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