MORE: Sketching Henry Ford's Lawsuit
The $1 million lawsuit got underway in early May 1919 in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, a town chosen as neutral ground after a great deal of squabbling over where to try the case. Witnesses were called to defend and defame Henry Ford’s patriotism. But in the end, all hinged on Ford’s testimony. He confidently took the stand on July 14 and began an eight-day ordeal of verbal traps and merciless innuendo. The Tribune was on shaky ground in calling Ford an anarchist, but they charged that Ford’s pacifist stance was unpatriotic and just as dangerous as “throwing a bomb.” They called him un-American for his stance that war, no matter the reason, was murder.
But the greatest damage came when they focused on the charge that Ford was indeed an “ignorant idealist.” All of Ford’s published articles were ghost written and implied he had a great knowledge of politics and history. The Tribune’s attorneys began to demolish the auto giant with simple questions about topics found in American history schoolbooks. When asked the date of the American Revolution Ford replied 1812, he thought Benedict Arnold was an author, and he was unable to say when the United States was created or why. When asked if he wanted to leave the jury with the impression that he could not read, he replied, “Yes, you can leave it that way.”
Henry Ford had been made to look a fool. That opinion was reinforced when the jury found the Tribune guilty of libel but reduced the original monetary request to six cents. Most newspapers ridiculed him, but popular support was overwhelmingly on Ford’s side. He revealed himself to be as fallible as the majority of his fellow Americans. Ford remained a man of the people; a spokesman for the ordinary folk across the country.
While Henry publicly ignored the whole thing, the trial seemed to spark something in the great industrialist. On his way home from the trial he told his secretary, “I’m going to start a museum. We are going to show just what actually happened in years gone by.” Ford felt strongly that American history could best be understood, not by studying books, but by examining the objects of everyday life. For more than three decades, he acquired artifacts large and small, to represent American ingenuity and innovation. In 1929, Henry Ford opened his own museum and school system, now The Henry Ford.