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Henry Ford

July 2024
15min read

—a complex man

One of the most remarkable facts about Henry Ford is that his fame and the Ford legend were born almost simultaneously, and born full-grown. Both came late in life, when he was fifty. The industrialist, we may say without exaggeration, was little known until he suddenly became a world celebrity. He was tossed into international eminence on January 5, 1914, when the Ford Motor Company startled the globe with its “Five Dollar Day.”

Until then, Henry Ford had touched the national consciousness but occasionally and glancingly. He had founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903, when already forty; after some years of uncertain struggle, he had produced a model, distinguished from previous Models B, N, and S by the letter T, which precisely filled a ravenous national want; he had erected at Highland Park, just outside Detroit, one of the best-planned and most efficient factories in the world. He and a group of tireless, gifted associates were bringing to birth that magic implement of global change termed mass production; still little understood (for most people ignorantly equate it with quantity production, which is merely one of its half-dozen chief components) , and then not understood at all. Ford was, of course, known in the Detroit area as an astonishingly successful manufacturer, and in the automotive world as the dauntless leader of the battle against the Selden patent monopoly, bunt elsewhere until 1914 the name Ford connoted a brand, not a man.

Henry Ford’s sudden fame did not burst and fade; it remained fixed in the skies as a brightening star. Seekers for facts on the mind and character of the man before 1914 find that the materials are scanty, that most of them pertain to his activities as a racer and in the shop, and that when pieced together they furnish no real portrait. But after 1914, what a change! The spate of articles, books, interviews, and reminiscences becomes ever more torrential. “The Ford and Charlie Chaplin,” remarked Will Rogers, “are the best known objects in the world.” As the renown grew, unfortunately, so did the confusing legend. As one parodist of the Ford Motor Company slogan put it, “Watch the Ford myths go by!”

Lord Northcliffe extolled Henry Ford to the British public as symbol and exemplar of American energy, confidence and resourcefulness. In Paris Charles M. Schwab, invited to a dinner by Baron Rothschild, electrified the table by describing Ford’s achievements. For a time in 1923–24 Ford’s quasi-autobiography, translated as Mein Leven und Werke , was one of the two best-selling books in Germany. From Sweden to Turkey a new word, Fordismus , epitomized the new mass production engineering, the new low-price economy of abundance, and the new efficiency speed-up. Throughout Latin America Ford’s personality was regarded as summing up the quintessential American traits and gifts. As for Russia, painfully aware of her industrial backwardness, Henry Ford was a figure about whom moujiks and mechanics wove wistful dreams. Fordizatsia or Fordization was one of the terms of power in the new era. A visit from Ford, wrote Maurice Hindus, would have called out Russian admirers in hordes.

In the United States, too, the Ford of fact and the Ford of myth were for a time indistinguishably blended. “While I do not accept all of Mr. Ford’s industrial philosophy.” wrote John A. Ryan, Director of the National Catholic Welfare Council, after reading My Life and Works , “I realize more strongly than ever that he has made the greatest contribution toward a solution of more than one of our industrial problems that has yet been made by any captain of industry.” The public devoured books about him by Allan Benson, William L. Stidger, Rose Franklin Lane, Charles Merz, Ralph Graves, Dean Marquis and others. Technologists and manufacturers studied the classic work on Ford machines and Ford methods by Arnold and Faurote, an able primer of mass production requirements.

The fifteen years 1914 saw Henry Ford at apogee. The American masses took him to their hearts; every clerk and farmer had his own image of the man. But which lines in that image were false, and which true? The task of gaining a true portrait was not simplified by writers who tried to establish an artificial pattern, for of all human beings the complicated, disorganized Ford least responds to that effort. Nor was it simplified by the fact that Henry Ford discovered himself about the time the world did, and announced his discovery by pronunciamentos from on high and essays in selfportraiture which wove oriental embroideries about the real man.

At once the most impressive and most disturbing fact about Henry Ford is the extent to which he held up a mirror to the modern American character, in his technological talents, his teats as organizer, his individualistic economics, his social blindness, his frequent brilliant insights, his broad veins of ignorance, prejudice and suspicion, he at first glance seems unique; a man fascinating in his intricacy even to those who most detest some of his traits. Assuredly, we say, nobody else ever existed like Henry Ford. Nothing in industrial history is more inspiring than the triumphs of his early days at the Piquette and Highland Park plants. Nothing in the same history is more depressing than some of the pages he wrote later; pages that would approach high tragedy but for their stupidity and harshness. We seek for threads to explain his labyrinthine complications, and we suddenly realize that in strength and weakness, pioneering thrust and reactionary conservatism, generosity and selfishness, he came near typifying the America of his time.


