- Historic Sites
Power Is The Prize
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
No informed man could doubt that Henry Ford’s resignation closed perhaps the most impressive and certainly the most spectacular career in American industrial history. Nor could anyone doubt that his world-wide fame had been built on solid and enduring foundations. He had established the Ford Motor Company in 1903 as a daring venture in which few men cared to risk their capital. After years of grueling struggle, making one successful car after another, his mechanical genius had produced the Model T, which precisely filled a ravenous national want. The insatiable demand for his automobile enabled him to erect at Highland Park one of the most shining, well-planned, and efficient factories on the globe. It enabled him and his associates to evolve there the magic instrument of industrial fecundity termed mass production. From the early profits of the Model T and mass production bloomed the five-dollar day, which the London Economist has called the greatest single step in the history of wages.
The five-dollar day embodied a simple but inspired formula for the renovation of the economic and social life of industrialized nations. Mass production meant an opulence of manufactured goods; steady price reduction on these goods meant enlarged consumption, profits, and wage-paying capacity; and higher wages meant increased buying power to maintain the cycle. Once its efficacy was demonstrated, the formula seemed as obvious as Columbus’ method of making the egg stand on end—and yet, until it was tested, it appeared so unworkable that most manufacturers thought it grotesque. Ultimately it became the drive wheel of the affluent society. People might say that the Model T was a happy mechanical accident, that mass production was the creation of many ideas and talents working in unison, and that the five-dollar day was a sudden impulsive decision; but genius went into each of these achievements, and the genius was Henry Ford’s.
The Henry Ford who became not only world famous but a world force before 1915, was on the whole an attractive figure. Complex, wayward, mercurial, with a streak of meanness engendered by his hard early life, and prejudices that arose from ignorance, he could in spite of his glaring faults be called an idealist. His interest in schools and educational institutes, which he endowed in England, the South, and Michigan; his zeal in developing his industrial museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn; his efforts to promote better agriculture and wholesome habits in recreation; his labors to demonstrate the social value of “village industries”—these showed facets of a true idealism. The Ford who loved old machines, old folk songs, old schoolbooks, and old dances, who built winter shelters for rabbits and grew corn for crows, who detested snobbery and class lines, and who was contemptuous of money, was a thoroughly likable man. It is not strange that Americans devoured books on him and that Russian moujiks and Turkish mechanics wove wistful dreams about his legendary name.
But the years hardened him; his worse side wrestled more frequently with the better, until, after paralytic strokes lamed his mind, it seemed to master him. But responsibility for the change rested partly with his environment, with scheming and malicious men, and with changing times. Because rural Michigan of the 1870’s had denied him a proper education, his ignorance laid him open to the lamentable suspicions of his anti-Semitic campaigns. Meanwhile, the milk of his idealism had been curdled by cynical or spiteful attacks. Many American journals, he once burst out, were outrageously unfair: “They misquoted me, distorted what I said, made up lies.”
After the stroke of 1938 the old idealism showed itself only in rare flashes; the old kindliness and philanthropy, in few words and fewer deeds. His hostility to labor, his surrender of plant control to hard-fisted men, his comradeship with Bennett, the countenance he gave to violence and injustice, and, above all, his tragic persecution of his own son, placed him in a melancholy light. The growing senility of his last years was so carefully concealed that people failed to make due allowance for it. But as he now moved off the stage, tolerant observers knew that his career would have to be viewed as a whole and that in judging his darkened later years, the luminous creative decades could not be forgotten. In perspective, those decades counted by far the most, and would be remembered when much that followed was forgotten.