If Henry Ford said that, “History is bunk”, he was, on the whole, quite wrong. History is important to prevent us doing things which do not work, and to warn us about things which do work, but which are very bad news. It teaches us that when governments say we are going spend our way out of recession, what actually happens is that they will retain some short term popularity at the expense of medium term damage to the economy, and that they more they spend, the greater the damage. It teaches us that they most vicious dictators are those who profess to be socialists. It teaches us that, however much we find the French interesting and amusing, their foreign policy is always going to be designed to try and frustrate and annoy the Brits.
But some history is indeed bunk, including the Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which he wrote in about 1150. He wrote it in Latin, but I have been reading it in translation. Total piffle from page one. He reckons that Britain was founded by the Trojans, and gives a long and detailed account of the family tree of the royal family, every once in a while correlating events with what was said to be going on at the same time in Palestine, as recounted in the Old Testament. Thus we are told that King Hudibras, who reigned for 39 years, built Kaerlem (or Canterbury) and Kaerguen (or Winchester) at the same time as Haggai and Amos were busy doing the prophet thing in Israel. Some familiar characters crop up, like King Lear, Merlin and Arthur. He explains that Ireland was entirely empty until King Gurgiunt Brabtruc (I kid you not) bumped into a Spaniard called Partholoim in Orkney, who explained that he and his Barclenses followers (“30 ships full of men and women”) had been driven out of Spain and were sailing around looking for somewhere settle down and end their tedious wanderings. Since they asked so nicely, King Gurgiunt Brabtruc said they could have Ireland, since it was empty anyway, and there the Barclenses duly “became numerous”.
What is interesting, I reckon, about this is that such unmitigated drivel was taken seriously and was not seriously debunked until Polydore Vergil, who was an Italian historian hired by Henry VIII, some 400 years later. 400 years, one cannot help noticing, which roughly coincides with the period when William the Bastard and his unpleasant family held sway in England, lending some further weight to the observation that periods of bad government tend to go hand in hand with periods of bad historicity.
Back to the Henry Ford quote, my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations dates this quote to July 1919, as said from the witness box in his libel suit against the Chicago Tribune, who had accused him of being an anarchist. The lengthy evidence included Ford’s interview with Charles N. Wheeler of the Chicago Tribune on 25th May 1916, in which he was quoted as saying, “I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today”.
At the trial, the relevant question by the Tribune’s counsel, and Ford’s answer were:
Q: But history was bunk, and art was no good . . . that was your attitude in 1916?
A: I did not say it was bunk. It was bunk to me, but I did not say. . . .`
It was the newspapers who then reported this as, “History in bunk”, which was not precisely accurate. Ford won the action, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but was awarded just 6 cents damages.