What made him a tremendous American force was his clear perception of four or five fundamental facts: that the American people not only wanted but needed cars in millions; that a single durable inexpensive model could meet that demand; that new technological elements (precise standardization of parts, the multiplication and perfection of machine tools, separation of the job into minutely specialized functions, quantity manufacture, continuous motion, Taylor time studies), when woven together to create mass production, could furnish the millions of cheap vehicles; that steady price reduction meant steady market expansion (“Every time I lower the price a dollar we gain a thousand new buyers”); and that high wages meant high buying power.

All this was as obvious, when demonstrated, as Columbus’ art of standing the egg on end. Until demonstrated it was so far from patent that the ablest manufacturers scoffed, and Ford had to battle his principal partner and the current trend to prove it. A special kind of genius lies in seeing what everybody says is obvious—once somebody thinks of it: and Ford, in relation to his time, had that genius. It changed the world.

Next to this insight, Henry Ford’s most striking gift was unquestionably his peculiar engineering talent. In mechanics, he combined much of da Vinci’s creative quality with much of James Watt’s practical acumen. As a few rare men are born with the power of instantaneously performing intricate mathematical computations, Ford had the power of divining almost any mechanism at a glance. He read engines. Indeed, his associate, W. J. Cameron, says that the great engine collections he made in his museum and at Greenfield Village were his historical library. “They were living things to him, those machines. He could almost diagnose the arrangement by touching it. There was a peculiar sympathy between him and a machine.” That gift had been with him when as a boy he took apart and reassembled every watch he could reach, and spent a Sunday afternoon, his father away, in disassembling and restoring much of a steam engine.

This flair generated a passion which explains another of his traits, his remarkable power of hard, sustained work. The relaxed air which the mature Henry Ford wore in public, together with his well-advertised recreations in square dancing, collecting Americana, and making excursions with Edison, Firestone and Burroughs, concealed from some observers the fact that from boyhood to old age (he was seventy in 1933) he led a singularly laborious, concentrated life. In his prime his frequent periods of intense industry would have exhausted a less resilient man. At Highland Park and River Rouge his responsibilities were always enormous. But his engineering passion made one important part of them—the responsibility for steady mechanical experiment—almost a refreshment.

Day-to-day study of his activities gives us the picture of a man in whose quick brain exploded a steady succession of technological ideas. A helical type of spring band to use in planetary transmission for holding the drum; a new element in the carburetor; a bolder mode of casting the engine block—always some novel ingenuity had to be tried. That side of his mind never rested. “He was up at Harbor Beach one time,” writes E. G. Liebold, “where he had a summer cottage, and he was coming home with Edsel. Suddenly he said: ‘I’ve got the idea. We’re going to put a worm drive on the tractor.’ ” That idea solved the theretofore vexatious problem of power transmission to the rear axle— or so he hoped; and he drove his tractor factory ahead with enhanced zest.

In experimentation, pioneering, the quest for fruitful mechanical innovations, Henry Ford at his apogee was happiest. Anything was worth trying. In 1914–15 he became interested in making a better electric car than any on the market, and reports spread that he and Edison were collaborating. If the idea proved good (which it did not) he thought of forming a separate company. A later scheme called for the use of plastics in building cars; in fact, a plastic-body car was built. This experiment was connected with Ford’s intense interest in promoting soy bean culture, for he realized that American agriculture needed new crops and that American industry suffered from a growing shortage of vegetable oils.

Now and then some incident suggested how far back in Ford’s career his experimental passion reached. He once turned his attention to a slide-valve engine on which Knight, of Willys-Knight, held some patents. Reflecting that he might wish some time to build such an engine, Ford decided to protect himself by recovering an old slide-valve that, as a humble mechanic, he put in a Westinghouse steam engine. He actually recalled that the engine had been No. 345 and had been shipped to McKean County, Pa. A searcher found the battered engine; found an old bill of sale which proved that it was No. 345; and found the name-plate, which was being used on a stove-grate. Brought to Dearborn, the engine- was triumphantly restored to the condition in which Ford had known it.

