Henry Ford was battling another set of demons. Ford's million-dollar libel suit against the Chicago Tribune finally came to trial in the town of Mt. Clemens, Michigan, in May 1919. It had been three years since the newspaper labeled the automobile manufacturer an "ignorant anarchist" for saying that he was unequivocally opposed to "cowardly and unjust" U.S. military involvement in border disputes with Mexico: "Better to put the Mexican peon to work" Ford said, "then there would be no more talk of a revolution. Villa would become a foreman, if he had brains."
Weeks of detailed questioning by the Tribune's adept attorney, Elliott G. Stevenson, sought to "expose Ford's mind bare," and establish him as pitiably na´ve, ill-educated and unpatriotic. It became painfully clear that the Flivver King was ignorant of most basic textbook facts: the fundamental principles of government, the dates of the Revolutionary War ("1812?" he asked tentatively), and the identity of Benedict Arnold. But what did these so-called facts matter in the end, an exasperated Ford blurted out late one afternoon, since "History is more or less the bunk."
When the jury finally heard enough verbiage from both sides and withdrew to deliberate in "the weary summer of 1919," Ford, feeling dispirited and vindictive, sought to distance himself. He was overdue for another restorative excursion with sympathetic friends. Joined by Harvey Firestones Senior and Junior, Thomas Edison, and naturalist John Burroughs, they pitched tents at Green Island, north of Troy, New York, where Ford had just purchased land. After an afternoon of wood chopping and riflery, and then dinner served around a big table with a bountiful Lazy Susan, the campfire talk on the night of August 5th was dutifully recorded by Burroughs in his notebook. Ford was in an especially dour mood. He strayed off the safe, jingoistic path, and attacked the Jews, Burroughs jotted down, "saying the Jews caused the War, the Jews caused the outbreak of thieving and robbery all across the country, the Jews caused the inefficiency of the Navy." Then Ford lashed out at railroad magnate Jay Gould as "a Shylock," and the prime example of the kind of avarice he abhorred. Burroughs was forced to join the argument; the industrialist had been his childhood playmate and was a Presbyterian.
Such satisfaction was momentary, for Jew-hatred was now an entrenched, persistent stain on Ford's psyche. Stunned and embarrassed by the depth of his friend's aggressive language, Burroughs did not transcribe this aspect of the fireside debate into the published version of his camping story, "A Strenuous Holiday," an otherwise affectionate reminiscence that appeared in his 1921 book, Under the Maples. Nor did Burroughs ever mention Ford's bias in any other related essay about their customary outings together, save to say that "not much of the talk that night around the camp fire can be repeated."
When Ford returned from his summer travels and refocused attention upon his beloved Dearborn Independent, he discovered stagnant circulation and a hemorrhaging budget as the first year of its life moved toward conclusion. Something had to be done to improve matters. "Find an evil to attack, go after it, and stay after it," advised veteran New York World reporter Joseph Jefferson O'Neil, who had been lured away from his job to try to help Ford manage his faltering public persona during the Chicago Tribune trial, "PUSSY FOOTING and being afraid to hurt people will keep us just where we are if not send us further down the ladder...If we get and print the right sort of stuff, ONE SINGLE SERIES may make us known to millions...LET'S HAVE SOME SENSATIONALISM."
Pub date: 00/00/00
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