Learn about Life in the 1920s

Chapter 17: Things in General

No man exceeds Thomas A. Edison in broad vision and understanding. I met him first many years ago when I was with the Detroit Edison Company--probably about 1887 or thereabouts. The electrical men held a convention at Atlantic City, and Edison, as the leader in electrical science, made an address. I was then working on my gasoline engine, and most people, including all of my associates in the electrical company, had taken pains to tell me that time spent on a gasoline engine was time wasted--that the power of the future was to be electricity. These criticisms had not made any impression on me. I was working ahead with all my might. But being in the same room with Edison suggested to me that it would be a good idea to find out if the master of electricity thought it was going to be the only power in the future. So, after Mr. Edison had finished his address, I managed to catch him alone for a moment. I told him what I was working on.

At once he was interested. He is interested in every search for new knowledge. And then I asked him if he thought that there was a future for the internal combustion engine. He answered something in this fashion:

Yes, there is a big future for any light-weight engine that can develop a high horsepower and be self-contained. No one kind of motive power is ever going to do all the work of the country. We do not know what electricity can do, but I take for granted that it cannot do everything.

Keep on with your engine. If you can get what you are after, I can see a great future.

That is characteristic of Edison. He was the central figure in the electrical industry, which was then young and enthusiastic. The rank and file of the electrical men could see nothing ahead but electricity, but their leader could see with crystal clearness that no one power could do all the work of the country. I suppose that is why he was the leader.

Such was my first meeting with Edison. I did not see him again until many years after--until our motor had been developed and was in production. He remembered perfectly our first meeting. Since then we have seen each other often. He is one of my closest friends, and we together have swapped many an idea.

His knowledge is almost universal. He is interested in every conceivable subject and he recognizes no limitations. He believes that all things are possible. At the same time he keeps his feet on the ground. He goes forward step by step. He regards "impossible" as a description for that which we have not at the moment the knowledge to achieve. He knows that as we amass knowledge we build the power to overcome the impossible. That is the rational way of doing the "impossible." The irrational way is to make the attempt without the toil of accumulating knowledge. Mr. Edison is only approaching the height of his power. He is the man who is going to show us what chemistry really can do. For he is a real scientist who regards the knowledge for which he is always searching as a tool to shape the progress of the world. He is not the type of scientist who merely stores up knowledge and turns his head into a museum. Edison is easily the world's greatest scientist. I am not sure that he is not also the world's worst business man. He knows almost nothing of business.

John Burroughs was another of those who honoured me with their friendship. I, too, like birds. I like the outdoors. I like to walk across country and jump fences. We have five hundred bird houses on the farm. We call them our bird hotels, and one of them, the Hotel Pontchartrain--a martin house--has seventy-six apartments. All winter long we have wire baskets of food hanging about on the trees and then there is a big basin in which the water is kept from freezing by an electric heater. Summer and winter, food, drink, and shelter are on hand for the birds. We have hatched pheasants and quail in incubators and then turned them over to electric brooders. We have all kinds of bird houses and nests. The sparrows, who are great abusers of hospitality, insist that their nests be immovable--that they do not sway in the wind; the wrens like swaying nests. So we mounted a number of wren boxes on strips of spring steel so that they would sway in the wind. The wrens liked the idea and the sparrows did not, so we have been able to have the wrens nest in peace. In summer we leave cherries on the trees and strawberries open in the beds, and I think that we have not only more but also more different kinds of bird callers than anywhere else in the northern states. John Burroughs said he thought we had, and one day when he was staying at our place he came across a bird that he had never seen before.

About ten years ago we imported a great number of birds from abroad--yellow-hammers, chaffinches, green finches, red pales, twites, bullfinches, jays, linnets, larks--some five hundred of them. They stayed around a while, but where they are now I do not know. I shall not import any more. Birds are entitled to live where they want to live.

Birds are the best of companions. We need them for their beauty and their companionship, and also we need them for the strictly economic reason that they destroy harmful insects. The only time I ever used the Ford organization to influence legislation was on behalf of the birds, and I think the end justified the means. The Weeks-McLean Bird Bill, providing for bird sanctuaries for our migratory birds, had been hanging in Congress with every likelihood of dying a natural death. Its immediate sponsors could not arouse much interest among the Congressmen. Birds do not vote. We got behind that bill and we asked each of our six thousand dealers to wire to his representative in Congress. It began to become apparent that birds might have votes; the bill went through. Our organization has never been used for any political purpose and never will be. We assume that our people have a right to their own preferences.

