The Death of Henry Ford’s America


Born in 1863 to an Irish immigrant farmer, Henry Ford quit his parents’ estate as a young man, and became an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company where, prone to experimentation, he became intrigued by the automobile. In 1905, he founded the Ford Motor Company which, by an innovative manufacturing process christened “Fordism,” made cars accessible to ordinary Americans. Ford, amongst others, was to blame for the indulgent consumerism that overtook the U.S. in the teens and twenties; such was America’s fascination with and dependence on the car that “[m]any families . . . [didn’t] spend anything on recreation except for the car.”[1] Only after the New York Stock Exchange crashed in late October 1929 did Ford’s star wane, as Americans disposed of their misguided regard for such technological wonders as the car, the vacuum cleaner, and the electric sewing machine. By the 1940s, that which Ford represented and stood for––the so-called “business consensus” of the Roaring Twenties, American prosperity, economic inequality, anti-labor, anti-welfare, anti-immigration, white supremacy, and isolationism––was less prevalent in the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era populist reforms and the U.S.’s precipitous entry into World War II convinced America of the need to settle its domestic affairs and assume a more prominent international role as the West’s guiding light; Henry Ford’s America, as morally dubious as it was, was unprepared to discharge such momentous responsibilities.

Consumerism, or consumer freedom, in the U.S. was many years in the making. Its genesis, one might argue, was at the turn of the century (1900) when immigration came to a head. Immigration to the U.S., besides encouraging nativism and white supremacy, instilled in the fabric of American society “a desire to escape from ‘hopeless poverty’ and achieve a standard of living impossible at home.”[2] Consumerism also rode upon the backs of the U.S.’s economic and infrastructural expansion, which saw “the advent of large downtown department stores, chain stores in urban neighborhoods, and retail mail-order houses for farmers . . . [all of which made] available to consumers throughout the country the vast array of goods now pouring from the nation’s factories.”[3] Americans soon accustomed themselves to the improved standard of living that coincided with their consumer purchases, so much so that liberty itself was redefined. After a visit to the U.S. in 1925, Andrew Seigfried wrote, “[I]t is obvious that Americans have come to consider their standard of living as a somewhat sacred acquisition, which they will defend at any price. . . . In the name of efficiency [of production] one can obtain, from the American, all sorts of sacrifices in relation to his personal and even to certain of his political liberties.”[4]

The “business consensus” of the Roaring Twenties, an agreement between government and business dictating that the former would support the latter implicitly, dates to the presidency of Warren G. Harding. During a presidential campaign speech in 1920, candidate Harding expressed his intentions to privatize the U.S., ostensibly to restore the independence of Americans, but really to make the country pliant to corporate enterprise: “The world needs to be reminded that all human ills are not curable by legislation, and that quantity of statutory enactment and excess of government offer no substitute for quality of citizenship.”[5] This pushback against the Progressive/federal expansionist reforms of the previous two decades (constituting the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson) resulted in a post-World War II economic transition from wartime nationalization to peacetime privatization. Taxes were lowered, tariffs raised, and unionization discouraged.[6] Business and capitalism, perhaps in tacit rejection of communism’s growing influence in the East, were consecrated: “What is the finest game? Business. The soundest science? Business. The truest art? Business. The fullest education? Business. The fairest opportunity? Business. The cleanest philanthropy? Business. The sanest religion? Business.”[7] Business was deemed central to prosperity.

And yet, under the business consensus, laws safeguarding workers’ rights were repealed or ignored. Consider Henry Ford’s business practices at his manufacturing complex in Detroit, Michigan. Ford’s success was founded on a potent combination of “mass production and mass consumption.”[8] He pioneered the moving assembly line, which allowed his workers to manufacture cars at a record pace. He encouraged his workers to man their stations––a daunting task, given the absurd monotony of assembly-line work––by raising the wage to a generous $5 per day. He attempted to control all facets of his workers’ lives, his objective being to suppress unionization.[9] Though Ford’s business methods were undeniably exploitative and unjust, the federal government turned a blind eye. Consider also Mary Heaton Vorse’s Gastonia, a place emblematic of the renewed anti-labor practices of the twenties. Vorse tells the harrowing tales of oppressed mill workers––victims of the business consensus––with a certain resonant detachedness: “Conscientious mill owners frankly consider their ‘hands’ as children . . . almost without exception children of fourteen go to the mill . . . Daisy McDonald, who told me she has to support a husband and family of seven children on $12.90 a week . . . Mrs. Ada Howell, an old woman who had been beaten up on Monday, April 22, after the withdrawal of the militia.”[10]

Despite that the Ford Motor Company employed immigrants––indeed, most children in Detroit had immigrant parents, suggesting a considerable imbalance at Ford’s between immigrant workers and true-born American workers [11]––Ford himself was vehemently opposed to immigration. Notably antisemitic, he published in the privately-owned Dearborn Independent a number of articles which later served as an inspiration for Adolf Hitler, on whose orders the murders of six million Jews were implemented. Ford’s xenophobic anti-immigration sentiments were reflective of America’s as a whole. Around the teens and twenties, a form of white (Anglo-Saxon) supremacy, born not of negrophobia but of a profound apprehension at America’s ethnic pluralism, took shape. Madison Grant, a proponent of Nordic superiority, put it thusly: “These immigrants adopt the language of the native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name and they are beginning to take his women . . . [They] are exterminating his own race.”[12] Calvin Coolidge, who became President in 1923, asserted as late as 1921 that “[t]he retroactive immigrant is a danger in our midst. . . . His purpose is to tear down. There is no room for him here.”[13] A final expression of this reactionary Fordist/Grantist Anglophilia was the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. The Klan, a white supremacist terrorist organization previously active during the Reconstruction Era, eventually “claimed [by the mid-1920s] more than 3 million members, nearly all white, native-born Protestants, many of whom held respected positions in their communities.”[14]

