Review

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

by Steven Watts



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 (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 17, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: October 10, 2006
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375707255
  • ISBN-13: 9780375707254