To get back to John Burroughs. Of course I knew who he was and I had read nearly everything he had written, but I had never thought of meeting him until some years ago when he developed a grudge against modern progress. He detested money and especially he detested the power which money gives to vulgar people to despoil the lovely countryside. He grew to dislike the industry out of which money is made. He disliked the noise of factories and railways. He criticized industrial progress, and he declared that the automobile was going to kill the appreciation of nature. I fundamentally disagreed with him. I thought that his emotions had taken him on the wrong tack and so I sent him an automobile with the request that he try it out and discover for himself whether it would not help him to know nature better. That automobile--and it took him some time to learn how to manage it himself--completely changed his point of view. He found that it helped him to see more, and from the time of getting it, he made nearly all of his bird-hunting expeditions behind the steering wheel. He learned that instead of having to confine himself to a few miles around Slabsides, the whole countryside was open to him.

Out of that automobile grew our friendship, and it was a fine one. No man could help being the better for knowing John Burroughs. He was not a professional naturalist, nor did he make sentiment do for hard research. It is easy to grow sentimental out of doors; it is hard to pursue the truth about a bird as one would pursue a mechanical principle. But John Burroughs did that, and as a result the observations he set down were very largely accurate. He was impatient with men who were not accurate in their observations of natural life. John Burroughs first loved nature for its own sake; it was not merely his stock of material as a professional writer. He loved it before he wrote about it.

Late in life he turned philosopher. His philosophy was not so much a philosophy of nature as it was a natural philosophy--the long, serene thoughts of a man who had lived in the tranquil spirit of the trees. He was not pagan; he was not pantheist; but he did not much divide between nature and human nature, nor between human nature and divine. John Burroughs lived a wholesome life. He was fortunate to have as his home the farm on which he was born. Through long years his surroundings were those which made for quietness of mind. He loved the woods and he made dusty-minded city people love them, too--he helped them see what he saw. He did not make much beyond a living. He could have done so, perhaps, but that was not his aim. Like another American naturalist, his occupation could have been described as inspector of birds' nests and hillside paths. Of course, that does not pay in dollars and cents.

When he had passed the three score and ten he changed his views on industry. Perhaps I had something to do with that. He came to see that the whole world could not live by hunting birds' nests. At one time in his life, he had a grudge against all modern progress, especially where it was associated with the burning of coal and the noise of traffic. Perhaps that was as near to literary affectation as he ever came. Wordsworth disliked railways too, and Thoreau said that he could see more of the country by walking. Perhaps it was influences such as these which bent John Burroughs for a time against industrial progress. But only for a time. He came to see that it was fortunate for him that others' tastes ran in other channels, just as it was fortunate for the world that his taste ran in its own channel. There has been no observable development in the method of making birds' nests since the beginning of recorded observation, but that was hardly a reason why human beings should not prefer modern sanitary homes to cave dwellings. This was a part of John Burroughs's sanity--he was not afraid to change his views. He was a lover of Nature, not her dupe. In the course of time he came to value and approve modern devices, and though this by itself is an interesting fact, it is not so interesting as the fact that he made this change after he was seventy years old. John Burroughs was never too old to change. He kept growing to the last. The man who is too set to change is dead already. The funeral is a mere detail.

If he talked more of one person than another, it was Emerson. Not only did he know Emerson by heart as an author, but he knew him by heart as a spirit. He taught me to know Emerson. He had so saturated himself with Emerson that at one time he thought as he did and even fell into his mode of expression. But afterward he found his own way--which for him was better.

There was no sadness in John Burroughs's death. When the grain lies brown and ripe under the harvest sun, and the harvesters are busy binding it into sheaves, there is no sadness for the grain. It has ripened and has fulfilled its term, and so had John Burroughs. With him it was full ripeness and harvest, not decay. He worked almost to the end. His plans ran beyond the end. They buried him amid the scenes he loved, and it was his eighty-fourth birthday. Those scenes will be preserved as he loved them.

