Henry Ford

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Henry Ford and his Model T

Henry Ford (July 30, 1863 –April 7, 1947) was the founder of the Ford Motor Company and of modern mass production and assembly line techniques. His introduction in 1908 of the Model T Ford automobile revolutionized transportation and, indeed, American industry. As sole owner of the Ford Company he became one of the three or four richest and best-known people in the world. He is credited with "Fordism," that is, the mass production of large numbers of inexpensive automobiles, coupled with high wages for his workers—notably the $5.00 a day pay scale adopted in 1914. Fordism promoted the consumer culture based on high income workers who could afford to buy cars at a time when only the rich in Europe owned an automobile.

Ford, though poorly educated, had a global vision, with consumerism as the key to peace. His intense commitment to lowering costs resulted in many technical and business innovations, including a franchise system that put a dealership in every city in North America, and in major cities on six continents. Ford left most of his vast wealth to the Ford Foundation, which was taken over by his liberal son and has been devoted to leftist causes ever since, even though Henry Ford would have strongly opposed that. Henry Ford arranged for his family to permanently control the Ford company after his death.

He was a hero to conservatives for his entrepreneurship and positive impact on society; he opposed the New Deal but was tarnished by his writing criticisms of Jews in the 1920s.

Early years

Ford was born on a farm near Detroit, Michigan. His father William Ford (1826-1905) was a Protestant born in County Cork, Ireland. His mother Mary Litogot Ford (1839-1876) was born in Michigan, she was the youngest child of Belgian immigrants, her parents died when Mary was a child and she was adopted by neighbors. Henry was a poor student and never learned to read or write well; he early on showed a passion for mechanisms. At fifteen, he had a reputation as a watch repairman, having dismantled and reassembled timepieces of friends and neighbors dozens of times.[1]

When Henry was 13, his mother died, a harsh psychological blow. His father expected Henry to eventually take over the family farm, but Henry despised farm work. With his mother gone, little remained to keep him on the farm. In 1879, he went to nearby Detroit to work as an apprentice machinist. In 1882, he returned to Dearborn to work on the family farm and became adept at operating the Westinghouse portable steam engine; Westinghouse hired him to service their steam engines.

Upon his marriage to Clara Ala Bryant in 1888, Ford supported himself by farming and running a sawmill. They had a single child: Edsel Ford (1893-1943).

In 1891, Ford became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company, and after his promotion to Chief Engineer in 1893, he had enough time and money to devote attention to his personal experiments on gasoline engines. In 1896 he built a self-propelled vehicle named the Quadricycle, and continuously worked to improve it.[2] At this time Ford gained national fame as a racing car driver, leading to connections with investors who wanted to set him up in business.

Ford considered Thomas Edison his mentor; the two would later become friends, even purchasing neighboring houses in Fort Myers, Florida as winter retreats (the houses are now owned by the city as a tourist attraction).[3]

Ford Motor Company

In 1903 Ford, with 11 other investors and $28,000 in capital, incorporated the Ford Motor Company. In a newly designed car, Ford drove an exhibition in which the racer covered the distance of a mile on the ice of Lake St. Clair in 39.4 seconds (91.3 MPH), which was a new land speed record. Race driver Barney Oldfield exhibited the car around the country, publicizing the Ford brand.

$5 dollar wage

Ford astonished the world in 1914 by offering a $5 a day wage that more than doubled the rate of most of his workers. The move proved extremely profitable. Instead of constant turnover of employees, the best mechanics in Detroit flocked to Ford, bringing in their human capital and expertise, raising productivity, and lowering training costs. Ford called it "wage motive." The company's use of vertical integration also proved successful, as Ford built a gigantic factory that shipped in raw materials and shipped out finished automobiles.

