The Mechanical Jacobin

By Russell Kirk

Mr. Henry Ford II recently remarked that as other countries obtain automobiles on the scale of ownership in the United States, their culture will approximate to ours. This is too true. And other lands lack the space and adaptability of America, so that the popular automobile may destroy the beautiful cities of Europe and the pattern of centuries of civilization.

For the automobile is a mechanical Jacobin—that is, a revolutionary the more powerful for being insensate. From courting customs to public architecture, the automobile tears the old order apart.

Twenty-five years ago, there came up to me a lean, stooped old man wearing a straw sailor hat and a black suit—my employer. He knew my face but not my name; here I had the advantage of him, for he was Mr. Henry Ford—the first Henry Ford. He took me into the little brick shed where he had constructed his first automobile and told me of those days in 1893—told me with obvious satisfaction, yet satisfaction tinged with anxiety, as if he wished to be sure of the approbation of the young. “It don’t seem long since I built it.”

He glanced out the window at his enormous museum of a dead America, Greenfield Village, which encompassed us—and then stared across the wooded acres of his estate to the stacks of the Rouge Plant, hemmed about by the hideous streets of East Dearborn and Melvindale and River Rouge. In those flatlands he had been a farm lad, once; and now he had obliterated, without willing it, the country that he knew as a child, except for this sanctuary within brick walls. There was doubt in his heart, I suspect.

I choose Henry Ford as an entrepreneur with some sense of community and some respect for ancient things, not as the archetype of innovation. He undertook several experiments toward reconciling the old rural order with the new urban life, such as the restoration of little water-powered mills in small towns, and the allocation of garden plots to his employees—projects designed to check the proletarizing of society. All this was abandoned at Ford’s death, and the Ford Foundation which inherited most or his millions has been conducted upon the principles of “disintegrated liberalism,” with little of the sound, if eccentric, common sense of its founder.

Well, Europe and Asia and Africa seem destined to endure the speedy innovations of the mechanical Jacobin. According to Mr. Walter Lippmann, it is hard to learn to love the new gas station that rises where once the wild honeysuckle grew. When Venice is drained to admit Vespas and Volkswagens—as some already seriously demand—the mechanical Jacobin will have given the quietus to silence.