John Burroughs, Edison, and I with Harvey S. Firestone made several vagabond trips together. We went in motor caravans and slept under canvas. Once we gypsied through the Adirondacks and again through the Alleghenies, heading southward. The trips were good fun--except that they began to attract too much attention.

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To-day I am more opposed to war than ever I was, and I think the people of the world know--even if the politicians do not--that war never settles anything. It was war that made the orderly and profitable processes of the world what they are to-day--a loose, disjointed mass. Of course, some men get rich out of war; others get poor. But the men who get rich are not those who fought or who really helped behind the lines. No patriot makes money out of war. No man with true patriotism could make money out of war--out of the sacrifice of other men's lives. Until the soldier makes money by fighting, until mothers make money by giving their sons to death--not until then should any citizen make money out of providing his country with the means to preserve its life.

If wars are to continue, it will be harder and harder for the upright business man to regard war as a legitimate means of high and speedy profits. War fortunes are losing caste every day. Even greed will some day hesitate before the overwhelming unpopularity and opposition which will meet the war profiteer. Business should be on the side of peace, because peace is business's best asset.

And, by the way, was inventive genius ever so sterile as it was during the war?

An impartial investigation of the last war, of what preceded it and what has come out of it, would show beyond a doubt that there is in the world a group of men with vast powers of control, that prefers to remain unknown, that does not seek office or any of the tokens of power, that belongs to no nation whatever but is international--a force that uses every government, every widespread business organization, every agency of publicity, every resource of national psychology, to throw the world into a panic for the sake of getting still more power over the world. An old gambling trick used to be for the gambler to cry "Police!" when a lot of money was on the table, and, in the panic that followed, to seize the money and run off with it. There is a power within the world which cries "War!" and in the confusion of the nations, the unrestrained sacrifice which people make for safety and peace runs off with the spoils of the panic.

The point to keep in mind is that, though we won the military contest, the world has not yet quite succeeded in winning a complete victory over the promoters of war. We ought not to forget that wars are a purely manufactured evil and are made according to a definite technique. A campaign for war is made upon as definite lines as a campaign for any other purpose. First, the people are worked upon. By clever tales the people's suspicions are aroused toward the nation against whom war is desired. Make the nation suspicious; make the other nation suspicious. All you need for this is a few agents with some cleverness and no conscience and a press whose interest is locked up with the interests that will be benefited by war. Then the "overt act" will soon appear. It is no trick at all to get an "overt act" once you work the hatred of two nations up to the proper pitch.

There were men in every country who were glad to see the World War begin and sorry to see it stop. Hundreds of American fortunes date from the Civil War; thousands of new fortunes date from the World War. Nobody can deny that war is a profitable business for those who like that kind of money. War is an orgy of money, just as it is an orgy of blood.

And we should not so easily be led into war if we considered what it is that makes a nation really great. It is not the amount of trade that makes a nation great. The creation of private fortunes, like the creation of an autocracy, does not make any country great. Nor does the mere change of an agricultural population into a factory population. A country becomes great when, by the wise development of its resources and the skill of its people, property is widely and fairly distributed.

Foreign trade is full of delusions. We ought to wish for every nation as large a degree of self-support as possible. Instead of wishing to keep them dependent on us for what we manufacture, we should wish them to learn to manufacture themselves and build up a solidly founded civilization. When every nation learns to produce the things which it can produce, we shall be able to get down to a basis of serving each other along those special lines in which there can be no competition. The North Temperate Zone will never be able to compete with the tropics in the special products of the tropics. Our country will never be a competitor with the Orient in the production of tea, nor with the South in the production of rubber.

A large proportion of our foreign trade is based on the backwardness of our foreign customers. Selfishness is a motive that would preserve that backwardness. Humanity is a motive that would help the backward nations to a self-supporting basis. Take Mexico, for example. We have heard a great deal about the "development" of Mexico. Exploitation is the word that ought instead to be used. When its rich natural resources are exploited for the increase of the private fortunes of foreign capitalists, that is not development, it is ravishment. You can never develop Mexico until you develop the Mexican. And yet how much of the "development" of Mexico by foreign exploiters ever took account of the development of its people? The Mexican peon has been regarded as mere fuel for the foreign money-makers. Foreign trade has been his degradation.

