Henry Ford: 150th birthday of a controversial American icon

“The only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”
Henry Ford

Black-and-white photograph of man sitting in long, four-wheeled car and another man standing beside the car, circa 1902

Henry Ford (standing) with Barney Oldfield and the Ford 999 racing automobile. Oldfield drove the 80-plus horsepower car to victory in a race in October of 1902, nicknaming it “999” in honor of the fastest locomotive of the day. Following the race, Oldfield took the car around the country to introduce the Ford brand to potential customers. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, JULY 30: Events have been in full swing since January in honor of Henry Ford’s 150th birthday, but today is the official date: On June 30, 1863, Henry Ford was born in a small farmhouse near Dearborn, Michigan—a farmhouse that can still be toured at The Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village—one of the Midwest’s most popular tourist attractions. If you visit the official Henry Ford 150 website, you can find events related to his sesquicentennial running through the autumn in southeast Michigan. If you plan to pass through the Midwest this summer, there’s information on various Ford-themed tours at the 150th site, as well.

Henry Ford’s early life was that of a simple farmer’s son, but this industrialist would go on to change the world. That’s not hyperbole. PBS’s nearly two-hour-long American Experience documentary on Henry Ford (which you can watch on the PBS website) puts it this way: “He came to believe that he was not only an economic entrepreneur but a prophet of proper living. … Ford practiced what he preached. Through his own fierce determination he had risen from obscurity to become one of the most famous and powerful men in the country. With the Model T—the most successful car in history—and the groundbreaking ‘Five Dollar a Day’ wage, Ford ushered in the modern world.”

In the PBS film, historian Douglas Brinkley adds: “Henry Ford was a revolutionary. He changed all of 20th-century America. We’re living in Henry Ford’s world right now.”

Myths abound that Henry Ford invented the automobile—which certainly is not true! But, he did develop the modern automobile assembly line, which streamlined processes and lowered costs until it was possible for the average American household to own an automobile. (Wikipedia has details.) In his factories, Ford offered nearly double the pay of other factories when he implemented the $5-per-day wage, thus attracting—and keeping—qualified, loyal workers.

A POCKET WATCH AND A DREAM

Thomas Edison Henry Burroughs and Henry Ford in 1914

Thomas Edison (at left) with naturalist Henry Burroughs (center) and Henry Ford in 1914. Photo from the Library of Congress archives, available for public use.

Life for Henry Ford was simple until he turned 15, and his father gave him a pocket watch—which Ford immediately took apart and put back together. Amazed, his friends and family asked Ford to fix their timepieces, too, and his passion for tinkering took root. One year later, Ford left the farm to apprentice as a machinist in Detroit, and he spent several years in the bustling city servicing engines. (Read more at biography.com.)

Ford eventually became an engineer for Edison Illuminating Company. All the while, Ford tinkered on his own, developing plans for a horseless carriage and, in 1896, constructing the Ford Quadricycle. When Thomas Edison saw Ford’s plans, he encouraged his employee to build more models. Ford went on to establish the Ford Motor Company.

Did you know? Ford didn’t just make automobiles! He was honored by the Smithsonian Institution for changing aviation history with his Ford 4AT Trimotor, which was the first successful U.S. passenger airliner. Variants were later used by the U.S. Army.

HENRY FORD: THE CONTROVERSY

As brilliant as he was in industrial innovation, Ford was infamously ignorant about world history—and U.S. history as well. Even though he is responsible for assembling one of the world’s great historical collections in Dearborn at the vast complex now called simply The Henry Ford, he largely regarded history as a matter of inspiring people with gee whiz exhibits. He began buying and preserving items, vehicles and buildings that would inspire youngsters to become industrial developers in the future. In a famous 1919 court case, Ford was quizzed by opposing attorneys who sought to illustrate the huge gaps in his own education. Asked the most basic questions by the attorneys, Ford revealed that he knew little about American history.

That ignorance about history and global issues set the stage for Ford’s tragic promotion of antisemitism. The PBS American Experience documentary (see the link above to PBS) devotes 4 minutes of its nearly two hours—or about 500 words in the transcript of the film—to an overview of Ford’s antisemitic campaigns. In that section, the documentary says, in part:

“In May 1920, Ford began publishing a series of articles in his hometown weekly, the Dearborn Independent, which he had purchased a year and a half earlier. … Henry Ford linked Jews to Wall Street. He linked them to banks. And he blamed them for war. He basically began to blame Jews for all of the problems of the modern world. … Ford ensured that his anti-Semitic message would be read in households across the nation. In addition to subscriptions, he distributed the Dearborn Independent through his more than 7,000 car dealerships. … The American Jewish Committee, the Federal Council of Churches, and over 100 prominent leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson, condemned Ford’s attacks. But he was undeterred. … A defamation suit by a Jewish lawyer forced Henry Ford to issue a public apology. … Many Jewish organizations accepted Ford’s apology as sincere. But those who knew him best did not. Behind closed doors, Ford remained convinced that Jews were at the heart of what he deemed the degeneration of American society.”

A MIX OF FLAWS AND GENIUS: FORD SHAPED AMERICA

THE “PEACE SHIP”: Henry Ford was a mix of flaws and genius. One of the amazing and colorful chapters of his life that is resurfacing with his birthday is Ford’s decision to end World War I before America could enter the carnage. That’s right—the First World War. Thanks to Daniel Buttry’s book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers, and also a history of the era by David Traxel, we now know a great deal about this amazing effort. You can read excerpts of those accounts in this story.

FORD’S DEATH: In 1947, Henry Ford died at age 83. More than 100,000 mourners formed a line a mile long to pay their respects.

FORD’S LEGACY: Historian Nancy Koehn concludes that he was a giant figure in American life and, on balance, we should honor this figure for some of his achievements: “What Ford saw and what he committed himself to in terms of producing a durable, affordable, effective automobile changed American life, changed American business, and changed Americans one by one, as it continues to affect us today.”

Care to comment on this story?

Read The Spirit’s influential Our Values project—a column that encourages civil dialogue on difficult issues—focuses on the difficulty of writing about Henry Ford. Columnist Terry Gallagher looks at the challenge journalists face in remembering figures like Ford and invites your comments.

Share this story with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons connected to this story. Or email this story to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tell Us What You Think