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Ford’s Fundamentals, Part one

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg...

After nearly a century of making cars, Ford is still one of the most important names in American business. And while much has been written about Ford’s automobiles, there has been comparatively little focus on his life. Today’s guest believes that Henry Ford’s story and his influence on American culture has not been fully appreciated. Who was Henry Ford? And why is he important today?

To find out, Think Tank is joined by Steven Watts, Professor of History at the University of Missouri and author of The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century.

The topic before the house: Ford’s Fundamentals, part one, this week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Steven Watts, welcome to Think Tank.

WATTS: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

WATTENBERG: Delighted – delighted to have you here. You have written a fascinating book of about 500 pages, which I have read every word of. It’s called ‘The People’s Tycoon; Henry Ford and the American Century’. and I want to talk about it as whatever length it deserves. Now, previous books on Ford have focused mostly on the Ford Motor Company. You pay proper attention to that, but you have a much greater focus and a lot of very new material on the man himself. Why?

WATTS: Well, Henry Ford that most of us know, that we’re familiar with, was I think Henry Ford the producer, Henry Ford the manufacturer, Henry Ford the kind of hard scrabble business man, created the Model T, put the country on wheels, the Henry Ford of the assembly line. And that’s Ford is certainly there and he’s a very important guy but I became convinced doing my research that that Henry Ford was a kind of pale reflection of the essential Henry Ford. And the essential Henry Ford I think is a slightly different man. He was first of all a man who was a kind of herald of modern consumer culture, of consumer values and the kind of roads to happiness that have been defined in – along that road I think in the modern world.

WATTENBERG: If you look at that Ford – the Ford family, which on – in theory has everything anyone could possibly desire, there is a thread of tragedy that runs through that so – and we’ll pick that up as we go along.
Okay, where was Henry – where and when was Henry Ford born? Tell us a little bit about the culture.

WATTS: Well Henry Ford’s lifespan itself is remarkable. He was born in 1863 in July, a couple of weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg. And he lived until 1947 to see the dropping of the atomic bomb and really the very first stages of the Cold War. And that astonished me when I thought about the sheer scope of that life, from Abraham Lincoln to the world of Harry Truman. It’s quite a span.
Henry Ford came out of a kind of agricultural background in Dearborn, Michigan in the area around Detroit.

WATTENBERG: And he doesn’t really get his big business started until he’s in early middle age. Why don’t you tell us the story of those early years and what he tried and what he fails at and what he – what he learns.

WATTS: It is interesting to note that Ford came to success relatively late in life, well into middle age. He was in his early manhood a kind of machinist. He worked for the Edison Illuminating Company.

WATTENBERG: Never went to college.

WATTS: Never went to college. Actually never even finished high school. A very rudimentary education and...

WATTENBERG: And quite inarticulate in some ways.

WATTS: Quite inarticulate. Not a fluent man.

WATTENBERG: And yet becomes a pop American icon.

WATTS: Well he does and he becomes I think, along the lines you were just suggesting, one of the country’s first sort of mass culture celebrities really in the early 20th century, and probably the first American businessman who becomes a celebrity in that sense.
Older business figures, the Rockefellers, the Fricks, the Carnegies and so on had been prominent, but they had usually been notorious so they were denounced as robber barons and they sort of achieved fame despite their public reputation rather than because of it.
Ford was a very different person. He was a celebrity, he was a genius at marketing himself I think as a kind of celebrity. And in his case I think the person became the brand in many ways, so much so that Teddy Roosevelt, who was no piker on this front, once bitterly complained that Ford was getting far too much attention in the public media. And for Roosevelt to say that you know it had to be true.

WATTENBERG: I mean, he understand, as I have read in your book, that that personal publicity which he fed for good or for ill was the best way to sell cars.

WATTS: It absolutely was and I think an aspect of his genius is that that is one of the things he understood about modern business culture and I think really modern culture in a larger sense as well. That he could market himself and by marketing himself he could market his product and in many ways, the two became interchangeable.

