The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (Vintage)

BOOK: The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (Vintage)
4.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Praise for Steven Watts's
The People's Tycoon

“Watts' judicious exploration of the feats and foibles of Henry Ford provides a timely and compelling model of how to cut through the hype and tell the real story.”

—The Washington Post Book World

“An energetic and altogether fascinating look at an eccentric genius who helped make modern America, helped lead it to the forefront of nations and, in part, came to embody it.”

—Los Angeles Times

“Well worth reading. Not only does [
The People's Tycoon
] provide a lively portrait of America at a pivotal moment in history, it also offers the compelling human tale of a gifted man ultimately undone by his own success.”

—The Christian Science Monitor

“Admirable.… [A] smart, readable story in which the anecdotes and color are plentiful but never obscure the analytic through-line. …Virtually every aspect of Ford's life … gets treated seriously, fairly and concisely.”


“A convincing—and highly readable—case that the pioneering industrialist and the mean-spirited bully were two sides of the same twisted personality.”


“Fascinating and comprehensive. …[Watts] presents aspects of Ford's personality, damning and sympathetic, and lets us arrive at our own conclusions.”

—The Miami Herald

“Conveys with great immediacy the personality and temperament of this complex, high-minded but deeply flawed individualist.”

—The Plain Dealer

“Lively as well as insightful. …Watts puts the detail into solid historical context.”

—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“This epic treatment of the life of automobile industrialist Henry Ford uses the pointillist /pixel approach, causing us to step back to view Ford as the metaphor for a country.”

—The Boston Globe

“A dazzling social panorama highlighting both the triumphs of American ingenuity and the discontents of its consumer society.”

—The Baltimore Sun

The People's Tycoon

Steven Watts is a professor of history at the University of Missouri and the author of
The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life.
He lives in Columbia, Missouri.


The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790–1820

The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown
and the Origins of American Culture

The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life

For my parents, Kenneth and Mary Watts,
and my siblings, Tim, Lisa, Daniel, and Julie,
with my love and thanks for a lifetime
of support and encouragement.


Prologue The Legend of Henry Ford

Part One
The Road to Fame

Farm Boy






Part Two
The Miracle Maker



Folk Hero




Part Three
The Flivver King




Positive Thinker




Part Four
The Long Twilight







Epilogue The Sage of Dearborn



The Legend of Henry Ford

In the early summer of 1919, the familiar, slender figure with the sun-browned face, sharp features, gray hair, and homespun manner took the witness stand at the courthouse in Mount Clemens, Michigan, a small town twenty miles northeast of Detroit. Henry Ford, industrialist and American legend, was pursuing his libel suit against the Chicago
A few years earlier, the newspaper had published an editorial describing him as “an ignorant idealist … [and] an anarchistic enemy of the nation” when he opposed President Wilson's use of the National Guard to patrol the border against raids from Pancho Villa's Mexican guerrillas. An outraged Ford had sued, and now the
's lawyer bent to the task of disproving libel by trying to demonstrate the truth of the famous carmaker's ignorance. The task proved easier than anyone had ever imagined.

For several days, under relentless questioning from the chief defense attorney, Ford disclosed an astonishing lack of knowledge. He asserted that the American Revolution had occurred in 1812; he defined chili con carne as “a large mobile army”; he described Benedict Arnold as “a writer, I think”; he could not identify the basic principles of American government. As listeners cringed, Ford, like a negligent schoolboy, fumbled question after question, finally responding to one, “I admit I am ignorant about most things.” Even the defense attorney grew embarrassed and asked, mercifully, if Ford would consent to read aloud a brief book passage or whether he wished to leave the impression that he, in fact, might be illiterate. “Yes, you can leave it that way,” the witness replied calmly. “I am not a fast reader and I have the hayfever and would make a botch of it.”

The jury, facing abundant evidence of ignorance but none proving anarchism, found that Ford had been libeled. But it awarded him only six cents in damages. Newspapers and magazines around the nation, however, largely ignored the verdict and the legal issues and had a heyday with his
incredible testimony, chortling about the crudeness and shallowness of this American hero. Yet, as the episode played out, two unexpected things became apparent.

First, Henry Ford seemed perfectly content to appear the provincial rube whose productive endeavors left little time for book learning. When pressed on his lack of knowledge about public affairs, he confessed that, regarding newspapers, “I rarely read anything else except the headlines.” He was even more frank in a private interview with a reporter, commenting, “I don't like to read books; they muss up my mind.”
Second, common people, rather than being scandalized by Ford's predicament, seemed to appreciate it. They indulged his lack of learning and were amused by his response when he was asked what the United States had been originally (“Land, I guess”). They applauded him for a refreshing lack of pretension and sympathized with his frank admission that he was too focused on work to get much formal education. Ministers around the country offered prayers for Henry Ford's deliverance from his snobby oppressors. Small-town newspapers urged busy farmers, laborers, and merchants to send sympathetic letters of support to the carmaker, and tens of thousands did so. Thus, to the shock and consternation of highbrows everywhere, Ford emerged from a seemingly embarrassing debacle an even greater American folk hero than he had been before.

