Henry Ford and His Aspirations

“There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.” Henry Ford, American businessman

He was alone with his wife, in the candlelight, his energy fading. It was funny: he’d almost forgotten what it was like to live without electricity. His friend Edison had changed the world, no doubt about that; and his burning desire was for his automobiles to be no less of a feat.

For a fleeting moment, an insuppressible nostalgia sweeps over him, reflecting on his earliest memories on his parents’ farm, and the discovery of the first steam engine that he would so eagerly learn to inspect and repair; and the consolation he got from disassembling and reassembling clocks when his mother, at such a young age, died in childbirth.

Life is so very tough. And being tougher is the only way to keep going. That is what Edsel, his son, never quite understood, much to his dismay. If only he had known the poverty that had shaped his father’s view of the world as a child, or lived through the hardships that he had endured. He tried to convey this to his son, publicly disagreeing with his decisions as head of the company, hoping to instill the toughness he should have inherited from him. But no, Edsel was always a gentleman, kind and good, until the day he died, just two years prior.

Henry Ford had already gone to bed, on that night in March 1947, and was trying to read the newspaper by inconvenient candlelight. Almost every story told about the overflow of the Rouge River, which had left his home without electricity. As he read on, he suddenly remembered Chesterton’s ruthless comments about his failed trip to Europe during World War I, trying to promote peace. Perhaps he overreached himself by pointing to the complicity of Western industrialists and bankers in the sinking of the Lusitania to force the US into the war so they could make more money…

He was never forgiven by Chesterton or the vast majority of the international press for his editorials in The Dearborn Independent. Those articles would earn him the dubious honor of being the only American cited in Mein Kampf… And the only American to receive the highest decoration given by Nazi Germany: the Grand Cross of the German Eagle.

But even that could not erase the social progress achieved thanks to his company, thought the elder Ford. What employer, in any industry, had doubled the average salary of his workers? How many of his workers had achieved the American dream thanks to his technological and entrepreneurial foresight? Absolutely no one could deny that he was the father of the automobile for the masses. That he had brought cars to the people, to the masses, transforming society forever. That he, Henry Ford, one of the richest men to ever walk the Earth, had brought the welfare society to the United States.

And, of course, he thought about the Model T, the greatest revolution seen in the transportation industry since the steam engine. The first affordable automobile for the middle class. The car that would force his country to completely rebuild its public roads and highways.

You have to be a tough man to succeed, he used to tell his son Edsel. And he had been tough when unions and disgruntled workers threatened to stop the factories, back in the thirties, during the Great Depression. Would his son have been able to set up his surveillance system in the factories? Would he have had the courage to hire a bunch of thugs and boxers to maintain order in the assembly line, to monitor the work of the employees?

They complained about the subhuman conditions in which they worked, he vividly recalled. But what conditions would they be in if he had not built his factories, if he had not doubled their salaries, if he had not bounced back after his two bankruptcies? Success is for those who work hard, for those who are demanding of both themselves and others, and he had worked harder than anyone.

But now he was retired, and he saw the environment through an air of nostalgia, with his contested axioms that no longer prevailed in the society in which he lived. He saw unions flourishing everywhere, and could not help but wonder if that Chaplin movie may have contained some truth. That film was over 10 years old now. Its explicit criticism had not sat well with him, but perhaps it did reflect reality to some degree. He, who had sworn never to have a boss again after his first bankruptcy, was maybe not the best person to criticize Chaplin’s denunciation.

He was entirely exhausted, feeling like the bottom had dropped out. He had felt this way for days… maybe even years. Two, perhaps, since Edsel’s death. If only he had been more like him, surely they would have got along better. But it had been a long time since the disappointment had given way to a deep pain. If only he had not tried so hard to make him be like he was, perhaps he would have enjoyed his only son more.

So he rested his head on the lap of his wife, Clara, who had always been there to comfort him. And he let go of his anguish, his desires and his ambitions. To forever take leave of the world he had helped shape. The world that he had changed forever and which felt so strange in the twilight of his life.

We close with a brief summary of Ford’s life:

  • An obsession, regardless of its potentially noble aims, can border on sociopathy if one does not learn a perspective of realism and a certain sense of humor.
  • Being overly tough on those we love, no matter how well-intentioned, can turn against the interested party, who unconsciously learns that their worth is based on what they achieve, and on how much they are able to minimize the shadow of their father, the predecessor, the leader…
  • On the positive side, an obsession for entrepreneurship, and taking on new challenges, prevents big-time entrepreneurs from staying put, being content with what they have achieved.