Back in the day, as they like to say now, when I was writing Edison: Inventing the Century (Hyperion, 1995, University of Chicago Press, 2001), driving every Friday from my home in Upper Montclair all the way down Valley Road to the Edison National Historic Site , sitting at a rough-hewn laboratory table, leafing through thousands of drawings in The Master's laboratory notebooks -- little did I know how inflammatory my next book would be.
It wasn't until I journeyed into the Big City to the Berg Collection at The New York Public Library in Manhattan and asked to see copies of the pocket journals of naturalist John Burroughs that I hit upon a dirty little secret -- transcripts of antisemitic fireside conversations between Edison and his close friend Henry Ford on their summer camping trips in the Adirondacks during and after World War I.
"The Jews caused the War," Ford said, and Burroughs jotted down in
his spidery hand, "the Jews caused the outbreak of thieving and robbery
across the country, the Jews caused the inefficiency of the Navy." When
Ford continued, lashing out at railroad magnate Jay Gould
as a "Shylock" and the prime example of the kind of avarice the auto
maker abhorred -- it all became too much for poor Burroughs to bear. He
had to interrupt. Jay Gould had been his childhood wrestling playmate
and a tried and true Presbyterian.
My publisher wanted me to follow-up the Edison biography with a full-scale tome on Ford. I demurred. I do not establish as a prerequisite for my biographies that I have to like the person or even admire them. But by then, I had become drawn into the convoluted pathology of antisemitism and, more pertinently, the compelling question of what causes a man who is a household name and the paradigm of American entrepreneurialism to develop such an aberrant and vicious aspect of his personality?
When the proposal for what eventually became Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass-Production of Hate began to circulate among the publishing community, several editors called me to ask why on earth I would want to venture into such dark territory. Leave it alone, they warned. To which I replied that I did not expect to be able to come up with the solution -- but I certainly believed I could take some scholarly steps toward defining the problem.
In the end, I thanked John Burroughs for being a great listener. More than any other infecting stereotype, it was the "Jews as moneylenders" cliche that impressed the susceptible Ford best of all. Growing up on a hardscrabble farm after the Civil War, he had heard plenty of rhetoric about the moguls back east making it so hard for the working man to make ends meet. All his life Ford distrusted banks. Ford Motor Company was more cash-rich than any other American corporation. The Great War was the tipping-point, driving its CEO tp publish The Dearborn Independent, a journal that began as an innocuous country newspaper and evolved by 1921 into the foremost antisemitic gossip-sheet in the land. More and more, especially with the rise of GM, Ford needed a scapegoat as his own company tried to navigate the choppy seas of competition in a rapidly-expanding industry.
Finally, after being sued for defamation by the brave California labor organizer-rabbi-attorney Aaron Sapiro in the summer of 1927, Ford apologized for his sins on the front page of every Hearst paper -- as well as the Jewish Daily Forward on the Lower East Side of NYC.
I've had half a dozen years to reflect upon the stain on Ford's psyche, during which time, as we all have seen, his eponymous company has gone through very tough circumstances. As I stressed in my book, the sins of the founder do not carry through to Ford's egalitarian, "green" culture in the present day. But history has a way of reiterating itself. Just ask Mitt Romney. Look at the fracas that erupted when he announced his presidential candidacy at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn last February.
And now, with the publication this weekend of my essay on Henry Ford and the Jews in the huge new Encyclopedia of American Jewish History (ABC-CLIO) it seems as if the weight of time will still not be lifted from Henry Ford's unfortunate, misguided shoulders.