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 [...]