The Model T

The Model T was introduced on October 1, 1908. It had many important innovations—such as the steering wheel on the left, which every other company soon copied. The entire engine and transmission were enclosed; the 4 cylinders were cast in a solid block; the suspension used two semi-elliptic springs. It had 20 horsepower and high wheels, so it could handle the muddy unpaved roads that typified the countryside. It could cruise at 45 miles per hour, getting about 10 miles per gallon of gasoline. There were two forward gears and one reverse gear. A hand crank was used to start it. The car was very simple to drive, and—more important—easy and cheap to repair. It was so cheap at $825 in 1908 (the price fell every year) that by the 1920s a majority of American drivers learned to drive on the Model T, leaving fond memories for millions. Ford created a massive publicity machine in Detroit to ensure every newspaper carried stories and ads about the new product. Ford's network of local dealers made the car ubiquitous in virtually every city in North America. As independent dealers the franchises grew rich and publicized not just the Ford but the very concept of automobiling; local motor clubs sprang up to help new drivers and to explore the countryside. Ford was always eager to sell to farmers, who looked on the vehicle as a commercial device to help their business. Sales skyrocketed—several years posted 100 gains on the previous year. Always on the hunt for more efficiency and lower costs, in 1913 Ford introduced the moving assembly belts into his plants, which enabled an enormous increase in production. Sales passed 250,000 in 1914. By 1916, as the price dropped to $360 for the basic touring car, sales reached 472,000.[4]

By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model T's. As Ford wrote in his autobiography, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black".[5] Model T's rolled off the assembly line until 1927; the total production run was 15,007,034 cars.

In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson personally asked Ford to run for the Senate from Michigan as a Democrat. Although the nation was at war Ford ran as a peace candidate and a strong supporter of the proposed League of Nations.[6] In December 1918 Ford turned the presidency of Ford Motor Company over to his son Edsel Ford. Henry, however, retained final decision authority and sometimes reversed Edsel. The two purchased all remaining stock from other investors, thus giving the family sole ownership of the company.

By the mid-1920s, sales of the Model T began to decline due to rising competition. Other auto makers, especially General Motors, offered payment plans through which consumers could buy their cars; they offered a full range of vehicles from the cheapest to the most elaborate, instead of the one-size-fits-all Model T. Consumers eagerly paid more for more modern mechanical features and styling. Despite urgings from Edsel, Henry steadfastly refused to incorporate new features into the Model T or to form a customer credit plan.

The "Model A" and Ford's Later Career

By 1926, flagging sales of the Model T and the roaring success of General Motors finally convinced Ford he needed to introduce a new model car. Edsel insisted on the inclusion of a sliding-shift transmission. The result was the successful Ford Model A, introduced in December, 1927 and produced through 1931, with a total output of over four million cars. The company then adopted an annual model change system similar to that in use by automakers today. Not until the 1930s did Ford overcome his objection to finance companies, and allowed the Ford-owned Universal Credit Company became a major car financing operation.

Death of Edsel Ford

In May 1943, Edsel Ford died, leaving the presidency vacant. Ford put his long-time associate Harry Bennett in charge. Edsel's widow Eleanor, who had inherited Edsel's voting stock, wanted her son Henry Ford II to take over the position. The issue was settled for a period when Henry himself, at age 79, took over the presidency personally. Henry Ford II was released from the Navy and became an executive vice president, while Bennett had a seat on the board and was responsible for personnel, labor relations, and public relations.

Ford's labor philosophy

Henry Ford was a pioneer of "welfare capitalism" designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men a year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. On January 5, 1914, Ford announced his five-dollar a day program. The revolutionary program called for a reduction in length of the workday from 9 to 8 hours, a 5-day work week, and a raise in minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers.[7]

Ford had been criticized by Wall Street for starting the 40 hour work week and a minimum wage. He proved, however, that paying people more would enable Ford workers to afford the cars they were producing, and therefore be good for the economy. Ford labeled the increased compensation as profit-sharing rather than wages. The wage was offered to men over age 22, who had worked at the company for 6 months or more, and, importantly, conducted their lives in a manner of which Ford's "Sociological Department" approved. They frowned on heavy drinking and gambling. The Sociological Department used 150 investigators and support staff to maintain employee standards; a large percentage of workers were able to qualify for the profit-sharing.