His technological genius was one aspect of a mind peculiar for its intuitive nature. Ford hit upon truths (and errors) by divination, not ratiocination. His aides credited him with what Dean Marquis called a “supernormal perceptive faculty” and W. J. Cameron “some gadgets in his head that the rest of us didn’t have.” Marquis termed him “a dreamer,” adding that he had a different view from other men of what was possible and impossible. “I suppose the reason is that men who dream walk by faith, and faith laughs at mountains.” As Ford himself told Fred L. Black, he worked partly by hunches. Even his understanding of his lieutenants was largely intuitive.

Obviously, if intuition moved some mountains, it collided disastrously with certain more massive ranges. Reliance on intuition was one reason why Ford was so amazingly unpredictable; men never knew which of a half-dozen Fords they were going to meet. It was also one reason for the crippling isolation of his mind, for a brain that cannot be reasoned with is a brain that cannot be penetrated. Down to 1914 Ford was open to the counsel of men who had a right to insist on being heard: his partners Alex Malconison and John S. Gray, his indispensable business manager James Couzens, the brilliant designer Harold Wills, and others. Later, with the amazing expansion of the business, the rise of employees to six figures, his achievement of autocratic power by the ousting of all his partners, and increasing age, Henry ford placed himself beyond advice. His mental isolation “is about as perfect as he can make it,” wrote Marquis as early as 1923. Charles E. Sorensen, who ought to know, believes that Ford had only two lifelong friends: Sorensen himself, and the strong head of his British company, Percival L. D. Perry.

His complex, inconsistent, intuitive mind has naturally lent itself to a Jekyll and Hyde concept of two (or more) Fords dwelling in the same body; but we may repeat that these efforts at pattern-making are delusive. One clue, however, does explain much in the Dearborn wizard. The dreamer, the man of intuitive mind, is usually an artist; and many puzzling vagaries, many contradictions, even many repugnant acts in Ford become comprehensible if we view him as essentially a man of artistic temperament. His detachment, his arch, wry humor, his constant self-projection into the spotlight (though all his intimates call him essentially modest), his ability to lift himself above those business minutiae which absorbed most industrialists, his readiness to do some terrible things with as little seeming consciousness of their quality as Byron or Swift showed in their misdeeds, all suggest an artistic bent. The Model T was homely awkwardness itself—but it had artistic elements. Highland Park was the most artistic factory, in architecture, shining cleanliness, and harmonic arrangement, built in America in its day. The painter Charles Sheeler caught the beauty of the River Rouge plant. And what of the aesthetic element in the old dances, old folksongs, old buildings, and old machines Ford loved so well?

Above all, he had the artist’s desire to remake the world after his own pattern. His gospel of abundant work, high wages, and low prices; his plans for decentralizing industry to combine it with rural life and rural virtues; his enthusiastic forays into “better” agriculture, “better” education, “better” recreation; his warm promotion from 1914–20 of the welfare work of his “sociological department”—what else were these but the artist’s effort to impose his own vision on life? He would remold American society and the American economy to fit his vision, himself the potter at the whirling wheel.

If there was a Jekyll and Hyde element in the man, it lay in the complex enmity between Ford the artist and Ford the untutored countryman whose parents had been Michigan pioneers, and whose own formal education was limited to a few years in a very common school. This conflict twisted the whole skein of his character. An artist needs a cultivated background: Henry Ford’s background was that of Anglo-Irish tenant farmers, and of Springwells Township lately wrested from the forest. Though from his homely early environment he drew many advantages, its limitations always fettered him.

He always remained a countryman in his plain way of living, for despite Keith Sward’s statements, it was plain. When his fortune first grew, he said plaintively that the chief difference in his way of life was that “Mrs. Ford no longer does the cooking”—and he preferred her cookery. He refused a butler, for he wanted no man behind his chair at dinner “while I am taking the potatoes’ jackets off.” His puritanic condemnation of smoking, drinking and marital irregularities conformed to the principles described in Thorstein Veblen’s essay The Country Town . He rejected the eminent Delancey Nicoll as attorney in the Sapiro case because, when the New York lawyer came to Dearborn, Ford saw him chain-smoking cigarettes. “I’m for Mr. Coolidge if he will enforce the Prohibition laws,” he said in 1923. He was a countryman also in his devotion to work as a virtue in itself. His cure for nearly all ills was more work.