WATTENBERG: Henry Ford did not invent the car. I mean, there were a lot of people working in Europe and here at trying to create personal transportation, which is when you think about it one of the great aspects of human liberty; to be able to get into your car and say “see ya”, and off you go. I mean, it’s a – it’s a great machine.
But he gets sort of a slow start. He starts a business - he’s always a great tinkerer - starts a business, loses a business. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that time of his life?

WATTS: Well Ford’s early career was very checkered, as you noted. Several unsuccessful ventures trying to get a car company off the ground. One of the problems was he was a tinkerer and he found it personally very hard to finalize a plan, put it into production. But I think the bigger problem, and more important one historically speaking, is the people he was allied with in those early ventures had what would be an old fashioned view of the automobile, and that is a means of transportation for wealthy people, for elites, really almost a kind of luxury item for prosperous folks in this country.
Ford from the very beginning had a germ of an idea that was really revolutionary and that was to make an automobile for the people, for ordinary folks. And he clashed with his early investors a great deal over those kinds of issues and his early companies fell apart. And it was only in 1903 with the Ford Motor Company where he essentially was able to run the show that that central idea of a car for ordinary people carried the day and moved him forward.

WATTENBERG: Okay, so when does he actually take this revolutionary idea of building a cheap car for the everyday American and put it into motion?

WATTS: Well, there were a couple of early prototypes but the real project that got that up and running was the Model T of course, which he began to develop 1907 – 1908 -1909 in that period and the Model T was up and running full blast by 1910 -1911 and by 1912 it’s sort of sweeping through the country.

WATTENBERG: What he’s known for is the assembly line, is where you bring the chassis of the car, the growing chassis of the car to the worker instead of having the worker go to the vehicle. Is that the gist of it?

WATTS: That’s the classic formulation and it’s very simple and to the point. In the old method of production they would have work stations and people or teams of people would take this thing around and they would do a bunch of stuff here and a bunch of stuff here, relatively slow.
The assembly line, they set up a moving belt and literally almost shoulder to shoulder they had groups of men who would do one single small task as this thing went along on a conveyor belt. It created massive economies of effort and the car would be slowly assembled along the assembly line and a new one would come off every few seconds at the end.

WATTENBERG: Which could cut prices because it was cheaper to do it. On the other hand, there’s this famous criticism of it eventually, the idea of spending an eight-hour shift or a ten-hour shift doing nothing but tightening bolt 42 could drive a guy wacko. I mean...

WATTS: And indeed it did. Ford’s biggest problem in the assembly line got going at the Highland Park plant was absenteeism and turnover for precisely the reasons you mentioned. Men doing that kind of work would flame out after awhile and many of them just couldn’t take it.
Ford’s solution to that problem was the five dollar day, which doubled the wage of automobile workers in one fell swoop.

WATTENBERG: He just says I’m doubling the wage of everybody in the factory.

WATTS: Well, he did and significantly he brought in about eight dozen reporters to his office to make this bombshell announcement as well so they go off and put it in the headlines the next day.

WATTENBERG: And speaking of headlines, he had an earlier career in part of his checkered early thing where he was a racecar driver and he got enormous publicity about that – and a good one.

WATTS: Well he was part of that mass culture celebrity thing. There’s a kind of popular culture that takes shape alongside consumer culture in the early 20th century. Sports, movies, radio as you mentioned, all sorts of new entertainment and leisure activities.
Ford gets involved in automobile racing first himself as a kind of racer, but more importantly he allies himself with Barney Oldfield, the famous racecar driver and they make a kind of a team, gets a lot of publicity, attracts investors to his company.

WATTENBERG: So at this time in the early ‘20s, the Ford Motor Company becomes the biggest automobile company in the world. And what does it have, about 40% of the market I recall? Does that sound about right?

WATTS: Even a little more than that. It’s been estimated by the early ‘20s that roughly half of the cars, at least on the American road is a Model T. One out of every two.

WATTENBERG: And the Model T is called the Flivver, is that right.

WATTS: Right.

WATTENBERG: So he believes strongly that if you build it they will come. If you build the kinds of machines that we’re talking about a buying public will create itself if you get the price down low enough. I mean, that’s his...

WATTS: Right.

WATTENBERG: ... his contribution.