Ford was adamantly against labor unions in his plants. To forestall union activity, he promoted Harry Bennett, a former Navy boxer, to be the head of the Service Department. Bennett employed various intimidation tactics to squash union organizing. The most famous incident, in 1937, was a bloody brawl between company security men and organizers that became known as "The Battle of the Overpass."

Ford was the last Detroit automaker to recognize the United Auto Workers union (UAW). A sit-down strike by the UAW union in April 1941 closed the River Rouge Plant. Under pressure from Edsel, Henry Ford finally agreed to collective bargaining at Ford plants, and the first contract with the UAW was signed in June 1941.

Ford Airplane Company

Ford, like other automobile companies, entered the aviation business during World War I, building Liberty engines. After the war, it returned to auto manufacturing until 1925, when Henry Ford acquired the Stout Metal Airplane Company.

Ford's most successful aircraft was the Ford 4AT Trimotor—called the “Tin Goose” because of its corrugated metal construction. It used a new alloy called Alclad that combined the corrosion resistance of aluminum with the strength of duralumin. The Trimotor first flew on June 11, 1926, and was the first successful U.S. passenger airliner, accommodating about 12 passengers in a rather uncomfortable fashion. Several variants were also used by the U.S. Army. About 200 Trimotors were built before it was discontinued in 1933, when the Ford Airplane Division shut down because of poor sales due to the Depression.

Peace Ship

In 1915, Jewish pacifist Rosika Schwimmer worked with Ford, who funded a peace ship to Europe, where World War I was raging, for himself and about 170 other prominent peace leaders. He talked to President Woodrow Wilson about the trip but had no government support. His group went to neutral Sweden and the Netherlands to meet with peace activists there. Ford, the target of much ridicule, left the ship as soon as it reached Sweden.

Dearborn Independent and Anti-Semitism

In 1918, Ford's closest aide and private secretary, Ernest G. Liebold, purchased an obscure weekly newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. In 1920, from May 22 to October 2, it ran numerous antisemitic articles under Ford's name. Ford never wrote any of them, but he knew the contents.[8] The Independent ran for eight years, from 1920 until 1927, during which Liebold was editor. The newspaper published "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" which was discredited as a forgery during the Independent's publishing run by The Times of London.[9]

Denounced by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the articles nevertheless explicitly condemned pogroms and violence against Jews (Volume 4, Chapter 80), preferring to blame incidents of mass violence on the Jews themselves. Friends and business associates said they warned Ford about the contents of the Independent, and that Ford probably never read them.[10] However, court testimony in a libel suit, brought by one of the targets of the newspaper, stated that Ford did indeed know about the contents of the Independent in advance of publication.[11]

A libel lawsuit brought by Jewish farm cooperative organizer Aaron Sapiro in response to anti-Semitic remarks led to a highly publicized trial; Ford closed the Independent in December 1927 and apologized for attacking the Jewish people. At the trial, William Cameron, the editor of Ford's "Own Page", a regular feature of the magazine, testified that Ford never wrote or dictated the editorials, even though they were under his byline. Cameron testified that he never discussed the content of the pages or sent them to Ford for his approval.[12] Everyone agreed, however, that Ford had a general knowledge of the anti-semitic thrust and funded their publication.

The ADL mobilized prominent Jews and non-Jews to publicly oppose Ford's message. They formed a coalition of Jewish groups for the same purpose, and raised constant objections in the Detroit press. Before leaving his presidency early in 1921, Woodrow Wilson joined other leading Americans in a statement that rebuked Ford. A boycott against Ford products by Jews had an impact, and Ford shut down the magazine in 1927, recanting his views in a public letter to the ADL.[13]

Distribution of International Jew was halted by Ford.

