Henry Ford, Alan Nevins, and the Making of History

The following is an original piece by Dan Albert written for Moving History:

Literally hundreds of histories of the Model T, its inventor, and the company behind it have been written. The outlines of the story are well known: a genius inventor created the perfect car for a newly motorizing nation. He introduced the modern assembly line and put America on wheels. Although academic historians of the last generation have given voice to new perspectives and theories of historical change around Ford, the textbook view has not strayed far from the narrative constructed by Ford’s biographers.

Much of conventional wisdom traces back to Ford, a three volume biography of the man and the company written by Allan Nevins and Frank Hill and published by Columbia University between 1954 and 1963. [1] Nevins was a preeminent scholar of American history. He wrote 33 books, including two Pulitzer-prize winners, directed more than 100 PhD dissertations, and founded the American Heritage Magazine. Frank Hill was an editor, journalist, and English professor. At well over 2,000 pages, the trilogy is exhaustive: it begins by tracing the Ford family tree back to eighteenth century Ireland and concludes with a Ford Motor Company organizational chart circa 1962. Each volume of Ford is scholarly, impeccably researched, and rich in narrative. Yet, despite being the primary source for many popular histories, it has not been subjected to critical historiographical review. Indeed Nevins has largely been forgotten inside the academy.

Setting the production of the Ford trilogy in its historical context can illuminate the way historical analysis can be shaped by the source material preserved and the goals of the author. This has larger implications for the study of transportation history and how we should collect and conserve the record for future historians to use.

The Sources

Ford draws mainly on the Ford Archives at Dearborn, which Nevins described as a model for any industrial organization which wishes to preserve its records and make them available to students.”[2]  Having mined the Ford archives myself some four decades later, I can confirm that assessment. Yet Nevins is hardly an unbiased source on this point because he had a hand in developing the archive. The historian was in great demand after World War II. Representatives of industry – lumber, steel, oil, automotive – began asking him write corporate or industry-wide histories. Henry Ford II approached Nevins with the idea of writing a company history as part of its golden anniversary celebration. Ford would fund the project and Columbia staff would conduct the research and write the history.

Nevins welcomed industry collaborations and assiduously guarded the boundary between the academy and the paymaster. In fact, he insisted that such projects be overseen by a committee and conducted by more than a single scholar to avoid any impropriety. He would have nothing to do with white washing. As historian Gerald Fetner concludes in his 2004 biography, Nevins’ entire body of work – including two volumes on John D. Rockefeller and an eight-volume history of the Civil War – aimed to advance a patriotic and positivist vision of American history.[3] Journalist Ferdinand Lundberg was more critical when he called Nevin’s book on Rockefeller, Study in Power, “an extremely friendly, pro-Rockefeller source.”[4]

Historian of technology David Noble wondered why it took until 2004 for any historian to subject Nevins – a preeminent and popular historian in his prime – to critical analysis. Noble concludes that pluralism came to the academy in the 1950s. “The concerns of historians who were women, Jews, Catholics, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans would not necessarily be the same as those of Nevins.”[5] When these new practitioners gained access to the academy, they questioned the great man theory of history and the very notion of historical objectivity itself.

The Reminiscences

Nevins makes liberal use of oral histories. Collecting and preserving oral histories today should be of particular interest because we now have, in effect, everything else. The internet already stores emails, text messages, social media posts, newspapers and terabytes of other data passively. Collecting and archiving the personal and institutional memories of individuals, however, takes legwork.

Nevins highlighted the value of oral histories in his introduction. “Much of this material is pure gold for the historian,” he wrote.[6] Direct quotes gave Nevins narrative vitality. In 1948, Nevins had created the first institutional oral history program in the U.S., at Columbia. His student Owen Bombard conducted the interviews for the archives and the book. The transcripts record no questions but explain that subjects were given general topics and asked to comment. In some instances, subjects submitted manuscripts. Bombard had easy access to friends, employees, and colleagues of Henry Ford, whose entire life was still within living memory. The transcripts let Nevins create his dramatis personae, most notably Henry Ford himself. But like Frank Hill, Nevins was a journalist before joining the ivory tower. His style was one of conversation rather than interrogation. He let his subjects talk (or ramble). There is no evidence of cross examination or critical questioning.

Taken together the historical context reminds us that Nevins tells a story of Ford, not the story. Throughout the massive text, questions large and small, inconsequential and of enduring consequence are resolved in line with the author’s world view and arguably with those of the client, Henry Ford II, as well.

Again, Ford has never been subject to historiographical review, and I don’t intend this blog post to take on that massive task. I’ll conclude simply with two examples – one inconsequential and one of lasting consequence – to illustrate the points that objectivity remains elusive and that how we record history, especially oral history, matters.

