“History is Bunk,” and other Facts of History (with a Bit of Irony )

 Recently, I again came across someone quoting that hoary “history is bunk” statement, attributed to Henry Ford.  I have never considered those who quote it worth the effort to engage,  but this time it got me thinking about the facts behind it.  

A perusal of the web for ‘history is bunk’ revealed that very few of those who opined on the subject have done much investigation of the context of Ford’s statement. After a quick dip into my library I emerged with Richard Shenkman’s “I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not,” (*Warren Harding), A new collections by the Author of Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History (Harper 1992).

Shenkman serves up funny and clever ‘de-bunks’ of popular beliefs, offered from the author’s perspective in 1992. In a chapter called “History,” Shenkman takes on Ford’s alleged statement.

Shenkman wrote,  “His [Ford’s] objections was not to history per se; ahead of his  time he held the belief that social history is eminently worthwhile.” His emphasis in italics was a good sign, I told myself. Shenkman then continued, “What [Ford] disliked was the history that emphasizes, to the exclusion of all else, the comings and goings of kings and presidents.”

Oh, dear. Did Ford consider ‘bunk’ those parts of ‘history’ which provide those ‘marquee names’ in the popular historical fiction market?  How awkward—but how telling about Ford the man, his own society and time—and ours.

To support his statement, Shenkman cited the work by Robert Lacey, Ford, the Men and the Machine (Little, Brown & Co., 1986), pp. 251-252 which ‘de-bunks’ the ‘bunk’ statement. Shenkman provided me a lead, a FACT to pursue, offered by someone who had done research on Henry Ford. And hopefully, with footnotes.

I pursued the citation all the way to pp. 251-2 of Lacey’s Ford,  and… and they are BLANK!!! Absolutely blank, a space between Part III and Park IV!!!

But wait….page citations are often wrong—and don’t I know it. I went to the index, and found a lead to p. 237, Chapter 14, ‘Time Machine.’  And there it was.

Good stuff, that chapter and all those that precede and follow it.

It was during Ford’s libel suit against the Chicago Tribune, that his testimony revealed to certain of his contemporaries a sketchy knowledge of American history (Lacey, p. 200).

                Q. Have there been any revolutions in this country?”

                A.  [Ford] Yes.

                Q. When?

                A. In 1812.

                A. One in 1812, eh? Any other time?

                Q. I don’t know of any others.

At that time, these answers, and others, marked Ford as an ignoramus to the educated, and a hero to the ‘plain people.’

It was also on the occasion of this trial that Ford’s earlier statement, made in 1916, regarding ‘bunk’ came up—which Ford maintained was a misquote. Ford tried to clarify it by stating that he was referring to the way that history was taught in American textbooks—all dates, and battles and names of politicians (Lacey, p. 239). All that ‘marquee’ history?

Of course history is, among other things, not just about facts, but about the irony of them.

 As quoted (erroneously or not) in the Chicago Tribune in 1916, Ford is supposed to have said, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

And yet—in 1919, after his less than stellar performance during the Chicago Tribune trial, Ford is quoted as saying, “I’m going to give…the people an idea of real history. I am going to start a museum. We are going to show just what actually happened in years gone by.” (Lacey, p. 239)

Good to his word, Ford launched on the preservation and relocation of old structures that industrializing American was devouring at breakneck speed. Starting with the rescue of Wayside Inn inSudbury,Mass., in order to provide “an idea of real history,” Ford continued his own assemblage of historical buildings atGreenfield Village,Michiganto serve as a “living history” museum. And he supplemented it by collecting the stuff used by the people who once lived in the old buildings. Today we call it ‘material culture,’ a part of social history.

TheGreenfieldVillagedraws 1.5 million visitors a year.

And so the man who allegedly declared all history ‘bunk’ and the present to be all that mattered, ended up engaged in attempting the most historical of historians’ objectives… “to show just what actually happened in years gone by.”

How ‘historical’ his effort turned out is, of course, a matter of debate. Now if only there was a way we knew the FACTS of that statement, the Truth and Nothing but the Truth, and none of that ‘bunk.’

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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