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The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century

The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century [Kindle Edition]

Steven Watts

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Product Description

Product Description

How a Michigan farm boy became the richest man in America is a classic, almost mythic tale, but never before has Henry Ford’s outsized genius been brought to life so vividly as it is in this engaging and superbly researched biography.

The real Henry Ford was a tangle of contradictions. He set off the consumer revolution by producing a car affordable to the masses, all the while lamenting the moral toll exacted by consumerism. He believed in giving his workers a living wage, though he was entirely opposed to union labor. He had a warm and loving relationship with his wife, but sired a son with another woman. A rabid anti-Semite, he nonetheless embraced African American workers in the era of Jim Crow.

Uncovering the man behind the myth, situating his achievements and their attendant controversies firmly within the context of early twentieth-century America, Watts has given us a comprehensive, illuminating, and fascinating biography of one of America’s first mass-culture celebrities.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2906 KB
  • Print Length: 654 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: B000W0NOQ0
  • Publisher: Vintage (4 Mar 2009)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001ULOPO0
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #356,435 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  45 reviews
63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The life of the mechanical, marketing, and industrial genius who changed America forever 4 Nov 2005
By Craig Matteson - Published on
While the name of Henry Ford is still synonymous with automobiles and assembly lines, he does not fill the popular culture as he did even as late as the 1970s. This excellent book is not only a biography of the man, it discusses the cultural icon and how it was made and remade. We see a mechanical genius who "read machines as other men read books" and watch his fabulous success with the Model-T and the Highland Park plant.

Steven Watts has organized this book so that it flows more or less chronologically in the broad sweep, but each chapter is really a different topic that exemplifies a certain stage in Henry Ford's life. Within each chapter, the author feels free to swing into the past and recapitulate events that he has discussed previously but now fleshes out or to take us into the future to see how a certain aspect of his life played out in Ford's later life.

One of the important reasons to read these kinds of histories is that without them our past becomes flattened and we lose the sense of what happened when and why. We tend to remember a couple of events that we think are important because we remember them, but we have no context and often jumble their actual historical context and meaning. For example, the famous $5 a day is easy to misunderstand unless you also add in Ford's starting an organization that worked with his workers and their families (or intruded on them, depending on your position) to make sure they were using all that money properly. Also, not every worker was eligible for that wage. Single women without dependents could not sign up for that program.

Ford also was a master of publicity. He kept himself in the limelight, partly as a way of not having to pay for advertising. However, he also was jealous of anyone in his company who got attention in the press. More than a few found their careers ended when Ford felt they were stepping into his limelight.

One of the areas where Ford hurt himself was in the kind of bullying yes men he hired to run his company for him. And for all his talk of progressive values and consumerism, he still treated his workers as cogs in the machine, to be used and disposed of as needed. He felt that their pay was sufficient to warrant his freedom to do with his company as he wished without further regard to how it affected the lives of the tens of thousands who depended on his company for their living. After all, it was Henry's company, and he simply hired them to do a job. If they couldn't do the job because they were sick or old or if he had to retool or anything else, they were out the door and left to their own devices. During the depression, they drove the men even harder to produce. Even talking on the job was grounds for dismissal. If you had time to talk, you weren't working hard enough or paying enough attention to your task.

Another problem we have with historical figures is that we tend to assign one judgment to an entire life. All of us have many aspects to our life, the difference was the scale of Henry Ford's life. There is the boy who had no use for school, but loved tinkering with machines and engines. Then there is the skilled and valuable employee who came to the attention of Thomas Edision; Ford's idol. You then have to look at the various car companies he started with investors, much to their consternation. Ford never took orders or took other's desires or wishes into much consideration (except for his wife, Clara). When he was a huge success with the Model-T some of the investors wanted dividends paid out rather than letting the company horde the cash. The Dodge brothers actually sued him, and won. It wasn't long until Ford bought all of them out, secretly of course.

It is unfathomable today that one man would own something as large as the Ford Motor Company was back then and build something as gargantuan as the River Rouge plant. When that plant was built it marked a turning point in Ford's life, and not all for the better. He had always had a strained relationship with his son, Edsel. Even when Henry put Edsel in charge of the company, it was Henry who retained all the power. He kept complaining that Edsel was too soft. Later in life, he said he was trying to get Edsel to get mad. However, it is unfair to ask a son to fight his father. And how can anyone fight a Henry Ford. One time, the Rouge Plant needed more steel making capacity and Edsel authorized the building of new furnaces. Rather than immediately countermanding the authorization, as he had so many of Edsel's decisions, he purposefully waited until they were built and running to give the order to tear them down.