WATTS: Well, I think what he understood sooner and better than just about anybody in this country is that mass production depended on mass consumption and it was the consumption horse that pulled the wagon here. So the producer Henry Ford we’re always thinking about is certainly there, but it’s Henry Ford who understands that that depends on consumption...

WATTENBERG: And that is something...

WATTS: ... that’s the real contributor.

WATTENBERG: And that is something that is still very much with us and has spread around the globe.

WATTS: Absolutely.

WATTENBERG: I mean, it’s interesting. If I understand business history correctly that now some of the producers have gone away from the assembly line and have teams that – it’s not a car; maybe it’s a – whatever it is they’re making – of four or five, six people and that – try to imbue them with the proper spirit and that they will get better results by having people produce a varied set of skills that he – that’s kind of gone away from the absolutely straight manufacture, you know.

WATTS: I’d say it’s a reaction to the assembly line basically trying to make work more fulfilling and meaningful basically.

WATTENBERG: Now, Ford has a sort of a whole political streak. And he comes out during World War I, or at least before the troop – the American troops are sent over there as a pacifist saying war is a terrible thing and we ought to stay out of it. And goes to Europe on a Peace Ship and captures all kinds of headlines. Is that how it worked?

WATTS: It was and after 1914 when hostilities broke out in Europe, Henry Ford did have a very strong pacifist streak in him, sort of that upper Midwest version of that and he spent millions of his own dollars hiring what became called the Peace Ship to go to Europe to stop the hostilities. So he was deeply committed to pacifism, deeply opposed to war of any kind. When America got directly involved in the war he sort of kept his peace but he was a pacifist throughout his life basically.

WATTENBERG: Um-hm. And he takes – on the one hand he takes a lot of criticism for this; on the other hand, as with so many of his things, the public I guess you’d describe it mostly as the rural public, or the less sophisticated part of the country, it just enhances his reputation.

WATTS: Well, it does. Throughout Ford’s career an interesting kind of dynamic is that elites, opinion-makers, opinion-shapers tended to have a very hardy opinion of Henry Ford and think he was something of an ignorant rural rube, which I suppose in certain things he was. But ordinary people loved him and they tended to love him throughout his career. And I think it’s one of the great dichotomies of his career when you look at it: highbrowed enunciation; lowbrow embrace practically in everything.

WATTENBERG: I had always heard that Ford was anti-Semitic and I had assumed it was some stray remarks here or there or whatever which was certainly not uncommon in the United States, but it was an ongoing institutionalized condemnation of international – Jews internationally and Jews in the United States. Perhaps you could enlighten us.

WATTS: Well Henry Ford nearly destroyed his career and certainly put an indelible stain on his reputation with his anti-Semitic activities in the 1920s. In particular he started his own newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, which he conceived to be a newspaper for the people, ordinary people, but very quickly it got wrapped up in promoting the sort of crackpot, anti-Semitic notions, the protocols of the elders of Zion and all of that.

WATTENBERG: He claimed - the guy he has as his editor claims he got a translation of it and its since been disproved that as just nonsense.

WATTS: Oh, utterly. It was an utterly fabricated documented...

WATTENBERG: Jews use children’s blood of gentiles to make matzo for the Passover meal. Wild stuff.

WATTS: Just crazy stuff and Ford got involved with the craziest aspects of it. For example, he somehow got convinced that John Wilkes Booth had been a Jew who killed Abraham Lincoln and I mean he just had the craziest sorts of notions with this that one could imagine.
But the sources of his anti-Semitism I think are very interesting in this regard. I think in the modern world we tend to associate anti-Semitism with a sort of reactionary politics of one kind or another. But interestingly what I discovered with Ford is that his anti-Semitism came from the progressive instincts in his political makeup. He was very much a populist and like even the old-fashioned populists in the 19th century, he hated Wall Street; he hated eastern bankers; he hated the bastions of finance in this country, and for him that translated into Jewish bankers and Jewish financiers. So that kind of populous streak in his makeup fed in ironic ways his anti-Semitism and pacifism was the other one.

