Is history bunk?

Standard

I started this post quite a while ago and never finished it, in part because I discovered that the more I found out about him the more I disliked its subject, Henry T Ford. (And also because I don’t finish a lot of draft posts…) But a comment in one part of Marc’s useful and interesting introduction to historical method series persuaded me to drag it out again. (And thanks to him for spurring me to make the effort…)

Modern critical investigation has actually caused many to question the validity of history as a whole, as seen by Henry Ford’s famous ” History is bunk” statement.

Well… I’d agree with the proposition, but unfortunately the Ford quote’s not a good example of it. It’s one of those quotations everyone knows, right? ‘History is bunk’. Guaranteed to bring out any good historian in a rash, and proof positive of the short-sighted, narrow-minded ignorance of the industrialist Henry Ford, yes?

Not really, no.

He did say those three words in one quoted source (if you rip them out of context), which I’ll come back to shortly. But it isn’t quite what he originally said, in an interview printed in the Chicago Tribune in 1916. And what he really said then, and what he thought about history, is much more interesting than you might expect. The reporter had asked Ford why he opposed the build up of American armed forces, and used the example of British naval resistance to Napoleon’s army more than a century earlier.

I don’t know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across there (to England) and I don’t care. I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. 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 damn is the history we make today.

Ford’s attitude involved, then, an emphatic rejection of using the past to inform and justify present actions (a view with which most modern academic historians would agree). And secondly, he had a real dislike of the narrow political focus of academic history at the time (with which many modern academic historians could also sympathise). Some time after the interview, Ford sued the Tribune for libel (for a different story it had printed about him), and he was subsequently humiliated in court for his lack of formal history book learning (he had had only the most basic school education, after all). After that, he said something that doesn’t get quoted everywhere:

I am going to start up a museum and give people a true picture of the development of the country. That is the only history that is worth observing, that you can preserve in itself. We’re going to build a museum that is going to show industrial history, and it won’t be bunk. [That decision led to the creation of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.]

And here’s another less famous quote to finish:

As a young man, I was very interested in how people lived in earlier times; how they got from place to place, lighted their homes, cooked their meals and so on. So I went to the history books. Well, I could find out all about kings and presidents; but I could learn nothing of their everyday lives. So I decided that history is bunk. (1935)

There’s plenty to detest about Henry Ford – his racism and antisemitism just for a start. (He was a philanthropist, but a conservative, highly patriarchalist one.) But his attitude to history was not at all what is so often assumed on the basis of those famous, misquoted, words.

……………….

Henry Ford’s time machine
Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village
Henry Ford, short biography at Wikipedia

10 thoughts on “Is history bunk?

  1. Thanks for expanding on Ford’s comments. Perhaps a better phrasing would have been: “Modern critical investigation has actually caused many to question the validity of history as a whole, which could be characterized by Henry Ford’s famous ‘History is bunk’ statement”? This is a more careful rendering of the attitude, perhaps, though it still leaves the wrong impression about Ford, as you have shown. Nonetheless, the real value of the series (I humbly submit) is that I hope it can provide a jumping off point for others, just as it did with you. You knew something about Ford’s quote was off, and you’ve shown it. Thanks!

  2. That sounds quite a good way of putting it: I think there are probably important distinctions to be drawn between what Ford meant and what other people who have since then enthusiastically picked up on the statement might have meant by it. It’s a great, pithy quote that can easily be appropriated (and of course there’s always the ambiguity about what people mean by ‘history’: the past generally, or the study of the past). So some people might simply use it to mean, forget about the past, that’s a waste of time; while some might be saying, those historians, they can’t agree about anything so you might as well ignore them; and so on. But that’s a whole other subject.

  3. Pingback: Alun » Turning Laziness into an Art Form

  4. It’s funny, a while back I was looking for more information about the “history is bunk” quotation and I came across this column about Eugen Weber that mentions an essay Weber wrote about Ford that makes similar points. I was quite surprised to find out that Ford wasn’t dismissing history as a whole, but rather aiming at a particularly narrow way of understanding it.

    I’ve never been able to find the Weber article, though, despite searching numerous databases. It’s possible that the citation is wrong, or that it appeared somewhere that hasn’t been catalougued online.

  5. I am a historian by trade and I appreciate the famous quote by Henry Ford. History as it is written is very often bunk. For example,very little of what was written about great power relations during the cold war -written on either side- is trustworthy. The scientific report on Chernobyl just published is a good example. The disaster there was exaggerated for political purposes, just as other disasters such as the human A-tests in North America were underplayed. Ford was not a nice person but he was an astute critic of historiography.

  6. Thanks, this is wonderful. I may discover more about Ford because I want to look at him as a collector of the objects of everyday life–trying to de-bunk history.

  7. Hello,

    I just stumbled upon your weblog, so I haven’t had a chance to look around much although based upon this post and your profile, you’re focusing on some really important and under-represented elements in the field of history, which are quite close to my own areas of interest as well.