Yet, when Edsel became ill and died in 1943 at the age of 49, it was a crushing blow for Henry. His relationship with his son was one of the great failures in his life.

There is so much to talk about in discussing this very complex colossus. There is the building of Greenfield Village, his dabbling in farming and his views of putting industrial plants in rural areas so men could make money in the factories during the winter, but farm during the summer. His views on education, his revival of old fashioned ballroom dancing that became a national craze, his fighting the unions until his wife Clara told him she would leave him if he didn't agree to the settlement, and so much more.

However, I do wish the author hadn't resorted to calling so many of Ford's attitudes and values Victorian and letting that pass for an explanation. It is really a quite meaningless label. Everyone thinks they know what it means, but few will agree on much except sexual repression, and that is really a mischaracterization as well. And someone as American as Henry Ford a Victorian? No, there is a lot more to the origins of those values than that easy bumper sticker of a term.

Also, there is never a discussion of the tycoon's wealth in detail. If you are going to use the term tycoon in the title, you really should devote a couple of pages describing how large the fortune became and what happened to it rather than simply describing the accumulation and charity as parts of other anecdotes, but hese are just quibbles. This is a very good book and I hope everyone reads it. There is no better single example than Henry Ford to understand how America moved from a nation of farmers to an industrial giant.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Transformation Of America And The Fall Of Henry Ford 2 Sep 2005
By C. Hutton - Published on
Mr. Watts has written a superb account of the genius of Henry Ford in his creation, building, and marketing of the Model T automobile. He singlehandedly created the car industry, it numerous suppliers and spin-off beneficiaries (new roads, diners, motels, et al). He paid his workers a credible salary so that they could afford his car but crushed labor unions who challenged his total control.

Unfortunately, this was his zenith of creativity. As he aged, he refused to change with the passage of time and stayed stuck with his outdated concepts. He remained a control freak for the rest of his life which stunted the growth of his children and of the Ford Motor Company. His anti-Semitism colored his isolationist views and led to his endorsement of the "America First" movement for neutrality during World War II.

Mr Watts tells his sad tale with the right mixture of admiration for his professional contributions and disdain for his personal failings. He places Henry Ford within the culture of his times and how he altered Americvan society. For the reader desiring further information, Robert Lacy's "Ford: The Men and The Machine" (1986) portrays the story of the Ford family until the mid-1980's.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A VERY WELL BALANCED FORD BIOGRAPHY 12 Sep 2005
By D. Blankenship - Published on
Of the countless Ford Biographies out here, this is perhaps one of the more balanced. The author has done his research and has presented his material in a manner which is not only quite readable, but quite informative. I do like the way Prof. Watts has given us numerous examples of his sources, i.e. different publications, speeches, news paper articles, etc. The author has given us both the good and the bad of Henry Ford, and we find that the subject of the book, Henry Ford, is much like all of us...both good and bad. I did enjoy and appreciate the fact that the author does not seem to have a particular social or political ax to grind, but rather gives us the facts and gives credit to the reader's ability to make up his or her own mind. This is refreshing. Far enough time has passed so that now historians can make some judements and obervations as to the overall impact and ramifications of the actions taken during the Ford years, by both Ford and his contemporaries, have upon our society today. Not until recently have historians been able to do this. Mr. Watts has done a wonderful job of this. Recommend this one highly. Thank you Prof. Watts for some obvious hard work.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A multifaceted look at an American icon 17 Aug 2005
By Bookreporter - Published on
The name of Henry Ford surely stands high on anyone's list of the most influential Americans who have ever lived. He never held public office --- on the one occasion when he tried, he was defeated --- he hated public speaking and all his voluminous writings were ghostwritten by aides. Yet almost 60 years after his death in 1947, Ford's name is still instantly recognizable to just about everyone. He was the man who put America on four wheels, and America has stayed on those wheels ever since.