Ford's reputation was seriously damaged by his episode of anti-Semitism, even though he recanted in 1927 and never repeated it. He was indeed responsible for the publication, in the U.S. of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and several other pamphlets aimed against Jewish influence. He paid for the publication of an anti-Semitic book The International Jew, a work endorsed by Hitler. Hitler loved automobiles and like many Europeans idealized Ford for bringing autos to the people, which Hitler tried (and failed) to emulate through the Volkswagen.[14]

Ford's international business

Ford's philosophy was one of economic independence for the United States. His River Rouge Plant was the world's largest industrial complex, even able to produce its own steel. Ford's goal was to produce a vehicle from scratch without reliance on foreign trade, or New York bankers. He believed in the global expansion of his company. He believed that international trade and cooperation led to international peace, and used the assembly line process and production of the Model T to demonstrate it[15] He opened Ford assembly plants in Britain and Canada in 1911, and soon became the biggest automotive producer in those countries. In 1912, Ford cooperated with Agnelli of Fiat to launch the first Italian automotive assembly plants. The first plants in Germany were built in the 1920s with the encouragement of Herbert Hoover and the Commerce department, which agreed with Ford's theory that international trade was essential to world peace.[16] In the 1920s Ford also opened plants in Australia, India, and France, and by 1929, he had successful dealerships on six continents.

Ford experimented with a commercial rubber plantation in the Amazon jungle called "Fordlândia"; it was one of the few failures. In 1929, Ford accepted Stalin's invitation to build a model plant (NNAZ, today GAZ) at Gorky, a city later renamed Nizhny Novgorod, and he sent American engineers and technicians to help set it up, including Walter Reuther, who later headed the auto workers union, the UAW. The Ford Motor Company was eager to conduct business in any nation where the United States had peaceful diplomatic relations:

By 1932, Ford was manufacturing one third of all the world’s automobiles.

Ford's image in Europe

Ford's image transfixed Europeans, especially the Germans, arousing the "fear of some, the infatuation of others, and the fascination among all".[17] Germans who discussed "Fordism" often believed that it represented something quintessentially American. They saw the size, tempo, standardization, and philosophy of production demonstrated at the Ford factory as a national service - an "American thing" that represented the culture of United States. Both supporters and critics insisted that Fordism epitomized American capitalist development, and that the auto industry was the key to understanding economic and social relations in the United States. As one German explained, "Automobiles have so completely changed the American's mode of life that today one can hardly imagine being without a car. It is difficult to remember what life was like before Mr. Ford began preaching his doctrine of salvation"[18] For many Germans, Henry Ford himself embodied the essence of successful Americanism.


Ford suffered an initial heart attack in 1938, after which he turned over the running of his company to Edsel. Edsel's 1943 death brought Henry Ford out of retirement. In ill health and failing memory, he ceded the presidency to his grandson Henry Ford II in September 1945. He died in 1947 at the age of 83 and is buried in the Ford Cemetery in Detroit.


Contrary to what is popularly believed, Ford did not invent the automobile (that was done by German Karl Benz) nor did Ford invent the assembly line (that was done by Ransom E. Olds).

What Ford did was perfect the concept of mass production (the standard in virtually every manufacturing plant worldwide) through the Model T automobile, which revolutionized the American economy and made cars affordable to the common person for the first time ever.

He also paid his workers very well, which, in the long run, paid off as he was creating his own consumers. That too was a new idea.

Ford claimed 161 U.S. patents to his credit.


Ford hired a team of ghostwriters who wrote endless stories, anecdotes and jokes that were distributed in magazines and pamphlets given away by Ford dealers.

