Henry Ford’s “History is Bunk” is Bunk

Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Posted in category Business
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An article on LRC today mentions the of Mother of All Misrepresented Quotes, Henry Ford’s “History is bunk.” I want to expand on that. A fuller quote is, “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.” -1916.

Now I’ve spent many hours at the Benson Ford Research Center in nearby Dearborn, MI, which houses the Ford Motor Company historical archives from 1903-1955, and includes just about anything that one is able to research in regards to Henry Ford. Ford is perhaps the most misunderstood and misrepresented of all Americans. Indeed it was his own unenlightenment and coarseness that often got him into trouble. This Ford “quote moment” came about in May of 1916, when a Chicago Tribune reporter was questioning Ford about his posture against the buildup of the American military, and the reporter reminded Ford of the greatness of the British Empire’s military as it stopped Napoleon’s Army from crossing the English Channel. Ford’s full quote followed a blow-off of the reporter’s comment on Napolean (I don’t have the exact cite on me at this time).

Ford, however, did support Wilson in 1916, as the “President who kept us out of the war.” Wilson later talked Ford into running for the U.S. Senate, wherein he narrowly lost the election.

As noted by Globe and Mail writer Robert Fulford, several years ago, historian Eugen Weber, in an essay called “Doing History,” did an analysis of Ford’s full meaning by actually looking at all context, and not just the shortened quotation that ran in a May 1916 Chicago Tribune article.

A few years ago, in an essay called “Doing History,” Weber analyzed Henry Ford’s famous remark, “History is bunk.” Since Ford was a bigot and a tyrant, that’s usually quoted as an example of ignorance. But Weber used it to demonstrate that we can understand nothing except through context. Ford actually said “History is more or less bunk,” which is slightly different, and he said it in 1916, in the middle of the First World War.

Ford thought that devotion to the past prevents us from grappling with the present and may encourage us to make war out of historical grievance. In 1914 all the European leaders knew history, Ford said, yet they blundered into the worst war ever.

On another occasion Ford recalled looking in American history books “to learn how our forefathers harrowed the land”; he discovered that historians barely mentioned harrows, the iron-toothed rakes essential to modern farming. Harrows, Ford argued, meant more in history than guns and speeches. When history “excludes harrows, and all the rest of daily life,” then history is bunk.

Maybe Ford felt strongly about harrows because he manufactured them, Weber says; even so, he was right when he argued that history should tell how ordinary people lived. And Ford won. The rise of social history began in the 1920s with the Annales movement in France, and has spread ever since. As Weber says, “The sort of history that Ford wanted is pretty much the history that we do today.”

Ford was a great proponent of learning from history, and using the past to promote progress and future, especially concerning, yes, war, as well as captains of industry.

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