First, the inconsequential: was Henry Ford a temperate driver or a speed freak? Nevins paints a picture of Henry as safety conscious from the start. He put a bell on his first car to warn pedestrians. He was a reluctant racer (at a time when winning races was the best advertising). He complained the Model A was too fast. “We can’t put this car out to the public,” he said, We’ll kill them all.”[7] But Rufus Wilson, Ford’s longtime chauffeur, told a different story to Owen Bombard: Henry was indeed a speed freak. “We never got tickets,” Wilson recalled. “We’d drive around 50 through the city. Police would recognize us and wave us right through.” Even at the age of 80, “he liked to go 75 miles an hour.”[8]

Wilson’s account doesn’t make it into the pages of Ford, and whether Henry Ford was a speed demon or not may not seem to matter. Nevertheless, it reflects a particular point of view. With the image of an 80-year-old Ford doing 75 (in the days before crashworthy cars and Interstates) in mind, the story of the bell takes on a different tone. Was Henry concerned about pedestrian safety or, like so many drivers who lean on the horn today, did he delight in watching pedestrians scatter,  Worth noting as well is the fact that Ford Motor Company was developing the “Lifeguard” safety package at the time. Ford introduced it in 1956  hoping to achieve competitive advantage.

Second, and of far more consequence, Nevins exonerates Ford on the charge of antisemitism. He conclude that Henry’s antisemitism reflected the mild endemic antisemitism of nineteenth century rural Michigan. Henry was naive and not engaged with his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, when it published a 91-part series of articles, The International Jew. “His hostility to the ‘international Jew,’” Nevins finds, “was also mainly founded on ignorance. Part of it was ideological, but it was the ideology of misinformation, not malice.” His “suspiciousness” of “alien” “men and institutions” were typical of his rural upbringing and in any case only grew “when he came under fire.”[9]

In fact, Ford was a virulent antisemite. Michigan professor David Lewis, a onetime publicity executive at Ford does not shy away from that fact in The Public Image of Henry Ford (1976).[10] The International Jew sparked protests and a defamation lawsuit at the time. Ford films were banned in many theaters. Subsequent historians have pointed out that when such towering figures as Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford expressed Nazi sympathies in the 1930s (both received the German Cross), American Jews thought twice about raising their voices in support of European Jewry.

Nevins’ heroic image of Henry Ford continues to be defended today. In 2019, the mayor of Dearborn fired the editor of The Dearborn Historian, and halted distribution of the magazine because he objected to the cover story, “A Special Report: Henry Ford and The International Jew.”[11] Then, on May 25, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic, Ford Motor Company gave Donald Trump a tour of  Ford’s Rawsonville plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Controversy preceded the visit because it violated a state order against unnecessary plant tours and because Ford Motor Company’s policy required the wearing of facemasks, which Trump had so far refused to do in front of the cameras (or at all, as far was we know). In the event, Ford buckled and Michigan allowed the tour to go ahead. Trump courted controversy nevertheless by making reference to the Ford family’s “good blood lines” in his speech at the plant.[12] Commentators drew on Henry Ford’s history of anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies to suggest Trump’s praise of good blood lines was a dog whistle for his white supremacist supporters.


The teams from Ford and Columbia developed the Ford Motor Company Archives – which has evolved into a world-class resource, the Benson Ford Research Center – and published Ford to celebrate the company’s history. Reminding ourselves of this historical context enhances rather than diminishes the value of Nevins’ work. Instead, it affords a richer understanding of key figures and critical developments in the history of transportation. It should also encourage us to be mindful and introspective as we lay down our own record for future historical study.

-Dan Albert holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan. His history of the American automobile, Are we there yet?: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless is due out from W.W. Norton in November.

[1] Allan Nevins and Frank Ernest Hill. Ford. 3 vols. (New York: Arno Press, 1976).

[2] Nevins and Hill, viii.

[3] Gerald L. Fetner Immersed in Great Affairs: Allan Nevins and the Heroic Age of American History. Albany: SUNY Press, 2004.

[4] Ferdinand Lundberg. The Rockefeller Syndrome. n.p.: J. Boylston, Publishers, 2017. https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/hdWCDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=allan%20nevins accessed May 25, 2020.

[5] David W. Noble and Gerald L. Fetner. The American Historical Review 110, no. 3 (2005): 826. Accessed May 25, 2020. doi:10.1086/ahr.110.3.826.

[6] Nevins and Hill, viii.

[7] This is one of many quotes and stories in automotive history “too good to check.” Oral history sources in particular are both memorable and difficult to pin down. Joel Eastman attributes E.G. Liebold as the source in Styling vs. Safety: The American Automobile Industry and the Development of Automotive Safety, 1900-1966. (Lanham: University Press of America, 1984). Steven Watts claims in The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (New York: Vintage, 2006) that he found reference to two oral histories including the story in Nevins and Hill (there is no such reference on the pages he cites). Some cited transcripts are available and some even digitized, but the researcher would otherwise have to consult the archival audio tapes. My review of the digitized sources has come up empty.

[8] “The Reminiscences of Mr. Rufus Wilson.” Owen W. Bombard interviews series, November 1951. Accession 65, p. 5. The Henry Ford. https://cdm15889.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15889coll2/id/19244. Accessed 5/26/2020

[9] Nevins and Hill, vol. 2, 618.

[10] Lewis, David L. The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987, Chp. 9.

[11] Columbia Journalism Review. “Magazine Censored, Editor Dropped for Covering Henry Ford’s Anti-Semitic Newspaper.” Accessed May 26, 2020. https://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/dearborn-historian-independent-henry-ford.php.

[12] Lahut, Jake. “Trump Praises Henry Ford’s ‘good Bloodlines’ While Touring Michigan Manufacturing Plant.” Business Insider. Accessed May 26, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-praises-henry-fords-good-bloodlines-at-michigan-ppe-event-2020-5.


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