Short-sighted people are afraid of such counsel. They say: "What would become of our foreign trade?"

When the natives of Africa begin raising their own cotton and the natives of Russia begin making their own farming implements and the natives of China begin supplying their own wants, it will make a difference, to be sure, but does any thoughtful man imagine that the world can long continue on the present basis of a few nations supplying the needs of the world? We must think in terms of what the world will be when civilization becomes general, when all the peoples have learned to help themselves.

When a country goes mad about foreign trade it usually depends on other countries for its raw material, turns its population into factory fodder, creates a private rich class, and lets its own immediate interest lie neglected. Here in the United States we have enough work to do developing our own country to relieve us of the necessity of looking for foreign trade for a long time. We have agriculture enough to feed us while we are doing it, and money enough to carry the job through. Is there anything more stupid than the United States standing idle because Japan or France or any other country has not sent us an order when there is a hundred-year job awaiting us in developing our own country?

Commerce began in service. Men carried off their surplus to people who had none. The country that raised corn carried it to the country that could raise no corn. The lumber country brought wood to the treeless plain. The vine country brought fruit to cold northern climes. The pasture country brought meat to the grassless region. It was all service. When all the peoples of the world become developed in the art of self-support, commerce will get back to that basis. Business will once more become service. There will be no competition, because the basis of competition will have vanished. The varied peoples will develop skills which will be in the nature of monopolies and not competitive. From the beginning, the races have exhibited distinct strains of genius: this one for government; another for colonization; another for the sea; another for art and music; another for agriculture; another for business, and so on. Lincoln said that this nation could not survive half-slave and half-free. The human race cannot forever exist half-exploiter and half-exploited. Until we become buyers and sellers alike, producers and consumers alike, keeping the balance not for profit but for service, we are going to have topsy-turvy conditions.

France has something to give the world of which no competition can cheat her. So has Italy. So has Russia. So have the countries of South America. So has Japan. So has Britain. So has the United States. The sooner we get back to a basis of natural specialties and drop this free-for-all system of grab, the sooner we shall be sure of international self-respect--and international peace. Trying to take the trade of the world can promote war. It cannot promote prosperity. Some day even the international bankers will learn this.

I have never been able to discover any honourable reasons for the beginning of the World War. It seems to have grown out of a very complicated situation created largely by those who thought they could profit by war. I believed, on the information that was given to me in 1916, that some of the nations were anxious for peace and would welcome a demonstration for peace. It was in the hope that this was true that I financed the expedition to Stockholm in what has since been called the "Peace Ship." I do not regret the attempt. The mere fact that it failed is not, to me, conclusive proof that it was not worth trying. We learn more from our failures than from our successes. What I learned on that trip was worth the time and the money expended. I do not now know whether the information as conveyed to me was true or false. I do not care. But I think everyone will agree that if it had been possible to end the war in 1916 the world would be better off than it is to-day.

For the victors wasted themselves in winning, and the vanquished in resisting. Nobody got an advantage, honourable or dishonourable, out of that war. I had hoped, finally, when the United States entered the war, that it might be a war to end wars, but now I know that wars do not end wars any more than an extraordinarily large conflagration does away with the fire hazard. When our country entered the war, it became the duty of every citizen to do his utmost toward seeing through to the end that which we had undertaken. I believe that it is the duty of the man who opposes war to oppose going to war up until the time of its actual declaration. My opposition to war is not based upon pacifist or non-resistant principles. It may be that the present state of civilization is such that certain international questions cannot be discussed; it may be that they have to be fought out. But the fighting never settles the question. It only gets the participants around to a frame of mind where they will agree to discuss what they were fighting about.

