“Never meet your heroes,” warns the colloquial adage, it’s message laden in hindsight. The only people who give such advice are the ones who wish they had taken it. Unfortunately for Americans, many of our most cherished heroes harbor inconspicuous characteristics that may leave some people second guessing their idols.
Among some of those famous controversial figures was Henry Ford, the automobile tycoon of the early 1900s. Today, we credit him with his success as the founder of Ford Motor Company and as the installer of the first moving assembly line. However, fewer know of his devout anti-Semitic views, ones that he propagated using his platform as a successful businessman.
In 1919, just two years after the U.S. entered the war against Germany, Ford bought a local Michigan newspaper that began publishing a series of articles entitled: “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.” The same newspaper referred to jazz as “Yiddish moron music.” His close friend Thomas Edison, credited today with the invention of the modern lightbulb, also at times expressed bigoted comments aimed at immigrants and Jews.
Fords racist ambitions caught the eye of Adolf Hitler himself, Hitler even including Ford as the only American by name in his notorious autobiography, Mein Kampf. The German dictator once referenced Ford saying: “You can tell Herr Ford that I am a great admirer of his. I shall do my best to put his theories into practice in Germany. I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration.”
Ford and Edison weren’t the first nor the last prominent American figures to publicly display their bias.
John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie are acclaimed today for their considerable success in business, however, at the time of their success, they were amongst some of the most hated men in the country. Both families dealt with intense labor conflicts. The Homestead Strike of 1892 against Carnegie Steel involved thousands of workers in Pennsylvania fighting for their rights as laborers. On the other side of the country, Rockefeller Jr. was accused of orchestrating the Ludlow Massacre in 1914. Despite these negative altercations, today these men’s families are better remembered for their business attributes, with renowned testaments to their achievements reflected in Rockefeller Center or Carnegie Hall.
From the political realm, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, are remembered today for their incredible battle for women’s suffrage yet forgotten for their blatant racism in that same fight. They were possibly the two most prominent forces fighting for women’s rights in the 1850s, yet both were recorded on several occasions pushing white supremacist viewpoints to support their platform. Anthony publicly opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, giving black men the right to vote in 1870. She once said in a meeting with abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for a Negro and not the woman.”
Even Albert Einstein, who is often reverently remembered for being a benevolent genius, was recently discovered to have severely racist stereotypes littered among his private travel diaries. Written between October 1922 and March 1923, he makes several offensive generalizations, including one that called the Chinese “industrious, filthy, obtuse people.”
It can be disheartening to hear about some of the ways these widely admired figures conformed to the cultural milieu of their times. We want to believe that they would hold some of the same ideals we do today, but instead, we find that many of them succumbed to the negative influence of blatant racism and bigotry. People are complex; history is perhaps even more so. Things that are complex deserve to be investigated; they must be met with a reasonable amount of skepticism, so that we can appreciate the good and criticize the bad.
We must treat the past with the same standard of judgment that we hope the future will someday pass on us, for better or for worse.