Much of the vast literature about Ford has a partisan slant, either glorifying or condemning him. Steven Watts, a history professor at the University of Missouri, has tried in this book to find a middle ground. His verdict acknowledges Ford's genius at industrial organization and celebrates the populist rural idealism that motivated him, but faults him for inability to change with the times, unwillingness to let others make decisions, and general anti-intellectual stubbornness. Ford's brilliant ideas and his childish follies thread through the book like Wagnerian leitmotifs, reflecting on and influencing each other.

Watts's subtitle is important. At every stage of Ford's career Watts tries to relate him to the wider currents of American experience, showing how in his early years he understood what sort of country he was inhabiting and capitalized on that knowledge -- but then foolishly refused to change his ways as the social and political ground shifted, allowing his great company to slide into a long decline.

This sociological slant gives THE PEOPLE'S TYCOON considerable depth, but it also makes the book a bit ponderous and slow-moving. Watts has mined the vast Ford archives in Dearborn, Michigan, deeply --- too deeply, in fact. When Ford does or says something that elicits press reaction, Watts is not content to cite one or two comments; he gives us five or six, all saying roughly the same thing in different words. We hear from newspapers in places like Keokuk, Iowa, and South Haven, Michigan.

Watts gives Ford credit for treating his workers well early on --- but then details his relentless campaign against unionization in the later years. Ford's invention of the famous Model T, a lightweight and low-priced car for the average American, is duly praised, but Watts then shows how Ford stubbornly clung to it long after the need for a newer, sportier model was obvious.

One of this book's strongest points lies in its portrait gallery of the people around Henry Ford --- those who dealt with labor relations, wrote his speeches, kept his plants running efficiently, handled business details with which he was impatient. They are a colorful crew --- some brilliant, some unsavory. If you do not know the names of Alexander Malcolmson, James Couzens, Samuel Marquis, Charles Sorenson, William Cameron or Harry Bennett, you will know them well after reading this book. They did a lot of important things for Ford --- but it was always Ford himself who had the final say. Watts shows in detail how Ford insisted on total control, even over things he knew little or nothing about, and how he exploited the techniques of publicity-seeking in support of his ideas.

The low points of Ford's career are not slighted by Watts. He gives detailed accounts of Ford's involvement in the quixotic "peace ship" venture that sought to avert World War I, explores the strong possibility that he fathered an illegitimate son, gives astonishing details of Ford's open anti-Semitism, and explores his late-life interest in things like soybean culture and folk dancing. Toward the end of Ford's life, as his mind darkened and his power waned, Watts finds a telling descriptive phrase: Henry Ford was "the King Lear of the automotive world."

Perhaps the saddest chapter in Ford's life was his cruel treatment of his son Edsel, whom he installed as a figurehead "president" and then proceeded to checkmate and undermine at every turn.

Yet the man was indisputably a genius, and Watts gives him full credit for inventions and ideas that changed the auto industry and hence the very life of the United States. His father was a farmer, but William Ford despaired of making a farmer out of his son. "Henry is more of a tinkerer," he said, speaking profound truth without knowing it.

It takes a little patience to get through the thickets of detail with which Watts has surrounded his subject in this book, but the effort is worth making. Ford was a complex and many-sided man --- one of his associates said he had "a twenty-five track mind" --- and his celebrity was such that his pronouncements on all sorts of non-automotive subjects were lapped up by an eager public (yes, he did indeed say that "history is bunk").

In Watts's view, Ford's major failing was an inability to change with changing times. This book is valuable because it gives the reader a chance to examine all the evidence and decide who the real Henry Ford was --- the industrial genius or the public bumbler.

--- Reviewed by Robert Finn [...]
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough biography of complex, confounding Henry Ford 29 Nov 2005
By Rolf Dobelli - Published on
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, but he invented something bigger - twentieth century America. It is no exaggeration to say that without Ford's system of production, without his understanding of the mass market, without his Model T, that century would have been a very different phenomenon. Ford epitomized the contradictions, complexities and confusion of that America. Self-taught and utterly confident in what he knew, he despised what he did not know. A radical who created an industrial cornucopia for workers by introducing the five-dollar daily wage, he was an industrial tyrant who hired organized criminal gangs to intimidate labor union organizers. We strongly recommend this thorough biography. Author Steven Watts offers a new way of looking at the facts, and at Ford - and does so with engaging style.
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