In A Nutshell
Henry Ford once sued the Chicago Tribune for slander because it called him an ignorant anarchist. In court, the defense attorney decided to demonstrate Ford’s ignorance and lack of patriotism by asking him basic American history questions. The automobile tycoon consistently missed these questions, and court transcripts of his buffoonery became popular reading at the time. Ultimately, the court ruled in Ford’s favor and awarded him six cents.
The Whole Bushel
Henry Ford is best remembered for his Model T as the vehicle that popularized automobiles across all social classes in America, his extreme implementation of the assembly line (which wasn’t actually his invention) and for being so anti-semitic that Adolf Hitler complimented him in Mein Kampf. But in 1919, he got into a mess that briefly made him a laughingstock—and he had no one to blame but himself.
In a 1916 article, the Chicago Tribune printed a long string of insults, calling Ford “an anarchist,” “an ignorant idealist,” and “incapable of thought” after he protested military mobilization along the Mexican border. Ford sued the newspaper for $1 million. Proceedings began three years later. It would ultimately stretch out for 14 weeks and involve more than two million words of testimony.
At one point, Ford took the stand as the advocate for the Tribune prepared to demonstrate how well deserved the label “ignorant” was. The tycoon was asked a series of basic questions related to American history and his own political activeness. Ford’s wrong answers included believing that the Revolutionary War happened in 1812 and that Benedict Arnold was a writer. Ford was also quickly called on lying when asked about the only year that he voted. (That one wasn’t difficult to verify, since the supposed candidate was long dead by the time the supposed vote was cast.)
With one of the richest and most famous men in America being made to look like he belonged in a comedy show, court transcripts of his testimony began to hit the streets and become popular reading. Supposedly, one wily sales person in the vicinity of the courthouse made enough money selling them that he bought a house with the profits. Ford’s lawsuit (remember, he initiated the fight) was essentially legitimizing attacks that were three years old and no doubt long out of the public consciousness by then.
Ultimately, after hundreds of witnesses testified for both sides, a verdict was laid down in Ford’s favor. For all his time, energy, and humiliation, total costs for the trial had reached $1 million. The court awarded him six cents in damages. Modern readers might be tempted to scoff at such an award, but bear in mind that after adjusting for inflation it would equal 83 cents.
Twenty-two years after the trial, Tribune editor Colonel Robert McCormick wrote Ford an apology for the whole affair. He apparently took it in good spirits, for during a visit to Chicago, the Colonel was invited to meet with Ford in his private railcar. On a less personal note, historians have since reported that while Ford might have looked quite silly during his trial, public opinion shifted to his favor as a result of it. Not knowing too much about history apparently made the millionaire a more relatable figure.
Show Me The Proof
One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson
Chicago Tribune: The Libel Case With A 6-cent Verdict
Gettysburg Times: Henry Ford Sues Chicago Paper
CPI Inflation Calculator
The Henry Ford: Sketching Henry Ford’s Lawsuit