," in The First Henry Ford: A Study in Personality and Business Leadership, The MIT Press, 1970, pp. 34-74.
[In the following essay, Jardim examines the early part of Ford's career.]
"Mr. Ford," W. J. Cameron liked to say, "had a twenty-five track mind and there were trains going out and coming in on all tracks at all times." Here Cameron was attempting to account for the diverse interests and the singular opinions that at one time or another Ford saw fit to uphold. How else, runs the implication, does one make sense of Ford's excursions into international politics, racial bigotry, newspaper publishing, fertilizer manufacture, old-fashioned dancing, antique collecting, and the professions of medicine and education?
One of the less friendly of Ford's biographers described Cameron as Ford's "verbal alter ego," and this was in essence a job description. After the closing in 1927 of Ford's newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, Cameron's sole job, apart from a weekly broadcast on the "Ford Sunday Evening Hour," was to interpret Henry Ford to the public. The function he served was in no way designated by the company—he carried no official title—nor was it acknowledged by Cameron himself: "The Ford Motor Company," he insisted, "has no public relations department and employs no public relations counsel or 'spokesman.'"
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SOURCE: "Henry Ford and The International Jew," in Right Center Left: Essays in American History, Rutgers University Press, 1992, pp. 70-105.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in American Jewish History in June 1980, Ribuffo closely examines the historical context and the content of the anti-Semitic articles Ford published in The Dearborn Independent and, subsequently, in the four volumes entitled The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem, Jewish Activities in the United States, Jewish Influences in American Life, and Aspects of Jewish Power in the United States.]
Social scientists and journalists have continued to examine American anti-Semitism, but discussion among historians has subsided during the past two decades. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, however, the subject evoked heated exchanges, with controversy usually centering on the relationship between nineteenth-century agrarian radicalism and twentieth-century "extremism." The diligent and sometimes passionate efforts of many scholars produced little agreement. Indeed, we are tempted to surmise that discussion of American anti-Semitism passed from fashion among historians because the leading authorities wore themselves out in controversy.
Returning to the subject today, we enjoy advantages over Oscar Handlin, John Higham, Norman Pollack, and others who wrote three decades ago....
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Batchelor, Ray. Henry Ford: Mass Production, Modernism, and Design. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994, 150 p.
Reexamination of Ford, "the myths which surrounded him, his times and his contribution to manufacturing technology."
Gelderman, Carol. Henry Ford: The Wayward Capitalist. New York: Dial Press, 1981, 463 p.
Discusses Ford as "an apt symbol of the transition from an agricultural to an industrial America."
Lacey, Robert. Ford: The Men and the Machine. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986, 778 p.
Biography of Ford based upon extensive interviews and information gleaned from archival documents.
Lewis, David L. The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976, 598 p.
Ford biography that highlights the paradoxical nature of the man and his relationship with the American public.
Marshall, Louis. "On Henry Ford and the Dearborn Independent, 1925." In The Golden Land: A Literary Portrait of American Jewry, 1654 to the Present, edited by Azriel Eisenberg, pp. 338-39. New York: Thomas Yoselof, 1964.
Letter that reproaches Ford for his virulent antiSemitism.
Merz, Charles. And Then Came Ford. Garden City, N. Y.:...
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