“Believe me, it’s the fellow with four to ten thousand a year, say, and an automobile and a nice little family in a bungalow on the edge of town, that makes the wheels of progress go round.”
—George F. Babbitt

The most prominent buildings of a civilization speak eloquently of what it esteems. The great medieval cathedrals of France rose in splendor over their Gothic towns, and the upward pull of their inner space offered otherworldly consolation to the souls around them. Some 200 years ago, a foreign traveler arriving in one of the coastal cities of English-speaking America would have been awed by the profusion of church steeples towering over the skyline. Today, the seaborne visitor to Manhattan Island will find himself arrested by a very different vision, of concrete or steel-and-glass behemoths that dwarf all human scale, swallowing up such once-imposing ecclesiastical edifices as Trinity in Wall Street or St. Patrick’s in midtown.

In nearly every American city, the physiognomy is much the same. The business skyscraper dominates the urban vision. Of course, such buildings tell us even more of the special place that business holds in our civilization. More specifically, the evolution of skyscrapers—from the nuanced structures of Louis Sullivan to the unabashed virility of the Empire State Building to the glass towers and mirror-skinned hotels that now dominate the American downtown—embodies the changes in the nature of American business. The more recent styles of business architecture perfectly express the bureaucratic and impersonal imperatives of contemporary business. Form follows function in more ways than one.

A people so singlemindedly devoted to commerce as Americans ought to have yearned for a literature that reflected upon the nature of that devotion. If the business of America is business, then the American novelist ought to be willing to depict the stage upon which so much of the drama of our people and our time is set. Such a literature, however, has not been forthcoming. The single most celebrated American novel about a businessman, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, while it fails to meet the need, does touch upon the ambivalence American intellectuals have always felt about the American ideal of worldly success. “The exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS,” William James lamented, “is our national disease”; and the burgeoning skyline of contemporary Manhattan would seem to bear him out.

The rise of the political right in the 1980’s should present an opportunity to correct our misunderstanding of the business world. Although journalists have probably overinterpreted the phenomenon, there can be no doubt that lucrative business careers have a renewed allure, particularly among younger Americans.

George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty and Peters’ and Watermans’ In Search of Excellence reflect our revived admiration for the entrepreneur, the rugged individual who cuts through the red tape and turns ideas into reality. The image of heroic entrepreneur fuses the romantic artist with the captain of industry; a great entrepreneur can be at once as sensible as a banker and as visionary as a mystic—a quintessential American hero.

The entrepreneur has proved to have considerable appeal for the liberals who bait the bureaucracy in Charles Peters’ Washington Monthly. Even PBS is getting into the act with a television series, The Entrepreneurs, aired this spring. Surely the astounding popularity of Lee Iacocca’s autobiography owes much more to that erstwhile Ford salesman’s ability to project a hardworking, scrappy, entrepreneurial image than to any of his concrete achievements. No doubt, this image helps account for the persistent suggestions that Iacocca would make a creditable Presidential candidate.

It is not the first time in this century, though, that a prominent automotive executive has been put forward for the Presidency. As Robert Lacey reminds us in his splendid book Ford: The Men and the Machine, that honor belongs to Henry Ford, himself, perhaps the greatest of all American entrepreneurs. The glimpse Lacey’s book affords into the strange life and mind of this entrepreneurial exemplar, as well as into the tangled psychological legacy he bequeathed to his offspring, may impart a more somber hue to our image of the buccaneering business-adventurer.

Although he was a man of demonic energy, with a kind of rough and unreflective integrity about him, Ford was very far from being the simple man of American folklore. Indeed, the words paradox and irony—not to mention inconsistency—are likely to recur in any discussion of Ford’s life and work. He was a man able to look both forward and backward, often exhibiting both traits at the same time. Such a fusion of futurism and nostalgia was characteristic of many Americans who came of age during the Progressive era; one can find a similar pattern in such different men as Frank Lloyd Wright, Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, and Charles Ives. Ford was merely the most extreme example of such split-mindedness. Although he had the prejudices of an agrarian populist, complete with anti-Semitism and hostility to bankers, Ford was one of the most powerful of American industrialists, pioneering not only the assembly line but also something called “human engineering”—an intrusive and coercive form of labor control. He repeatedly affirmed the solid and middle-American moral teaching of the McGuffey Readers but also kept a mistress directly under his wife’s nose and delighted in the cruel and repeated public abasement of his son and heir apparent, Edsel. He is famous for his injunctions about the uselessness of history but was obsessed with his own history, and, as Lacey shows, he loved to tinker with machinery. Ford hated farming but, in the best Jeffersonian fashion, idealized the virtues of country life; indeed, he spoke of his greatest achievement, the universally affordable Model T, as a means by which a man could “enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Here is where the ironies of Henry Ford begin to extend beyond personal idiosyncracy and begin to take on cultural significance. Ford was the most powerful force behind the automobilization of America, yet he had no intimation of the effects of this technology on “God’s great open spaces.” Once he had become wildly successful and unimaginably wealthy. Ford plunged into what became the overriding passion of his later life: historical restoration. The irony in this development could hardly have been greater. It was as if Ford were trying to compensate for the forces he had unleashed, trying to preserve, in such projects as Greenfield Village, “the slow-paced, candlelit America,” which writes Lacey, “he, more than anyone, did so much to destroy.” Yet there is little evidence that Ford had anything like compensation in mind.

As Lacey’s account of Ford suggests, the entrepreneur is not always able to sustain his efforts effectively. For, the same single-mindedness that fires his creative imagination can as easily blind him to realities. Henry Ford is a case in point. Although his determination to provide “a motor car for the great multitude” was fabulously successful, that success was shorter-lived than is commonly realized. Sales of the Model T slipped steadily during the prosperous mid-1920’s, as the Tin Lizzie became old hat and the public flocked instead to buy the more graceful and fashionable Chevrolets, manufactured at Alfred P. Sloan’s General Motors (and marketed on the installment plan). Hardheaded Henry Ford could not believe that public dissatisfaction with his pet invention was responsible for the declining sales figures. He refused to listen to the sound advice of his son Edsel, that the Model T had to be replaced. Such obstinacy is not unusual among entrepreneurial pioneers, and it had unfortunate results. Thanks to Henry’s insistence upon running the company with the same personal oversight that he had exercised in the beginning, by 1930 the Ford Motor Company lost its primacy in the industry to CM.

The Ford family’s personal control, then, would have much to do with their company’s erratic performance over the years. General Motors, on the other hand, had devised a modern management structure—a bureaucracy based upon systematic research, rational planning, and a well-defined chain of command—which left the chaotic, haphazard, and individualistic management style of Ford floundering in its wake. Only as Ford Motor Company began adopting similar methods—not wholly implemented until the retirement of Henry Ford II and the installment of Philip Caldwell as the first non-Ford-family chairman—was it able to keep pace.

So much, then, for the staying power of some entrepreneurs. For better or worse, their characters and contributions have not, in the final analysis, determined the fate of modern business. It was not in Henry Ford’s fragmented and solitary life, as he shuttled daily between his gargantuan Rouge River plant and his evermounting collections of antiquities, that the future lay. Instead, it lay behind the walls of General Motors’ offices on Grand Boulevard, the world’s largest office building in its day, where CM devised and perfected the methods of modern management. Yet, our understanding of what goes on behind such walls, and particularly in the hearts and minds of those who labor within them, still languishes in obscurity.


[Ford: The Men and the Machine, by Robert Lacey (Boston: Little, Brown) $24.95]