Once we were in the war, every facility of the Ford industries was put at the disposal of the Government. We had, up to the time of the declaration of war, absolutely refused to take war orders from the foreign belligerents. It is entirely out of keeping with the principles of our business to disturb the routine of our production unless in an emergency. It is at variance with our human principles to aid either side in a war in which our country was not involved. These principles had no application, once the United States entered the war. From April, 1917, until November, 1918, our factory worked practically exclusively for the Government. Of course we made cars and parts and special delivery trucks and ambulances as a part of our general production, but we also made many other articles that were more or less new to us. We made 2 1/2-ton and 6-ton trucks. We made Liberty motors in great quantities, aero cylinders, 1.55 Mm. and 4.7 Mm. caissons. We made listening devices, steel helmets (both at Highland Park and Philadelphia), and Eagle Boats, and we did a large amount of experimental work on armour plate, compensators, and body armour. For the Eagle Boats we put up a special plant on the River Rouge site. These boats were designed to combat the submarines. They were 204 feet long, made of steel, and one of the conditions precedent to their building was that their construction should not interfere with any other line of war production and also that they be delivered quickly. The design was worked out by the Navy Department. On December 22, 1917, I offered to build the boats for the Navy. The discussion terminated on January 15, 1918, when the Navy Department awarded the contract to the Ford Company. On July 11th, the first completed boat was launched. We made both the hulls and the engines, and not a forging or a rolled beam entered into the construction of other than the engine. We stamped the hulls entirely out of sheet steel. They were built indoors. In four months we ran up a building at the River Rouge a third of a mile long, 350 feet wide, and 100 feet high, covering more than thirteen acres. These boats were not built by marine engineers. They were built simply by applying our production principles to a new product.

With the Armistice, we at once dropped the war and went back to peace.

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An able man is a man who can do things, and his ability to do things is dependent on what he has in him. What he has in him depends on what he started with and what he has done to increase and discipline it.

An educated man is not one whose memory is trained to carry a few dates in history--he is one who can accomplish things. A man who cannot think is not an educated man however many college degrees he may have acquired. Thinking is the hardest work any one can do--which is probably the reason why we have so few thinkers. There are two extremes to be avoided: one is the attitude of contempt toward education, the other is the tragic snobbery of assuming that marching through an educational system is a sure cure for ignorance and mediocrity. You cannot learn in any school what the world is going to do next year, but you can learn some of the things which the world has tried to do in former years, and where it failed and where it succeeded. If education consisted in warning the young student away from some of the false theories on which men have tried to build, so that he may be saved the loss of the time in finding out by bitter experience, its good would be unquestioned. An education which consists of signposts indicating the failure and the fallacies of the past doubtless would be very useful. It is not education just to possess the theories of a lot of professors. Speculation is very interesting, and sometimes profitable, but it is not education. To be learned in science to-day is merely to be aware of a hundred theories that have not been proved. And not to know what those theories are is to be "uneducated," "ignorant," and so forth. If knowledge of guesses is learning, then one may become learned by the simple expedient of making his own guesses. And by the same token he can dub the rest of the world "ignorant" because it does not know what his guesses are. But the best that education can do for a man is to put him in possession of his powers, give him control of the tools with which destiny has endowed him, and teach him how to think. The college renders its best service as an intellectual gymnasium, in which mental muscle is developed and the student strengthened to do what he can. To say, however, that mental gymnastics can be had only in college is not true, as every educator knows. A man's real education begins after he has left school. True education is gained through the discipline of life.

There are many kinds of knowledge, and it depends on what crowd you happen to be in, or how the fashions of the day happen to run, which kind of knowledge, is most respected at the moment. There are fashions in knowledge, just as there are in everything else. When some of us were lads, knowledge used to be limited to the Bible. There were certain men in the neighbourhood who knew the Book thoroughly, and they were looked up to and respected. Biblical knowledge was highly valued then. But nowadays it is doubtful whether deep acquaintance with the Bible would be sufficient to win a man a name for learning.

Knowledge, to my mind, is something that in the past somebody knew and left in a form which enables all who will to obtain it. If a man is born with normal human faculties, if he is equipped with enough ability to use the tools which we call "letters" in reading or writing, there is no knowledge within the possession of the race that he cannot have--if he wants it! The only reason why every man does not know everything that the human mind has ever learned is that no one has ever yet found it worth while to know that much. Men satisfy their minds more by finding out things for themselves than by heaping together the things which somebody else has found out. You can go out and gather knowledge all your life, and with all your gathering you will not catch up even with your own times. You may fill your head with all the "facts" of all the ages, and your head may be just an overloaded fact-box when you get through. The point is this: Great piles of knowledge in the head are not the same as mental activity. A man may be very learned and very useless. And then again, a man may be unlearned and very useful.

