Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 87

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 87


This is the grave of Henry Ford.

Born in 1863 in Greenfield Township, Michigan, Henry Ford is one of the strangest and most conflicted characters in American history. With the exception of Thomas Edison, probably no single individual did more to bring the United States into the modern age. And yet, unlike Edison who completely embraced the new world, Ford hated almost everything about it except for the money he made. This turned him into a bitter old racist, romanticizing his rural youth and trying schemes to combine modern production with 19th century values, not only in the United States, but in Brazil.

Ford became a tinkerer at a young age, got a job working in the Edison machine, and rose quickly to Chief Engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company in 1893. By this time, Ford was working with the new machines that were becoming automobiles. Encouraged by Edison himself, Ford resigned from the company in 1899 to start his automobile company. The first one didn’t work and was dissolved; his second company, although initially named after himself, became Cadillac after he left. The modern Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903. Ford’s ideal of a mass-produced inexpensive car came to fruition in 1908 with the introduction of the Model T. He undercut the entire auto market with this car, lowering the price every year. It became the car of the American working class and the car of the American farmer. Other autos had to fight for the high-end market where fashion and style mattered, a market Ford left open because he did not care about those things. Ford did not create the assembly line, but he did effectively introduce it into his plants, turning skilled labor into mind-numbing industrial labor.

In order to make this work, Ford introduced his legendary $5 day in 1914. He gets far too much credit for being a progressive employer today for this. Yes, he vastly raised the wages for poor workers. And for him, this made a lot of sense, as the brutal labor led Ford to have a 370 percent turnover rate in 1913. But he also took more than his share of their blood for that. They had to submit to his whims completely. Their home lives would be under constant investigation from his Sociological Department and only if they passed his personal moral standards would they receive that $5. Workers could not drink and certainly could not be Jewish. Given the number of eastern and southern European immigrants in these factories, the idea of banishing drinking was outrageous. And what it led to was a lot of bribery of Ford’s Sociological Department agents. There would also be no personal satisfaction in the job. He killed the already dying 19th century standards of skilled labor. Moreover, Ford was obsessed with the idea of the $5 day so as time went on, he refused to raise the wage over that $5. It meant less and less over time.

Ford’s obsessions meant he lost his market by the mid-1920s. Plummeting Model T sales combined with growing sales of inexpensive vehicles from the other automakers to force him to introduce the Model A in 1926. It probably saved the company but Ford would remain a laggard in introducing new models or adjusting to the consumer capitalism that Ford himself played such a large role in making.

Ford also truly despised unions. This doesn’t per se make him so different than most capitalists of the era. But he certainly despised them. He hired an ex-boxer named Harry Bennett to put together a private security force that would beat up unionists. Bennett was involved in many of the 1930s worst labor moments,including personally opening fire on the crowd of unemployment marchers at the River Rouge in 1932 and the Battle of the Overpass in 1937, where Bennett and his thugs beat up Walter Reuther and other United Auto Workers organize to intimidate them from organizing the company. When the UAW finally organized Ford in 1941 through a sit-down strike, Ford threatened to dissolve the company rather than acquiesce and it took his wife telling him she would leave him if he destroyed the business for him to back down.

His fear of the modern world led to his longing for the 19th century rural values he himself had done so much to destroy. The recreation of his home of Greenfield Village helped to promote nostalgia for a lost lifestyle. Even more weird was his project to create a rubber plantation in Brazil. The idea itself wasn’t so strange although it did not work because diseases make it impossible to grow rubber in plantation agriculture in South America, even though it is native to the region, which is why southeast Asia became the world’s leading rubber producing region. But the village of Fordlandia he created to go with the plantation was his effort to try to replicate industrial production with 19th century American rural Protestant values. The whole project was a complete disaster and an utterly predictable one. After all, this was just another form of utopian imperialism tied to an industrial capitalism that the utopian both hated and profited from. He started Fordlandia in 1928 and hoped that 10,000 people would labor there for his company, but it failed by 1934. The same rules of the Sociological Department. Not only was alcohol banned but so were tobacco, women, and even the playing of football. Workers again had to open their homes for inspection. The workers got around this by establishing a vice town just outside of the settlement. Ford even forced them to eat American-style food he personally approved of and to work on strict schedules of hours that made sense inside Ford’s factory but made no sense working outside in the mid-day Brazilian sun.

Then of course there’s Ford’s anti-Semitism. Originally something of an internationalist who supported the League of Nations and who Woodrow Wilson personally recruited to run for the Senate in 1918 so the League could be ratified, he turned toward conspiracy theories as the modern world he hated began to affect him. He began his Dearborn Independent in 1920. The most prominent anti-Semitic publication in the country, it ran until 1927 and every Ford dealer was required to carry it. Adolf Hitler admired Ford and discussed him favorably in Mein Kampf. He finally began to publicly retract some of this by the late 1920s as it was affecting his business. But he blamed both World War I and World War II on Jewish financiers. Supposedly, when he was finally confronted with images from the Holocaust after World War II, he had the stroke that eventually killed him, but this sounds awfully apocryphal to me. In any case, he died in 1947 at the age of 83.

Henry Ford is buried in Ford Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan, which was once associated with his family’s church of Saint Martha’s Episcopal, but is now occupied by another church who keeps up the little graveyard.

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