True to the frontiersman’s instinct, he consistently preferred trial and error to precise planning. Contemptuous of elaborate record-keeping, he once shocked Perry by making a bonfire of forms used to keep track of spare parts. Hostile to meticulous organization, he ran even the huge Highland Park plant without formal titles or administrative grades. He long derided careful cost accounting. In this, thinks one surviving executive, H. L. Moekle, he was right. Success in the automotive industry at first depended not on computation of costs to the third decimal point in Rockefeller’s fashion, but on courageous innovations in design and engineering and on the acceptability of models and prices to the public. Ford stayed in the field of bold experiment—cost accounting might have hampered him. He of course stuck to Model T too long; but meanwhile he was experimenting with tractors, a tri-motored airplane, a weekly journal, a railroad, and a dozen other matters.

He had also the frontiersman’s intense hatred of monopoly and special privilege. To be sure, he long enjoyed a practical monopoly of the low-priced car, but he could say that he achieved it without favor and without warring on any competitor. His dislike of patents, his earnest counsel to George Holley to take out no patent on his carburetor, his course in throwing open to public view and general use Ford machines and methods, his determined battle against George Selden, all harmonized with the frontier attitude. He extended the principle beyond automotive patents. His early broadcasting station WWI carried on research, worked out (so associates say) the first directional airplane controls, and gained a patent—which he shared with all. Once his purchaser, Fred Diehl, was offered spark plugs free for River Rouge production if the supplier were allowed to sell all replacements to dealers. “Mr. Ford himself turned that down,” reports a lieutenant. “He said he didn’t want anything from anybody for nothing.” A true countryman’s speech; for a scheme that would have meant monopoly supply was abhorrent to Henry Ford.

Much more might be said on the pleasanter inheritances from the rural environment—on his rather appealing inarticulateness which kept him from making public speeches (the longest ever recorded was 28 words); on his dislike of class lines, which was one of several reasons for his aversion from Grosse Pointe society; on the rugged comradeship with fellow workers which he showed in his early career, but unhappily lost; on his warm love of nature, and the feeling for wild life which made him build shelters for rabbits, grow corn for crows, and keep warm water available all winter in the hope of retaining migratory songbirds in the North. One of the most important parts of his countryman’s heritage was his stubborn originality of thought—when he did think. Neither from books nor men did he take ideas secondhand; he hammered them out for himself, usually on walks in field and wood. Often they were immature. But sometimes, between intuition and lonely thinking, he seized a concept which startled men with its novel glint of truth.

Meanwhile, what penalties his early environment, and his invincible ignorance in many areas, laid upon him! Like other untutored men, he had a deep suspicion of the uncomprehended, a strong inclination to prejudice, and a susceptibility to bad counsel. Some thought his antagonism to Wall Street traceable to a memory of Populist speeches, others to his anxieties in the depression of 1921; but surely three-fourths of it was simple distrust of what he did not understand. It is significant that his suspiciousness, hardly visible in his first years of success, grew marked when he came under fire. “Ford has the idea that he is persecuted,” a writer in the Forum accurately stated in 1919. He thought that some journals had begun to “hound” him when he announced the $5 day, and others when he battled for peace and the League.

“A good part of the American press, not all, is not free,” he told reporters. It lay, he thought, under various controls; it was warped by sensationalism. “They misquoted me, distorted what I said, made up lies.” The gibing, malicious attitude of part of the press toward the Peace Ship, the aspersions on his motives in lifting wages from $2.25 to $5, the mean attacks on Edsel as an alleged draft-dodger, and the storm of ridicule accompanying the Chicago Tribune trial and the senatorial campaign, were indeed outrageous. Since Ford was a sensitive man, they had a perceptible effect in hardening his temper and converting his early idealism into cynicism. Had he possessed more education, poise, and perspective, he would not only have avoided some of the occasions for ridicule; he would have met ridicule with a heavier armor.

