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.