Henry Ford Essay - Critical Essays

Ford, Henry


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


Reinhold Niebuhr (essay date 1926)

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...

(The entire section is 2354 words.)

Donald Davidson (essay date 1930)

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...

(The entire section is 1720 words.)

Edmund Wilson (essay date 1931)

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...

(The entire section is 13647 words.)

Gamaliel Bradford (essay date 1931)

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...

(The entire section is 9002 words.)

John Dos Passos (essay date 1936)

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 worksincluding 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...

(The entire section is 2747 words.)

Gustavus Myers (essay date 1943)

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...

(The entire section is 5309 words.)

Sigmund Diamond (essay date 1955)

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...

(The entire section is 15477 words.)

Anne Jardim (essay date 1970)

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...

(The entire section is 14214 words.)

Leo P. Ribuffo (essay date 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 12598 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 255 words.)