This episode put on display one of the great stories, and mysteries, of modern American history. The trial revealed a love affair between a pioneering automaker from Detroit and common Americans that transcended all reason. The same Henry Ford who disgusted so many intellectuals, cosmopolitans, and opinion shapers, enjoyed for some four decades a special bond of affection with workaday citizens who drove his automobiles and hung on his utterances. But what explained his enormous popularity, prestige, and influence? Obviously, it was not based on intellectual achievement. Nor was it a product of mere wealth, since legions of rich industrialists in the United States failed to attain his public stature; in fact, many were denounced by the public as robber barons. Ford's exalted status did not result from technological achievement. Contemporaries realized that he did not invent the automobile, as many naïve observers later assumed, and they certainly knew that his celebrated Model T was not the best car on the market.

The mystery of the man and his influence only deepens when one searches more widely. Socialists such as Vladimir Lenin admired Ford as one of the major contributors to twentieth-century revolution, and it was not unusual to see portraits of Ford and Lenin hanging side by side in Soviet
factories. Yet Adolf Hitler also revered Ford. He proclaimed, “I shall do my best to put his theories into practice in Germany,” and modeled the Volkswagen, the people's car, on the Model T. In the United States, powerful capitalists such as John D. Rockefeller acclaimed Ford and described his production facilities as “the industrial marvel of the age,” while at the same time Woodrow Wilson convinced the automaker to run for the Senate in Michigan as a progressive Democrat. Many artists on the left denounced Ford's impact on modern society. Charlie Chaplin hilariously satirized his system of mechanized labor in the film
Modern Times
; Aldous Huxley, in
Brave New World,
sarcastically dated the beginning of modern degeneration from “the year of our Ford.” Yet a 1940 Roper survey of American workers found that they ranked Henry Ford above Franklin Roosevelt and Walter Reuther as the modern American leader who was “most helpful to labor.”

Interpreters of Henry Ford's career, both during his lifetime and since, have done little to solve the enigma of his promiscuous appeal. For decades, journalists and historians have examined him in many guises. They have left a trail of contradictory assessments and unanswered questions in their wake. Was Ford an admirable titan who created an industrial empire, or a repressive tyrant who crushed everyone in his path? Was he a business innovator who pioneered pathbreaking productive processes, or a greedy capitalist who degraded work for millions? Was he a social revolutionary seeking to uplift American workers, or a cynical paternalist using subtle new methods of social control? Was he a public figure with the common touch, or an embodiment of the people's bad taste? Wildly divergent answers to these questions have never been reconciled, and Ford has been alternately denounced and deified since his emergence on the public stage in the early twentieth century. The genuine man remains elusive. The secret of his appeal and his significance continues to be largely unexplained.

This biography tries to capture Henry Ford in his complexity and uncover the sources of his public stature. It proceeds from the conviction that his unique relationship with America was shaped by the historical transformation of his age and a subsequent shift in cultural values. The period from 1890 to 1920, of course, framed the formation of the modern American order. These years witnessed the emergence of consumer capitalism, mass culture, bureaucracy, and the corporate state, all of which converged to create the century's most powerful nation. Ford, who leavened his enthusiasm for the future with a loyalty to the past, helped guide his fellow citizens through this wrenching period of historical change.

The scope of Ford's life was itself astonishing. Born just after the battle of Gettysburg, he lived to witness the dropping of atomic bombs at the end
of World War II. But his significance went far beyond living through the vast changes separating the world of Abraham Lincoln from that of Harry Truman. Ford's life and career resonated most powerfully in three areas.

First, he moved front and center stage as a prophet of America's new consumer culture in the early twentieth century. He has gained a reputation, of course, as the American pioneer of industrial mass production, but a less appreciated role was, perhaps, even more critical. Coming to prominence amid the collapse of Victorian tradition with its values of self-discipline, thrift, and producerism, Ford popularized a new creed of consumer self-fulllment. He was perhaps the first American businessman to realize that large-scale production depended on large-scale consumption.

Second, he played a key role in shaping the mass culture that began to emerge in early-twentieth-century America. In a new atmosphere of consumer abundance, Ford became a principal architect of a cultural order stressing standardized experiences, collective self-consciousness, and widely dispersed leisure among a popular audience. He first found fame in automobile racing, popularized camping, proselytized for positive thinking, and skillfully used the new media mechanisms of print and radio to enhance his personality in the public perception. As the Model T became the prototype of America's mass prosperity, Ford became the prototype of the mass-culture celebrity.

