- Historic Sites
What happened when the richest man in America decided to collect one of everything
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
That is the ever-present paradox of Ford’s historic village. It represents the American world which Ford’s revolutionary achievements destroyed. Adjacent to the village the immense museum deepens the paradox still further. Inside a one-story building fourteen acres in extent—its façade features a replica of Independence Hall—stands one of the world’s finest memorials to the Industrial Revolution. Here an astounding array of tools, engines, machines, and devices record the progressive mechanization of agriculture, the evolution of lighting, of communications, of transportation, and most important of all, the great record of modern man’s efforts to harness mechanical and electrical power. Henry Ford’s museum, in short, is a monument to all the great technical achievements that put finish to the life represented in Ford’s re-created American village. There is no resolving that contradiction and no reason to try. It is nothing less than the grand contradiction of modern American life, the San Andreas Fault in the American soul—the schism between our faith in technological progress and our profoundly gnawing suspicion that the old rural republic was a finer, braver, and freer place than the industrial America that now sustains us. If that contradiction runs through Henry Ford’s titanic reconstruction of the American past, it is because no American ever experienced the contradiction more intensely than Henry Ford himself.
Back in 1916 the great contradiction was not yet apparent to most Americans and least of all to Henry Ford. That was the year when Ford famously remarked to a Chicago Tribune reporter that the past, as such, meant nothing to him. “History is more or less bunk,” he had said. “It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” Ford’s view was eminently understandable and widely shared in America. To Ford in 1916 the great contributions of contemporary engineers and inventors were ushering in nothing less than a new industrial millennium. Ford claimed that his great friend and hero Thomas Edison “has done more toward abolishing poverty than have all the reformers and statesmen since the beginning of the world.” He could have said as much for himself. His own assembly-line revolution had turned the automobile, play-thing of the rich and the sporting, into the great emancipator of the American farmer. It had so increased the productivity of his workers that on January 1, 1914, Ford had lifted the hearts of toiling humanity everywhere by announcing that henceforth the lowliest employee at the Ford Motor Company would receive a five dollars a day minimum wage, almost twice as much as ostensibly well-paid American factory hands were getting and beyond the dreams of workers elsewhere in the industrial world. Who cared about the dead hand of the past? Few Americans did in 1916. In those days even the most hostile foes of the status quo called themselves “progressives’—the term was an honorific—and looked to the glowing future untroubled by backward glances.
Nonetheless, on May 25 the Chicago Tribune , bitterly opposed to Ford’s antiwar activities, duly published his remarks and added editorially that the man was an “ignorant idealist” and an “anarchist” to boot. Ford stuck to his opinions. “I don’t know anything about history,” he told another reporter, “and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. … I don’t want to live in the past. I want to live in the Now.” He also brought a $1,000,000 libel suit against the Tribune and thereby, as the saying goes, hangs a tale.
Had the case come to trial in 1916 it is possible that Greenfield Village might never have seen the light of day. Truth being a defense against libel, the Tribune ’s lawyers were prepared to prove that Ford in fact was an ignorant man in the common meaning of the term. Putting him on the witness stand they could show—and they did show—that the Motor King was so ignorant of American history that he could not even identify Benedict Arnold. Indeed he could not answer any number of absurdly simple history quiz questions. What of it? Ford was no shrinking violet; he loved the limelight, no ham actor loved it more. And he gloried in upsetting conventional opinion. All the Tribune lawyers could prove was that a man proudly ignorant of textbook history knew nothing of textbook history.
The trial, however, did not take place in 1916. It was held in July, 1919, at the end of a war which proved to be the most wrenching experience Americans had undergone since rebels had fired on Fort Sumter. Ford came away from the trial (after being awarded six cents in damages) rudely shaken and deeply humiliated. “The grilling,” a Ford biographer noted, “had burned into his soul. …” It was not the exposure of his ignorance of books that had shamed the Motor King, a man supremely self-confident in every circumstance of his life. Quite simply he no longer despised the past, no longer thought it all worthless “tradition.” There was a past that mattered, of this Ford was now sure, but he could not say what it was. Therein lay the humiliation.