Henry Ford: Notes from the Capital

Henry Ford: Notes from the Capital

The man who spread the gospel of the assembly line launches a new crusade–for peace in Europe.


Everett CollectionA Ford assembly line, 1949.

A ‘plain man of the people” who looks sixty years of age, but undoubtedly is a good deal younger, of medium size, spare habit, colorless skin, and neutral-tinted hair which might have been brushed with his hands, clad in a dark, shapeless suit that sits on him as if placed there with a pitchfork such is your first impression of Henry Ford, inventor, millionaire, reformer, and human target for the paragraphers. The faraway expression of his eyes warns you that he is an eccentric, his large mouth is rendered larger in effect by an almost perpetual smile which is one of benevolence rather than of humor, and his manner of address has a quality which might be mistaken for timidity, but is really only the hesitancy of one poor at translating his thoughts into words. For he is neither a scholar nor an orator, and what he has had to say to the world he has said through his deeds.

The public knows Mr. Ford chiefly as the inventor of an automobile which, in the language of one satirist, has “made walking a luxury,” and of a futile scheme for bringing peace to a war-racked continent. How a single mind could evolve two ideas so widely variant in practicality has puzzled multitudes; and yet, when you know the man and his history, the phenomenon ceases to excite your wonder. In his early days Ford had a struggle with poverty through which he acquired a strong sympathy with the men and women with whom he then brushed elbows; and after he had settled down to the manufacture of automobile machinery he resolved to construct a car which should be so cheap that almost any steady earner of fair wages could afford one, and which could he used not only for strictly utilitarian purposes, but for a family holiday outing as well. Doubtless, without realizing it, he had struck a great popular vein; for no sooner had his industry got a start than orders began to pour in more rapidly than he could respond to them, and in an inconceivably short time he was numbered among the rich men of the country.

Here was undreamed-of wealth and nothing to spend it on. He had no extravagant babits or tastes, and Mrs Ford’s desires were equally modest. Why not, then, return a large part of the surplus profit to the men whose mechanical skill and to the customers whose patronage had won it for him? This unique distribution paved the way for other projects that lay near his heart. Intoxicants and cigarettes were two of the worst evils with which he had had to contend among the young men in his works; and now that he was able to make employment in the Ford shops so desirable pecuniarily, he felt that he had a strong initial leverage on the men he hoped to fortify against their own appetites. Thus, step by step, he extended his sphere of influence, sometimes by wise methods and sometimes by foolish.

All this led up by a perfectly natural process to the recent fiasco. Sincere himself in his hatred and horror of war, to the point of being willing to make any sacrifice in his resolve to bring about the triumph of reason over force, it never entered his mind that others who had declared a similar disposition did not share to the full his spirit of martyrdom. Hence he issued his sweeping invitation to the friends of peace to join his expedition to Europe for the purpose of ending the war instanter. Of course, every selfseeker with nothing better to do saw here a golden opportunity. Persons who wished a tour abroad without expense, including a woman with four babies who could not be anything but an impediment to any work on the battlefield, rushed forward to procure places on his peace ship. Here and there a real philanthropist manifested an interest in his plan, but found reason for dropping out before the fatal moment Every writer for the press who saw in the affair a chance to make some sensational “feature copy” applied for a berth. It was a motley gathering that filled the vessel, but Ford’s Infatuation with his humane conceit was such that he could not see what was impending, in spite of the efforts of his best friends to press the truth upon him. When he did awake, it was too late, his expedition had not only utterly failed of its purpose, but had given the cause of peace a serious backset by drawing general derision upon it. The only critics who treated him seriously were certain oldworld magnates who could not get the Amencan perspective on him.

If I read him aright, Ford will not relinquish his peace propaganda, but it will take other forms. Meanwhile, he will devote his attention to his business, now grown to the proportions of a little world in itself. For recreation he will expand the work on his big farm near Detroit, where his principal crop is tree wild birds. It is planted with tress and shrubs specially chosen with reference to the tastes of his feathered guests, for whom be has built houses and artificial nests on scientific lines, and before whom he daily spreads viands as carefully selected as those for his own table, while their drinking water in freezing weather is tempered by an electric heater. A recent census shows that twenty-four different species of birds are enjoying his hospitality so well that a group, including song sparrows, cardinals, goldfinches, and even robins, have given up their annual flitting southward and faced the rigors of a Canadian-border winter for the sake of such uncommon comforts as he prepares for them.

It has been rather the fashion to rail at Ford’s oddities, but if we take them all impartially into account and try to strike a just balance, putting into one scale his worst mistakes and infirmities, and into the other his peculiar acts which are prompted by pure kindness and do no one harm, I suspect that he will take pretty high rank, as man and citizen, among the millionaires of his generation.


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