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.