WATTENBERG: And he was, during the 1930s after Hitler came to power, he accepted a medal from Hitler, what in 19... as late as 1940.

WATTS: ’36.

WATTENBERG: The part of the America First kind of thing. And was very much against our getting into World War II. But once Pearl Harbor is attacked the Ford Motor Company becomes a classic American manufacturing instrumentality.

WATTS: They become the biggest producers of the B-24s and create this enormous plant in Willow Run to mass produce them.

WATTENBERG: And his grandchild, Henry Ford II, does go into the service. He’s in the navy. There’s a wonderful picture there of him in naval uniform, but when his father - the punitive President of Ford Motor Company - when Edsel dies, Henry is brought back from the military to run the place by which time Henry Ford is getting a little dotty and a little crazy. Is that about right?

WATTS: Pretty right, yes. By – actually by the early ‘40s Ford had had several strokes and then he had a couple more and he’s in very, very bad shape mentally. All during World War II he’s more or less a figurehead in his own company. When Edsel dies, one of Henry – old Henry’s sort of thugs really, Harry Bennett...

WATTENBERG: Harry Bennett.

WATTS: ...takes over the company and...

WATTENBERG: He was very antiunion...

WATTS: Oh, incredibly.

WATTENBERG: ... you have these pictures of him, I mean, using guns and clubs to beat out – to beat the... The Ford – if you follow it generation after generation, Henry Ford II becomes sort of an elegant world figure, marries an Italian woman of great beauty, but much of the Ford money goes to the Ford Foundation. And at a certain point - I guess it’s probably in the 1960s or ‘70s - the board of trustees of the Ford Foundation takes the foundation in a very liberal direction and Henry Ford resigns as chairman of the board and says “this fortune was built by entrepreneurialism and free enterprise and you people haven’t recognized it and everything you have done has worked against it”. And that’s sort of another sort of a tragic twist to this thing.

WATTS: Well I think after old Henry died, you’re right; Henry Ford II - the foundation had actually been started a little bit earlier but it wasn’t doing much until old Henry died. And originally, as I understand it, Henry Ford II had pushed the foundation as an attempt to kind of make up for some of his grandfather’s sins, the anti-Semitism and so on, but as you indicate, a little later on, Henry Ford II believed that the foundation had become much more liberal in its political orientation than he had ever intended.

WATTENBERG: When does Henry Ford II die? And there’s a big family fight as to whether he will take over and really run the place and they sort of split into camps.

WATTS: Well, I think Henry Ford II died in the early 1980s or late 1970s, in that period. I know a lot more about him coming into the company.

WATTENBERG: Well, the irony in this sort of interwoven tragedy of this thing is the new model or one of the new models that Henry introduces, he names after his lovely father Edsel and it’s a strange looking car and even today people say, “Oh, it’s an Edsel.” I mean it is an absolute clunker.

WATTS: It is absolutely and it – poor Edsel had no luck in this life whatsoever. Henry the II, his son, had resented his grandfather’s treatment of his father, intended the Edsel to be a monument to his father’s memory, but as you indicate it’s one of the great clunkers in American industrial history and seem to take the tale even further than it had been.

WATTENBERG: Steven, here was Henry Ford, this man of great contradictions, a visionary, a moralist, a positive thinker, also a bigot, also a despot, also a pacifist. What is his importance, as you see it, his importance in the American story? It’s called – you don’t even have Henry Ford in the title of the book - it says, ‘The People’s Tycoon; Henry Ford and the American Century’. How do you incorporate all these things?

WATTS: Well I think Ford’s essential significance in American history is that sooner and better than anyone, he understood the nature of a modern consumer economy. And what he did as a cultural figure, I think even more than as a manufacturer, was essentially to tell Americans that it was not only alright to consume material goods, but that abundance, the enjoyment of material goods, leisure, all of the kind of cultural activities that go along with this is what it means to be an American.
He makes it synonymous with being an American. In that sense I think Henry Ford invented modern culture; he invented all of us.

WATTENBERG: Steven Watts, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank, and thank you. Please join us for a future episode where we will continue our discussion of Henry Ford. And remember, please send us your comments via e-mail, we think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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