Third, he rooted his innovations in the rich soil of populism. He glorified the common man and made the judgment, dignity, and values of ordinary citizens his benchmark of achievement and worth. Powerfully shaped by Midwestern rural life and the strictures of the Protestant ethic, Ford's veneration of “just plain folks” nurtured a suspicion of sophisticated, urban elites and urged reliance upon an American folk defined by industrious self-reliance, rugged egalitarianism, and plainspoken piety. He parlayed this into a reputation as a social reformer who delivered high wages to working people and denounced wealthy financiers. At the same time, this creed carried a suspicious streak of anti-intellectualism and a wary hostility toward Jews and Catholics.

In other words, Henry Ford achieved a towering stature by drawing upon consumerism, mass culture, and populism to articulate an American way of life just beginning to take shape at the dawn of the modern era. But he became beloved, as well as influential, for another reason. Ford's striking innovations, rather than unsettling a mass audience, managed to assuage fears of the unknown. At the very moment he was transforming the world, he made new ideas and practices palatable by maintaining a conspicuous reverence toward the past. Whether mass-producing Model T's while reassuring the public that hard work, frugality, and community still mattered, or
constructing his gigantic, centralized River Rouge plant while taking camping trips in the woods and promoting folk dances, he managed to combine modern permutation with respect for tradition.

Thus, Henry Ford became an American folk hero because he appreciated
the aspirations and the apprehensions of the American people as they struggled to enter the modern age. He understood their hopes and fears and mediated them through his larger creed of populist, consumerist progress. With one foot firmly planted in the past and the other confidently stepping into the future, Ford successfully crossed a great divide in American history. This maker of modern America comforted millions of his fellow citizens as he eased them through the dislocations created by breathtaking historical change.

Ford's complex personality fed this process. A Midwesterner born and bred, he displayed many characteristics shaped by rural life in the American heartland. Sparsely schooled yet possessing great native wit, he proceeded according to instinctive hunches rather than systematic analysis. Skeptical of received wisdom, he had a restless curiosity about the workings of the social and natural worlds. Committed to the virtues of the village folk, he viewed most outsiders with suspicion. Distrustful of fancy theories, he valued common sense and dispensed wisdom as a kind of cracker-barrel philosopher. In the manner of Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and Will Rogers, he liked to play the part of the naïve provincial whose rustic image and sly humor barely covered the shrewdness lying beneath. Deeply ambitious, Ford combined a generous and idealistic view of humanity in the abstract with, all too often, a mean-spirited, self-aggrandizing attitude toward those around him. Like many uneducated people who become fabulously successful, he was utterly confident in his view of the world and never appreciated what he did not know. This amalgam of self-confidence and ignorance, insight and narrow-mindedness was at once his greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Ford's long, fascinating life and rocky climb to pre-eminence make for a story full of natural drama. His back-and-forth struggle to produce an automobile succeeded, albeit spectacularly, only when he was well into middle age. A series of highly publicized legal and political clashes over patents, company dividends, war, corporate power, anti-Semitism, and unionization punctuated his career. An intriguing array of activities—automobile racing, social progressivism, development of the assembly line, peace crusades, diet reform, political office-seeking, agricultural experimentation, historical preservation, and many others—kept him constantly in the limelight. Along the way, a number of people played key roles in Ford's life: his wife and son, a production manager and a preacher, an advertiser and an engineer, a racecar
driver and a business partner, a mistress and a publicist, and a trusted, streetwise tough who nearly ruined his company. Sketches of these dramatis personae enrich an understanding of his accomplishments and ascendancy.

But this story also focuses on what was made of Henry Ford, not just what he made; what was said about him, as well as what he said. By describing and analyzing the substantial body of commentary on him in American newspapers, magazines, political speeches, and radio shows for some four decades, I have tried to dig into the Ford legend. The debate over his achievements and shortcomings tells us much about an America changing shape in the early decades of the twentieth century. Exploring the cultural mythology surrounding Ford also helps us to see him as his contemporaries must have—a protean figure who defined, energized, and comforted Americans as they rose to great power and wealth in an age of transformation.

Fortunately, the sources for reconstructing Ford's life are abundant. A pack rat, he saved nearly everything that crossed his path, from the trivial to the indispensable. After his death, hundreds of boxes of this material were gathered into a large archive now housed in the Benson Ford Research Center, which is appended to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn. The archives hold thousands of files full of printed material, objects, photographs, and records. Moreover, Ford was one of the most discussed and written-about of modern American figures in his time, so the volume of published interviews and articles is daunting. Nonetheless, this record can be misleading, because there is surprisingly little from Ford's own hand. There are no diaries and virtually no letters, and few uncensored recollections. The books and numerous articles appearing under his name, though reflecting his views, were ghostwritten. This lacuna is filled, in part, by perhaps the most revealing items in the Ford archives: dozens of transcribed oral interviews with company employees, family members, and associates, many of which contain a wealth of firsthand observations of, and quotations from, Ford.

BOOK: The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (Vintage)
4.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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