  • “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success,” said Ford. “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”
Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right.
  • None of our men are "experts." We have most unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert — because no one ever considers himself expert if he really knows his job. A man who knows a job sees so much more to be done than he has done, that he is always pressing forward and never gives up an instant of thought to how good and how efficient he is. Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind in which nothing is impossible. The moment one gets into the "expert" state of mind a great number of things become impossible.
I refuse to recognize that there are impossibilities. I cannot discover that anyone knows enough about anything on this earth definitely to say what is and what is not possible. The right kind of experience, the right kind of technical training, ought to enlarge the mind and reduce the number of impossibilities. It unfortunately does nothing of the kind. Most technical training and the average of that which we call experience, provide a record of previous failures and, instead of these failures being taken for what they are worth, they are taken as absolute bars to progress. If some man, calling himself an authority, says that this or that cannot be done, then a horde of unthinking followers start the chorus: "It can't be done." [19]




  • Bak, Richard. Henry and Edsel: The Creation of the Ford Empire (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Brinkley, Douglas G. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Halberstam, David. "Citizen Ford" American Heritage 1986 37(6): 49-64. interpretive essay
  • Jardim, Anne. The First Henry Ford: A Study in Personality and Business Leadership (1970).
  • Lacey, Robert. Ford: The Men and the Machine (1986). popular biography
  • Lewis, David I. The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company (1976), much broader than title suggests
  • Nevins, Allan and Frank Ernest Hill. Ford: The Times, The Man, The Company (vol 1, 1954); Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933 (1957); Ford: Decline and Rebirth, 1933-1962 (1962), the standard history of the company and biography of Ford; ACLS E-book vol 1; ACLS E-book vol 2; ACLS E-book for vol 3 the major scholarly history
  • Nye, David E. Henry Ford: "Ignorant Idealist." 1979.
  • Watts, Steven. The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (2005), major biography

Specialized studies

  • Batchelor, Ray. Henry Ford: Mass Production, Modernism and Design (1994).
  • Bonin, Huber et al. Ford, 1902-2003: The European History 2 vol Paris 2003. ISBN 2-914369-06-9 scholarly essays in English; reviewed in Len Holden, "Fording the Atlantic: Ford and Fordism in Europe" in Business History Volume 47, #1 Jan 2005 pp 122–127
  • Brinkley, Douglas. "Prime Mover". American Heritage 2003 54(3): 44-53. on Model T
  • Bryan, Ford R. Henry's Lieutenants, 1993; ISBN 0-8143-2428-2
  • Bryan, Ford R. Beyond the Model T: The Other Ventures of Henry Ford (1990).
  • Dempsey, Mary A. "Fordlandia," Michigan History 1994 78(4): 24-33. Ford's rubber plantation in Brazil
  • Jacobson, D. S. "The Political Economy of Industrial Location: the Ford Motor Company at Cork 1912-26." Irish Economic and Social History 1977 4: 36-55. Ford and Irish politics
  • Kraft, Barbara S. The Peace Ship: Henry Ford's Pacifist Adventure in the First World War (1978)
  • Lewis, David L. "Ford and Kahn" Michigan History 1980 64(5): 17-28. Ford commissioned architect Albert Kahn to design factories
  • Lewis, David L. "Henry Ford and His Magic Beanstalk" . Michigan History 1995 79(3): 10-17. Ford's interest in soybeans and plastics
  • Lewis, David L. "Working Side by Side" Michigan History 1993 77(1): 24-30. Why Ford hired large numbers of black workers
  • McIntyre, Stephen L. "The Failure of Fordism: Reform of the Automobile Repair Industry, 1913-1940: Technology and Culture 2000 41(2): 269-299. repair shops rejected flat rates
  • Meyer, Stephen. The Five Dollar Day: Labor Management and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908-1921 (1981) online edition from Questia
  • Nolan, Mary. Visions of Modernity: American Business and the Modernization of Germany (1994); online from Questia' also excerpt and text search
  • Raff, Daniel M. G. and Lawrence H. Summers. "Did Henry Ford Pay Efficiency Wages?" Journal of Labor Economics (October 1987) 5#4 pp S57-S86 in JSTOR
  • Pietrykowski, Bruce. "Fordism at Ford: Spatial Decentralization and Labor Segmentation at the Ford Motor Company, 1920-1950" Economic Geography 1995 71(4): 383-401.
  • Roediger, David, ed "Americanism and Fordism - American Style: Kate Richards O'hare's 'Has Henry Ford Made Good?'" Labor History 1988 29(2): 241-252. Socialist praise for Ford in 1916
  • Segal, Howard P. "'Little Plants in the Country': Henry Ford's Village Industries and the Beginning of Decentralized Technology in Modern America" Prospects 1988 13: 181-223. Ford created 19 rural workplaces as pastoral retreats
  • Tedlow, Richard S. "The Struggle for Dominance in the Automobile Market: the Early Years of Ford and General Motors" Business and Economic History 1988 17: 49-62. Ford stressed low price based on efficient factories but GM did better in oligopolistic competition by including investment in manufacturing, marketing, and management.
  • Thomas, Robert Paul. "The Automobile Industry and its Tycoon" Explorations in Entrepreneurial History 1969 6(2): 139-157. argues Ford did NOT have much influence on US industry,
  • Valdés, Dennis Nodin. "Perspiring Capitalists: Latinos and the Henry Ford Service School, 1918-1928" Aztlán 1981 12(2): 227-239. Ford brought hundreds of Mexicans in for training as managers
  • Wilkins, Mira and Frank Ernest Hill, American Business Abroad: Ford on Six Continents (1964)
  • Williams, Karel, Colin Haslam and John Williams, "Ford versus `Fordism': The Beginning of Mass Production?" Work, Employment & Society, Vol. 6, No. 4, 517-555 (1992), stress on Ford's flexibility and commitment to continuous improvements