Out of his sense of needing an agency for defense and for stating his ideas came the Dearborn Independent . Out of his ignorance, sensitiveness, and suspiciousness came the lamentable anti-Semitic campaign of that weekly, for which he apologized only after vast harm had been done. In this unhappy crusade he had collaborators. The shrewd E. G. Pipp, who resigned as editor rather than share in it, made a brutally frank statement to Cameron: “You are furnishing the brains, Ford the money, and [E. G.] Liebold the prejudices.” Cameron and Liebold furnished some of the methods, too, but as Liebold says, “As long as Mr. Ford wanted it done, it was done.” His was the responsibility. That he had no deep-seated race prejudices, but really believed in a fictitious bogy called the International Jew, does not palliate his offense. We can only say that this, like the shortsighted harshness which he showed toward labor organizations, was the abortion of an uninformed mind and uncultivated spirit.

Some aspects of the man, defying any efforts to fix a pattern, remain—as in such other contradictory personages as Edwin M. Stanton or Woodrow Wilson—quite inexplicable. Highly diffident in some ways, he had an irrepressible desire to be oracular about topics of which he knew nothing. Kindly in most personal relations, he nevertheless countenanced such cruel treatment of subordinates as the smashing of their desks in token of discharge. At times he indulged a good humored liking for horseplay—“he was a proper Puck,” as Lord Perry expressed it; at other times he was sternly unapproachable. Sharply practical, he yet cherished some curious superstitions. A churchgoing Episcopalian, he leaned strongly to an unorthodox belief in metempsychosis. There was always something in him of an urchin, a wry, cross-grained, brilliant adolescent: and like an energetic urchin, he was so kinetic that only a motion picture could have caught his multifarious activities and swiftly changing moods.


Yet in this fascinating personality, with its bright lights, dark shadows, and intermediate chiaroscuro traits, we come back always to the image of the artist. John Reed, interviewing him in 1916, thought he looked like an artist, with “thin, long, sure hands, incessantly moving”; “the mouth and nose of a simpleminded saint”; “a lofty forehead”; “the lower part of his face extraordinarily serene and naïve, the upper part immensely alive and keen.” His swiftness, his agility, his intense interest in everything he observed, contributed to the impression of an artistic temperament. Much that is otherwise puzzling becomes comprehensible if we think of him as an artist, struggling, despite many limitations and handicaps, to remake his world a little nearer to the heart’s desire. He wanted to abolish war (“a habit, and a filthy habit,” he said) from his world, and hence the great gesture of the Peace Ship. He wanted to exclude drink, class divisions, idleness and disorder. He wanted to get rid of money as anything but a part of the mechanism of production: “part of the assembly line,” or “the connecting rod.”

Perhaps his poignant failure lay in his relationship to his son, to whom he gave both intense devotion and total incomprehension. Edsel was a man of the finest totalities of character and mind, upright, idealistic, public-spirited, and hard-working. He was highly philanthropic. In the factory he got on well with other executives, many of whom felt a warm affection for him. In the world at large, as old associates testify, he had a broader vision than his father. Some of Henry Ford’s acts, such as the anti-Jewish campaign, grieved Edsel greatly, though he was too loyal to speak out publicly. Yet the father, while justly proud of him, committed a fundamental error in their relationship. “He tried to make Edsel in his own image,” says Mr. Sorensen. In the process he did incidental injustice to some men like Clarence W. Avery who, coming close to Edsel, aroused his jealousy. Of course he failed in his effort, with anguish to both himself and the son. But the attempt was again, in part, an expression of the artist’s desire to make the world over to suit his own vision.

As the years pass and as we gain perspective, the absurd blunders and shabby misdeeds in Henry Ford’s record will arouse less interest. His social primitivism will seem more a part of the general ignorance and gullibility of our adolescent American civilization. His great achievement, in the direct line of Watt and Stephenson, Eli Whitney and Cyrus McCormick, yet in some ways transcending theirs, will loom up as the really significant fact of his career. By his labors in bringing mass production to birth, by his gospel of high production, low prices, and large consumption, he became the key figure in a far-reaching revolution. This fumbling artist actually did remold the world according to his vision. Talking with Edsel one day, he said of his great company: “Well, we’ll build this as well as we know how, and if we don’t use it, somebody will use it. Anything that is good enough will be used.” Of few of the industrial path-hewers of his time can it be said that they produced so much that is permanently and profitably usable.

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