Less than a year into Herbert Hoover’s presidency, the Great Depression began. President Hoover’s response, one of empty reassurances to the public and abortive measures to subsidize big business, was reflective of his capitalist convictions. He believed that “economic downturns were a normal part of capitalism, which weeded out unproductive forms and encouraged moral virtue among the less fortunate.”[15] He was “opposed on principle to direct federal intervention in the economy.”[16] Ford apparently shared Hoover’s beliefs: “I do not believe in routine charity. I think it is a shameful thing . . . Methods of self-help are numerous . . . [The unemployed] can find work for themselves. . . . No unemployment insurance can be compared to an alliance between a man and a plot of land. . . . It is a definite step to the restoration of normal business activity.”[17] Hoover’s policies, a catastrophic failure of the business consensus, preceded the imminent rejection of Ford’s business-centric America. Deemed out of touch, Hoover was overwhelmingly voted out of office.

His successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, set in motion an unprecedented series of populist reforms. President Roosevelt’s New Deal put the unemployed back to work, re-regulated corporate practices, and restored public trust in the U.S. economy and government. He rejected the anti-labor practices of such prosperous businessmen as Ford and, in 1935, approved the Wagner Act, “known at the time as ‘Labor’s Magna Carta’ (a reference to an early landmark in the history of freedom). This brought democracy into the American workplace by . . . [prohibiting] ‘unfair labor practices,’ including the firing and blacklisting of union organizers.”[18] Roosevelt also instituted social welfare in the form of Social Security which, despite being less far-reaching than comparable welfare programs in Europe, “created a system of unemployment insurance, old age pensions, and aid to the disabled, the elderly poor, and families with dependent children.”[19]

As the U.S. became more receptive to the Progressive ideals of social welfare and labor advocacy, grassroots organization grew popular. In 1934, Senator Huey Long of Louisiana called for nationwide wealth redistribution: “I ask somebody in every city, town, village, and farm community of America to take this as my personal request to call a meeting of as many neighbors and friends as will come to it to start a share-our-wealth society.”[20] That same year “witnessed no fewer than 2,000 strikes,” many of which ended violently.[21] Unionization was rife, so much so that the American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.) was hard-pressed to keep order in its ranks. A schism formed in the A.F.L., out of which sprung the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.). The C.I.O., claimed its founder John L. Lewis, “reflect[s] adequately the sentiment, hopes and aspirations of those thirty million Americans . . . who heretofore have been denied by industry and finance the privileges of collective organization and collective participation in the arbitrary fixation of their economic status.”[22] Ford’s America, centralized and business-oriented, quickly dissolved once millions of ordinary Americans disencumbered themselves of their diversionary fixation with consumer goods, and took a greater interest in their political and economic well-being.

The years preceding the U.S.’s entry into World War II witnessed strong isolationist tendencies. Americans, perhaps due to the Depression and its terrible impact on the country’s economic vibrancy, were indifferent to the violence and persecution in Europe and the Orient. Some of the U.S.’s most visible and admired celebrities, namely, Henry Ford and the aviator Charles Lindbergh, were isolationists and suspected Nazi sympathizers. Indeed, such was their influence in the U.S. that their anti-immigration and antisemitic views most certainly influenced popular sentiment. That the U.S. eventually went to war with Nazi Germany, ultimately becoming one of the Holocaust’s most impassioned revilers, is the surest indication of its evolution from Ford-era white supremacist to righteous champion of liberty and equality the world over.

In closing, the U.S., through the teens and twenties, was truly Henry Ford’s America, in that much of what Ford represented and stood for was reflective of the status quo then. Despite that my characterization of Ford is chiefly negative, blame for the woes of that era does not lie solely with him and his ilk. Ordinary Americans were also to blame for the Depression, given that their euphoric post-World War I laxity and obsession with material comfort enabled their socioeconomic superiors (the wealthy) to manipulate the engine of economic growth to suit the needs and interests of the few. In any case, once President Roosevelt shifted the nation’s priorities from the corporation to the individual, Ford’s America was no more. Ford’s America suffered with the Great Depression a fatal blow to the heart, and ceased with the U.S.’s entry into World War II its death throes.

Works Cited

[1] Robert and Helen Lynd, “Middletown (1929).”

[2] Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, Seagull Third Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 681.

[3] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 681.

[4] Andrew Seigfried, “The Gulf Between.”

[5] Warren G. Harding, “Campaign Speech at Boston.”

[6] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 769.

[7] Edward Earl Purinton, “Big Ideas from Big Business.”

[8] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 684.

[9] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 683.

[10] Mary Heaton Vorse, “Gastonia.”

[11] “A Job at Ford’s,” The Great Depression, produced by John Else, 57 minutes, PBS Video, 1993, videocassette.

[12] Madison Grant, “The Passing of the Great Race.”

[13] Calvin Coolidge, “Whose Country Is This?.”

[14] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 780.

[15] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 791.

[16] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 791.

[17] Henry Ford, “Henry Ford in Literary Digest.”

[18] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 812.

[19] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 812.

[20] Huey Long, “Speech in the Senate.”

[21] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 806.

[22] John L. Lewis, “Industrial Democracy in Steel.”

Copyright © 2013 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.

About Elliot Silverberg

I am an essayist, freelance journalist, poet, and screenwriter; an avid reader with a fascination for historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction; a student of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; and a tennis enthusiast.

Posted on July 20, 2013, in Essays and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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