- Historic Sites
—a complex man
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
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.