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Irving Bacon worked for the Ford Motor Company Photographic Department and later, the Dearborn Independent, under whose auspices he attended The Chicago Tribune trial and made sketches of the participants. Bacon led a charmed life as Henry Ford’s “court painter,” being chosen by Ford to paint scenes from Ford’s life. ID.99.1.1805

October 2005

Sketching Henry Ford's Lawsuit

In 1919, Irving Bacon, Henry Ford’s personal artist, sat in a courtroom in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, sketching the participants in Ford’s $1 million lawsuit against The Chicago Tribune. In his sketchbook, Bacon captured the cast of characters in the famous libel suit—judge, lawyers, members of the jury and spectators—though, curiously, Bacon’s boss is absent from these pages.

The story of the lawsuit began in June 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson mobilized the National Guard to stop Mexican general Pancho Villa from conducting raids across the Mexican border into Texas. Robert McCormick, the ultra-patriotic publisher of The Chicago Tribune, ordered his staff to contact large American businesses to learn whether they would continue to pay employees called to duty their normal wage. When the newspaper contacted Ford Motor Company, Frank Klinginsmith, the treasurer, responded with the standard company policy that the men would forfeit their jobs and receive no aid. This was incorrect—the 88 employees sent to the Mexican border had been given special badges ensuring each man their current job when they returned.

Knowing Henry Ford’s pacifist position, the Tribune, without checking the accuracy of Klinginsmith’s statement, immediately published an article and editorial questioning Ford’s patriotism and calling him an anarchist, stating that “If Ford allows this rule to stand he will reveal himself not merely as an ignorant idealist, but as an anarchistic enemy of the nation that protects him in his wealth.” Henry Ford was inclined to ignore the articles, but his attorney Alfred Lucking thought the charges intolerable and urged the industrialist to sue for libel saying it damaged Ford’s reputation.



Click on the sketches to learn more about these trial participants.

James G. Tucker, Judge

Alfred Lucking, Henry Ford’s Lawyer

Elliot G. Stevenson, Tribune Lawyer

Farmer Orvey Hulett, Foreman of the Jury

Newspaper Reporters


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.

Terry Hoover

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