  • Baldwin, Neil; Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate(2000) online edition
  • Foust, James C. "Mass-produced Reform: Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent" American Journalism 1997 14(3-4): 411-424.
  • Kandel, Alan D. "Ford and Israel" Michigan Jewish History 1999 39: 13-17. covers business and philanthropy
  • Lee, Albert; Henry Ford and the Jews (1980)
  • Lewis, David L. "Henry Ford's Anti-semitism and its Repercussions" Michigan Jewish History 1984 24(1): 3-10.
  • Ribuffo, Leo P. "Henry Ford and the International Jew" American Jewish History 1980 69(4): 437-477. by conservative historian full text online
  • Sapiro, Aaron L. "A Retrospective View of the Aaron Sapiro-Henry Ford Case" Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly 1982 15(1): 79-84.
  • Woeste, Victoria Saker. "Insecure Equality: Louis Marshall, Henry Ford, and the Problem of Defamatory Antisemitism, 1920-1929" Journal of American History 2004 91(3): 877-905. in History Cooperative

Primary sources

  • Ford, Henry and Samuel Crowther. My Life and Work, 1922
  • Ford, Henry and Crowther, Samuel; Today and Tomorrow, 1926
  • Ford, Henry and Crowther, Samuel; Moving Forward, 1930
  • Bennett, Harry, as told to Paul Marcus. Ford: We Never Called Him Henry, 1951
  • Sorensen, Charles E., with Samuel T. Williamson. My Forty Years with Ford, 1956; ISBN 0-915299-36-4

External links


  1. Ford, My Life and Work, 22-24; Nevins and Hill, Ford TMC, 58.
  2. See
  3. https://www.edisonfordwinterestates.org/about/historical-people-places/
  4. Lewis 1976, pp 41-59
  5. See Ford, My Life and Work, Chapter IV
  6. Watts, pp 243-48
  7. Samuel Crowther HENRY FORD: Why I Favor Five Days' Work With Six Days' Pay World's Work, October 1926 pp. 613-616
  8. [1]
  9. Baldwin (2000)
  10. Watts pp x, 376-387; Lewis (1976) pp 135-59.
  11. Baldwin (2000)
  12. Lewis, (1976) pp. 140-156; Baldwin p 220-221.
  13. Baldwin (2000)
  14. Ford was honored by the Nazi government for his automobiles, as was General Motors.
  15. Watts 236-40
  16. Wilkins and Hill (1964)
  17. Nolan p 31
  18. Nolan, p 31
  19. McClure's Magazine, Volume 54, My Life and Work, Chapter VI