The Astonishing Ignorance of Henry Ford - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford sued the Chicago Tribune for calling him an “ignorant idealist,” and his eight days on the witness stand would forever dispel the notion that the great man was anything else.

“I don’t know anything about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world,” Henry Ford told the Chicago Tribune in 1916.

Three years later, as it turned out, the newspaper’s lawyers found themselves trying to prove Ford’s avowed ignorance in a court of law, and this time it was the Tribune that was refusing to give a nickel for libeling the powerful industrialist — even if the actual verdict was a whopping six cents.

But in the course of that famous trial, the American public would be treated to a spectacle of the sort we can only enjoy today in a Borat film or Katie Couric interview — a delightful romp through the shallow depths of a prominent figure’s mind.

“[D]efiantly narrow-minded, barely educated, and at least close to functionally illiterate,” is how author Bill Bryson describes the American icon in One Summer. And indeed Ford’s rant to the Tribune in 1916 was just one of many he would make on the “history is bunk” theme — when the provincial farmer turned mechanic from Dearborn, Michigan, wasn’t railing against liquor, books, Jews, Catholics, fat people and bankers.

The Tribune set out to refute the alleged libel … by demonstrating the indisputable truth of Ford’s ignorance.

It was his objection to war, however, that got the “people’s tycoon” in the crosshairs of the “world’s greatest newspaper” later that same year in 1916. Ford the pacifist — whom the Tribune had praised in preceding years for elevating the working conditions of his employees with policies like a $5-per-day wage — irked the hawkish paper when he opposed President Woodrow Wilson’s plan to send troops to help put down insurgents like Pancho Villa along the Mexican border.

In a subsequent editorial, headlined “Henry Ford Is an Anarchist,” the Tribune labeled one of the country’s most powerful men an “ignorant idealist … and an anarchist enemy of the nation.” Then it was Ford’s turn to be irked, and he sued the newspaper for libel and $1 million in damages.

BW image of campsite

The camp of the 24th African-American Infantry Regiment in Mexico in 1916

Source Corbis

The lawsuit went to trial in the summer of 1919 in Mount Clemens, Michigan, bringing the circus to town with it. Ford and his entourage holed up in one hotel, the Tribune set up in another, and the media filled every gap in between. 

As Ford’s attorneys tried in vain to give the inattentive industrialist last-minute lessons in U.S. history and foreign policy, the Tribune’s lawyers prepared to exploit Ford’s disdain for, and shallow knowledge of, the bunk subject matter — not to mention his tendency to rant and ramble.

The trial lasted 14 weeks and generated 2 million words of testimony as the Tribune set out to refute the alleged libel — in part by demonstrating the indisputable truth of Ford’s ignorance.

The main event, which curious Americans devoured in the daily papers, was Ford’s testimony over eight days on the witness stand. Relaxed, cooperative, even folksy, Ford answered the opening question from the Tribune’s lead lawyer, Elliott Stevenson, about what the United States originally had been with a matter-of-fact: “Land, I guess.” 

And things careened downhill from there for Ford. When asked by the defense to read aloud from certain documents, the semi-literate tycoon grew evasive, claiming he’d forgotten his glasses or that his hay fever prevented him from seeing clearly.

There was also no avoiding what Ford didn’t know. “They basically asked him, you might say, high school questions,” historian John Stadenmaier observes in the PBS documentary Henry Ford. “And he was revealed to be pathetically inarticulate and ill-informed. The stuff he didn’t know was amazing to people.”

“The man is a joke,” blasted the New York Post.

In one memorable exchange, Stevenson asked, “Do you know anything about the Revolution, Mr. Ford?”

“Yes, sir,” Ford answered.

“What revolution did you have in mind, Mr. Ford?”

“In 1812,” Ford replied to murmurs of astonishment in the crowded courtroom.

After the trial, the media pronounced its own unequivocal verdict on Ford’s performance. “Mr. Ford has been submitted to a severe examination of his intellectual qualities,” wrote the New York Times. “He has not received a pass.” “The man is a joke,” blasted the New York Post.

But the 11-man jury and the American public took a rather different view of the proceedings. After 10 hours of deliberation, the jury found in favor of Ford but awarded only six cents in damages (which the Tribune never paid). And despite incurring the scorn of the intelligentsia, Ford’s bumbling testimony seemed to endear him even more to the millions of Americans for whom he was the quintessential man-of-the-people.

Thousands of postcards and letters of support poured in from admiring citizens and small-town newspapers across the country, such as the Journal in Fairbury, Nebraska, rose to his defense: “A few less smart-aleck attorneys and a few more Henry Fords, and the world would have less troubles and more to eat.”

The controversial Ford, for his part, went right on making history and ignorant missteps, including using his own newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, to disseminate anti-Semitic views, which landed him back in the courtroom for another epic libel trial in 1927.

As the intrepid capitalist once said about the value of publicity in his line of work, “I don’t care what anybody says, so long as they talk about Ford.”

This OZY encore was originally published June 3, 2014

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!