The object of education is not to fill a man's mind with facts; it is to teach him how to use his mind in thinking. And it often happens that a man can think better if he is not hampered by the knowledge of the past.

It is a very human tendency to think that what mankind does not yet know no one can learn. And yet it must be perfectly clear to everyone that the past learning of mankind cannot be allowed to hinder our future learning. Mankind has not gone so very far when you measure its progress against the knowledge that is yet to be gained--the secrets that are yet to be learned.

One good way to hinder progress is to fill a man's head with all the learning of the past; it makes him feel that because his head is full, there is nothing more to learn. Merely gathering knowledge may become the most useless work a man can do. What can you do to help and heal the world? That is the educational test. If a man can hold up his own end, he counts for one. If he can help ten or a hundred or a thousand other men hold up their ends, he counts for more. He may be quite rusty on many things that inhabit the realm of print, but he is a learned man just the same. When a man is master of his own sphere, whatever it may be, he has won his degree--he has entered the realm of wisdom.

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The work which we describe as Studies in the Jewish Question, and which is variously described by antagonists as "the Jewish campaign," "the attack on the Jews," "the anti-Semitic pogrom," and so forth, needs no explanation to those who have followed it. Its motives and purposes must be judged by the work itself. It is offered as a contribution to a question which deeply affects the country, a question which is racial at its source, and which concerns influences and ideals rather than persons. Our statements must be judged by candid readers who are intelligent enough to lay our words alongside life as they are able to observe it. If our word and their observation agree, the case is made. It is perfectly silly to begin to damn us before it has been shown that our statements are baseless or reckless. The first item to be considered is the truth of what we have set forth. And that is precisely the item which our critics choose to evade.

Readers of our articles will see at once that we are not actuated by any kind of prejudice, except it may be a prejudice in favor of the principles which have made our civilization. There had been observed in this country certain streams of influence which were causing a marked deterioration in our literature, amusements, and social conduct; business was departing from its old-time substantial soundness; a general letting down of standards was felt everywhere. It was not the robust coarseness of the white man, the rude indelicacy, say, of Shakespeare's characters, but a nasty Orientalism which has insidiously affected every channel of expression--and to such an extent that it was time to challenge it. The fact that these influences are all traceable to one racial source is a fact to be reckoned with, not by us only, but by the intelligent people of the race in question. It is entirely creditable to them that steps have been taken by them to remove their protection from the more flagrant violators of American hospitality, but there is still room to discard outworn ideas of racial superiority maintained by economic or intellectually subversive warfare upon Christian society.

Our work does not pretend to say the last word on the Jew in America. It says only the word which describes his obvious present impress on the country. When that impress is changed, the report of it can be changed. For the present, then, the question is wholly in the Jews' hands. If they are as wise as they claim to be, they will labour to make Jews American, instead of labouring to make America Jewish. The genius of the United States of America is Christian in the broadest sense, and its destiny is to remain Christian. This carries no sectarian meaning with it, but relates to a basic principle which differs from other principles in that it provides for liberty with morality, and pledges society to a code of relations based on fundamental Christian conceptions of human rights and duties.

As for prejudice or hatred against persons, that is neither American nor Christian. Our opposition is only to ideas, false ideas, which are sapping the moral stamina of the people. These ideas proceed from easily identified sources, they are promulgated by easily discoverable methods; and they are controlled by mere exposure. We have simply used the method of exposure. When people learn to identify the source and nature of the influence swirling around them, it is sufficient. Let the American people once understand that it is not natural degeneracy, but calculated subversion that afflicts us, and they are safe. The explanation is the cure.

This work was taken up without personal motives. When it reached a stage where we believed the American people could grasp the key, we let it rest for the time. Our enemies say that we began it for revenge and that we laid it down in fear. Time will show that our critics are merely dealing in evasion because they dare not tackle the main question. Time will also show that we are better friends to the Jews' best interests than are those who praise them to their faces and criticize them behind their backs.

Chapter 18 - Democracy and Industry >>>