    As for Mr. Ford and his now-infamous ‘Bunk’ quote, you’ve hit most of the highlights of the matter, but I’d like to clarify just a few small points. First, I think both his overall personality and more specifically the emotional nature of Ford when he made the statement, as well as the details of the trial you mentioned, should probably be given a bit more weight in the matter. Yes, as you have pointed out, Ford possessed “only the most basic school education”, but at the time he attended school the standards were actually quite high in the U.S., and I think the average grammar school student would have been able to answer the questions posed in court better than him (among other things, he failed to recognize the name “Benedict Arnold”, a name which here in the U.S. is actually a very popular, well-known slang term for traitorous behavior).

    So, my point is that after he’d had a bit of reflection, he knew very well that, thanks to the publicity it recieved, he now looked like a complete ignoramous in front of the general public. Yes, he did have a long-standing interest in industrial history, but I’d personally regard it as more of a ‘fascination’ than an active curiousity. Regardless, when pushed to do some ‘damage control’, he took this opportunity to re-frame the argument so that he had the appearance of just not caring about one sort of history, while actually being supportive and interested in another. It was technically true, but also somewhat disingenuous.

    As for the business of him then establishing Greenfield Village, which along with Williamsburg (Virginia) and Plymouth (Massachusetts), was among the first open-air museums in this country, there’s also a bit of personal business that should be addressed. Ford’s factories around Detroit were taking over the countryside which once surrounded the city, and of course the very product they were making was slowly but surely destroying the agrarian lifestyle which had existed for the previous 200 years. He showed little remorse or concern for any of this, until it began to directly impact the nearby town of Dearborn, where he had grown up, and specifically his own family’s home was threatened with demolition due to its location.

    THIS is the point that he suddenly became a great “Historical Philanthropist”, when it was a matter of preserving his own personal history. Ford’s boyhood home was the first structure moved to the property that later became Greenfield Village, and he similarly relocated the first building the Ford Motor Company occupied, as well as…of all great ironies…the actual one-room schoolhouse he himself attended (and didn’t learn much about history while he was there). Then he proceeded to focus on his personal hero Thomas Edison, acquiring buildings related to his career and personal life (The museum, if you don’t know, was originally named “The Edison Institute”).

    I should clarify, by the way, that I live 20 miles west of Dearborn, and for both personal and public reasons can’t generally discuss these matters without getting in trouble of various sorts, so I’m very pleased to have discovered this safe haven across the Atlantic where I could briefly mount a soapbox and make a few comments.

    Thank You, and Cheers from the Great Lakes!

  8. Hi,
    I was most charmingly surprised to find your microhistorical window on the famous Henry Ford statement. In fact I had entitled a piece I just wrote ‘Is History Bunk?’ and then went through the usual whirl of thoughts in my mind, for the umpteenth time in my life, thinking I should check if and when Ford said this, and did the statement suffer from it being out-of-context. Now, for the first time in my life, the statement has finally been properly qualified, and I must feel some shame for having always related it to an image of Henry Ford as a hard, unfeeling, uncaring and fundamentalistically capitalistic man. At the same time I always felt I was somehow wrong, because I also felt great admiration for the man, as an engineer and designer of the Model T motorcar, the work of a true genius.
    I am now forced to almost agree with Henry Ford’s statement that History is (more or less) bunk. He was of course right that learning long lists of kings and presidents by heart was bunk. Anyway, no need to repeat the work you presented so well above.
    Needless to say, I deleted the title to my piece, which is in fact a reaction to a newspaper article written by two Dutch futurologists, entitled ‘We must not learn from the past, but from the future’. It really got me going, and I would insert the piece here if it weren’t in Dutch. Writers I admire most for the way they deal with history are people like Hobsbawm, and Lewis Mumford. I practically adore Mumford, and probably will do so until my death. Mumford’s grasp of the conduct of man was uncanny, and as a man of opinions he was incorruptible.
    I like your site, by the way, it really seems to work well for having some blog-like subjects that people can react to.
    Thanks again,
    cheers,
    Jan

  9. 6 years late for this particular debate, but anyway:
    Ford was right: history is indeed bunk; a conclusion I reached after many years study (PhD in history, honours degree in history and politics). Most written history supports the perspective of entrenched wealth and power, and has done historically. This is true even when it appears critical; after all, some “acceptable” dissent is always permissible: it only serves to reinforce the common illusion that all perspectives are welcome in a liberal democratic society. But there remain certain fundamental assumptions that must never be questioned and almost all historical interpretations tend to reinforce those assumptions. I’ll leave it to you to work out what they are.
    And yes, Henry Ford was indeed an anti-Semite…but instead of merely accepting the fact on face value and condemning the man on the strength of it, one should stop and ask WHY – although be warned, if you examine the primary source material yourself, the answer may make you feel uncomfortable. In fact anyone who is in any way interested in history should always ask WHY any particular historical event took place…and read the source material themselves rather than relying on the (always biased) interpretation of another.
    But beware, the truth can be a dangerous beast. As the 17th century English radical, Gerrard Winstanley, said: “knowledge, why didst thou come to wound and not to cure?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s