Book Review- The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century

Sep 8, 2010


Have you ever read a book that left you both inspired and depressed at the same time? That is what this book by Steven Watts did for me. There is no doubt that Henry Ford was one of the most influential people of his day and much of his influence is still felt. Ford was a visionary and created an empire that is still with us.

What left me feeling depressed was what might have been. Ford was a very insecure leader and surrounded himself with people that catered to his every whim. Anyone who questioned, challenged, or disagreed with him was quickly replaced. Only “Yes Men” were allowed in the inner circle.

Ford’s relationship with his son is an interesting case study. Henry promoted Edsel Ford to President of the Ford Motor Company. This was a position in title only because he was constantly berated, undermined, and humiliated by his father. Ford senior did not feel that his son was tough enough so he countermanded Edsel’s orders and had other executives in the company work to “toughen up” the younger man. The abuse took its toll and Edsel died at 49 from stomach cancer.

Henry Ford was a product of his times and he must be understood as such. I found it interesting, however, that many of the labor issues that large industries deal with today can be traced back to Ford. It is easy to make a case that the rise of unions is directly attributable to the working conditions at the Ford plant. More enlightened leadership might have kept unions out of the picture.

This is an interesting read. Ford’s anti-semitism and his pacificism are discussed at length. Like so many other great men in history, Henry Ford is a study in contrasts. This book  provides some excellent insight into the way that Ford shaped America and how America shaped Ford.

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