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The slippery business of history-telling is aptly exemplified in the slippery history of Henry Ford’s maxim, “History is bunk,” an aphorism cited for nearly a century in collections of familiar quotations and eternally and sacrilegiously embedded in Brave New World as “that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford’s.” And all despite the fact that “history is bunk” was something Ford never quite said.
Hardly a man who took positions on intellectual matters, Henry Ford (1863–1947) had virtually no public record as a historiographer until he sat for a Chicago Tribune interview in May 1916. A pacifist who had sailed to Norway in 1915 on a quixotic mission to engage neutral nations in mediating an end to World War I, Ford was pressed by the Tribune reporter to back off his opposition to the development of American military force. After all, opined the reporter, it was only fear of the British navy that had kept Napoleon from crossing the channel. Replied Ford, according to a published quote he never disputed, “I don’t know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across and I don’t care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.”
As expressions of circa-1916 American isolationism went, Ford’s view was entirely unremarkable (and very like that of the Tribune‘s editorial page), both for its faith in the present moment and sure contempt for decadent European “tradition.” (Read: royalty + snails for dinner = Verdun.) And Ford’s expression might well have passed unnoticed had not the Tribune, in June, published a follow-up—an editorial that proclaimed “Henry Ford Is an Anarchist.”
The spur to the editorial was news that employees of Ford called up as members of the Michigan National Guard to serve on the Mexican border (a military action the Tribune, in this case, favored) “will lose their places. . . . If Ford allows this rule of his shops to stand he will reveal himself not merely as an ignorant idealist but as an anarchist enemy of the nation which protects him and his wealth.”
Ford asserted libel—contesting the claims that he was an “anarchist” and “ignorant” and asking $1 million in damages. The trial, held in a rural Michigan courthouse and lasting more than three months, became a national story, with Ford’s hired reporters and editors issuing daily press reports alongside those carried by the newspapers. Of particular delight to readers was the Tribune‘s decision to directly dispute Ford’s claim that he didn’t suffer from “ignorance”—its lawyers holding him on the stand for eight days while they tried to ascertain what he knew, and finally achieving this dénouement:
Q: You know about business?
A: I don’t know about business. Know just a little.
Q: But you don’t know very much about history.
A: Not very much about history. . . .
Q: But history was bunk, and art was no good? . . . That was your attitude in 1916?
A: I did not say it was bunk. It was bunk to me, but I did not say—
Q: It was bunk to you?
That was enough. “History ‘Bunk’ Says Ford,” became the headline, and the rest was history. Ford, it should be noted, won his libel suit; though the jury of mostly farmers awarded him six cents in damages before they returned to their plows.
That history-telling is a treacherous business
has not escaped the notice of serious historians, who’ve been arguing for centuries about what approach to their trade is best suited to arriving at truth. Was history a “cyclical” matter? Did members of the Annales School hold the secret (they were, after all, French)? Or how about “parametric determinism,” a Marxist bon-bon? And now there’s cliometrics, described as a combination of “historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases [aimed at] discern[ing] the truths that lie beneath the patterns.”
It may be that it takes something like cliometrics to discern truth in the pattern of Henry Ford’s relationship to history, which, following the libel trial, was expressed in a brief intellectual dalliance with a lunatic who held that John Wilkes Booth had lived a long secret life after escaping Federal troops (he claimed he had the mummified corpse to prove it) and then flowered over years in the financing and development of the Greenfield Village museum, Ford’s idealized 19th-century American town, an expression of history as a matter of utmost significance.
Jim O’Toole’s effort to discern pattern and truth in a significant episode in the history of Boston College begins here.