Spending my night learning about James Couzens

couzens2My friend Dave in Seattle mentioned to me a few days ago that he’s been reading a biography written in the 1950’s on former Detroit Mayor and U.S. Senator James Couzens (1872-1936). The book, “Independent Man,” sounds incredibly interesting, and I’ve been spending my time this evening reading up on Couzens, who, prior to going into politics, was a partner of Henry Ford’s. The following synopsis of his career comes from the University of Michigan, where, in the 1920’s, Couzens funded the creation of a 260-person nursing dormitory and teaching facility, which continues to be used today.

…James Couzens 1871-1936, U.S. Senator, industrialist, and philanthropist. Couzens was born in Ontario, Canada and moved to Detroit in 1887. He entered into partnership with Henry Ford in 1903 and served as vice president and general manager of the Ford Motor Company. In 1919 he sold his interest to the Fords for $35 million. As mayor of Detroit from 1919-1922, he installed municipal street railways. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1922-1936. He acted with the Progressive Republicans, advocating high, graduated income taxes and public ownership of utilities. He established the Children’s Fund of Michigan with $10 million, gave $1 million for relief in Detroit, and began a loan fund for the physically handicapped. His support of the New Deal cost him the senatorial renomination in 1936…

According to my friend Dave, Couzens didn’t like the fact that the University of Michigan chose to name the facility that he funded Couzens Hall. At any rate, I find his story fascinating mainly because, at least from what I can tell, he was a sane Republican who did what he thought was right, even though it cost him his Senate seat. I’m a sucker for stories like that. I’ve yet to read the book, but here are a few highlights from Dave.

…He was one of the founders of Ford Motor Company. He managed the business end of things while Ford worked out engineering problems. His story is fascinating. He was the one who started the $5 work day at Ford and he was a very outspoken advocate for providing people with work, living wages, and pensions. He later became the mayor of Detroit and then a US senator. He fought battles with the Treasury Secretary over financial policies that he saw as potentially leading to bad financial trouble, which it did. He fought with Hoover over providing relief and gave the basic outlines of Social Security and the New Deal years before the crash or FDR. He fought Henry Ford on the purchase of Muscle Shoals and argued that the project should be under Federal control, leading to the TVA. He later donated all the money he had made from Ford to children’s hospitals in Michigan to help crippled children. The most amazing thing is that HE was the guy that made Ford, not Henry. Henry was a smart guy, but had no idea how to run a business. Very interesting history. Both of them were no bullshit Detroiters that said what they believed. There is one funny story in the book about the formation of FMC. John Dodge is negotiating the price of parts from his shop (he was also a FMC founder) and Couzens jumps up and tells him to go to hell! Crazy John Dodge who use to shoot up saloons in Detroit with his brother! I think there is something in the water in Detroit…

So, that’s what I’m doing tonight – I’m reading Independent Man on Google Books, and wondering why we don’t have Republicans like Couzens today.

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  1. Posted December 22, 2010 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Is there anything in there about the Purple Gang? They were big in Detroit around that time. Odd you post this now as I planned to go into Detroit next week to the Library to do some research.

  2. Knox
    Posted December 23, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    I’m so used to reading stories about the assholes who worked for Ford back in the day breaking the kneecaps for workers and things like that, that I wasn’t expecting this.

  3. Edward
    Posted December 23, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I wonder if his putting streetcars in Detroit as Mayor in 1920 was in anyway motivated by the fact that he’d had a falling out with Ford.

  4. Ted
    Posted December 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Those of you who follow the link to the Google scan should know that it ends at page 169. To read the second half of the book, you have to find a real copy, which is what I’m trying to do now on Ebay.

  5. Gorio Delmonte
    Posted December 24, 2010 at 4:40 am | Permalink

    weird how many parallels with today

  6. Posted December 24, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    According to librarian Ben Miller, Independent Man is also available on MeL, if anyone wants to read a physical copy of it.

    (MeL is short for elibrary.mel.org, which is the interloan service libraries in Michigan use.)

  7. Dave
    Posted December 24, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I finished the book a few days ago. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Detroit. The battles Couzens fought were monumental.

    The story about the banking crisis in 1933 and the roles played by Detroit bankers ( with their offices in the Guardian Building downtown ), the state of Michigan, and Henry Ford specifically has got to be one of the most absurd moments in the history of the US.

    The whole story is absurd by todays political standards. The guy made millions by founding a company that has one of the most profound effects on how manufacturing is done and then goes on to fight for the little guy by going to battle with Hearst, Ford, Wall Street, JP Morgan, and others.

    The break with Ford is even absurd. Ford was a proclaimed pacifist (!!!) and was publishing his opinion about the war in Europe in his newspaper. He was refusing to make weapons for the US if they got involved. ( He later made boats that were designed for ramming ships at the Rouge during WWI, but no “weapons”. ) Couzens was not happy about Ford expressing his personal opinions and resigned his position as General Manager. ( He was still a major stock holder and sat on the board of directors though. )

    Gorio – I was thinking the same thing while reading the book. The only thing missing is someone to play the role of Couzens.

  8. Posted December 24, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    And, I agree. That’s why it resonated with me, Gorio. From the economic collapse to the talk of streetcars, it seems very timely. Maybe I should buy a few copies and send them to Republicans.

  9. Posted December 14, 2012 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    I wondered who it was that a street was named for.When I discovered who it was I found myself conjecturing.

    If you search for info on the Detroit Street Car Company and how well it served the citizens of this city and manufacturing one must wonder why it was ended. I’m told the motors and wheels are still operating in Mexico City. Though I’m a conservative I suspect that like GM Ford did not like alternatives for transportation. The DSCC went down long after Couzens died, but the Fords are still here.

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