From an early age, James Couzens (1872-1936) demonstrated determination and incisiveness. The former enabled him to set a course of action, and the latter to carry it out. These qualities drove the naturalized U.S. citizen to achieve successes in business, industry, and politics. He was an executive of the Ford Motor Company, mayor of the city of Detroit, and U.S. senator from Michigan.
According to folk legend, a child born with a caul (fetal membrane) covering the head will have good fortune in life. The legend proved true for James Joseph Couzens, Jr. Born in Chatham, Ontario, on August 26, 1872, his mother, Eunice Clift Couzens, an English immigrant, kept the caul in a silk sack, giving it to Couzens' wife when he married. His father, James Joseph Couzens, also an English immigrant, was a grocer's clerk before becoming a laborer and salesman for a soap factory.
The senior Couzens introduced his son to the business world by taking him on his sales rounds, where he learned about consumer behavior. By the age of nine, Couzens held multiple jobs. He pumped the organ at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, was a lamp-tender for the town, and sold soap for his father, who had started his own soap works. Throughout his life, Couzens would always be happiest when working the hardest. At the age of 12, he left the soap factory and found work as a bookkeeper at a flour mill, without any experience. However, he lost this job when his employer decided Couzens was too young. In order to avoid the soap works, he returned to school. Couzens enrolled in a two-year bookkeeping course at Canada Business College in Chatham, after completing two years of high school. His first job after school was as a newsbutcher (vendor) on the Erie and Huron Railroad.
Couzens moved to Detroit, Michigan, in 1890 and was hired as a car-checker by the Michigan Central Railroad, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week He didn't make many friends. Couzens was standoffish, blunt, and had the appearance of a well-groomed banker or divinity student, even when in the rail yards. By asking for the job, he passed up others to become the boss of the freight office in the yards when he was 21. A strict disciplinarian, he wasn't a popular boss, but he did admit his mistakes. Couzens also had no qualms about speaking honestly to his patrons. Alex Malcomson liked Couzens' no-nonsense approach and hired him as an assistant bookkeeper and private car-checker in 1895.
Before leaving Michigan Central, Couzens met his future wife, Margaret Manning. Her uncle was a banker and shipping company executive. Her nephew was a journalist. He rented a room in the Manning house, and the couple lived with her widowed mother after their marriage on August 31, 1898. The same year Couzens became a naturalized citizen. The couple would eventually have three sons (one dying in infancy, another as a teenager) and three daughters.
In 1902 Malcomson entered into a secret agreement with Henry Ford to supply the credit needed for building a car. Because of previous business failures, Ford had difficulty obtaining credit and his scheme was considered to be a risky investment. Couzens was brought in to monitor Ford's expenditures, and later for project negotiations. Without sales, however, Malcomson was unable to meet obligations and investors had to be sought. On June 16, 1903, the Ford Motor Company was incorporated with 12 shareholders. Couzens, the next lowest shareholder, managed to purchase $2,500 in shares; his sister Rosetta put up $100 of the sum. Banker John S. Gray was named president, Couzens became business manager and secretary, while Ford held the titles of vice president and general manager of mechanics and production.
Ford and Couzens did not regard each other highly, but were able to cultivate a relationship. Ford was a perfectionist. He didn't want to ship any cars until they ran well. At Couzens' insistence (and with his help in crating them for rail shipment), the first cars shipped on July 23, 1903. Complaints were heard that the cars couldn't climb hills. Ford wanted to halt production, but Couzens convinced him to send mechanics to customers to solve their problems, while continuing to build cars. Reorders came in. By the end of the year, the company had sold some 1,000 cars and all the shareholders had a 100 percent return on their investments. Couzens added the title of sales manager to his responsibilities. Under him, the company experienced phenomenal growth. Describing Couzens' immersion in the company, Harry Barnard in his book Independent Man: The Life of Senator James Couzens as quoted in the Ford Times: "J.C. was the entire office management—he hired and fired—he kept the books, collected, spent, and saved the cash, established agencies, and dictated policy."
Although a cautious financial manager and administrator, Couzens came up with innovative policies that most thought would lose the company money. Instead they boosted growth. He organized a network of salaried branch managers, then developed an incentive system that paid them bonuses when certain sales figures were topped. In cooperation with banks, he established a loan program for dealers to buy Ford cars through bank deposits. The company and the banks shared the interest. Retaining employees was a major problem—even after stripping foremen of their authority to fire workers, raising wages 15 percent, and reducing the workday to nine hours. Couzens did not believe that the company was sharing enough of its wealth with workers to enable them to save for pensions and periods of unemployment. In 1914, Couzens, who had been promoted to vice president, "issued a revolutionary order" raising the minimum wage at the Ford plant to five dollars a day and reducing the work day to eight hours. Refusing to be cowed, he persisted until the executive board approved the plan. News of the plan spiked sales, enabling Couzens to push for expansion in other cities.
The Ford Motor Company's legal wrangling with the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, which had begun in 1911, also turned out to be good for business. As Couzens later claimed, "The Selden suit was probably better advertising than anything we could put out." George Selden claimed to hold a patent covering all gasoline automobiles, which the association licensed. Lawsuits were threatened against manufacturers, dealers, and buyers of unlicensed cars, like the Ford. As noted by Barnard, Couzens "became the official voice of the opponents of the monopoly manufacturers." He organized and presided over the rival American Motor Car Association. He read law books, becoming so well versed on patent law that he could discuss and advise attorneys on the subject. Most importantly, he "assured prospective car buyers, 'we will protect you."' The company had sold 34,000 cars and netted more than six million in profits by the time a court found, in 1911, that Ford Motor had not infringed on Selden's patent.
During his years at Ford, Couzens became a respected businessman, assuming directorates of several companies and serving as president of the Detroit Board of Commerce. He also had other business interests. He built the Couzens Building on Woodward Avenue in Detroit and was president of a shoe company. In 1909, he organized and presided over the Highland Park State Bank (and later, other banks), that became a banking subsidiary of Ford Motor Company. Couzens negotiated a deal with William C. Durant for General Motors to buy Ford Motor. However, a bank committee would not approve the loan, so the deal fell through.
However, as Couzens' prestige and expertise as a business manager increased, his partnership with Henry Ford faltered. Ford had purchased enough shares to become majority shareholder in Ford Motor Company, and he was gradually taking a more active role in the company's activities. Ford overruled Couzens on a supplier contract, vetoed him on sales/promotion campaigns, and, during a tiff in 1914, withdrew his personal money from Couzens' Highland Park bank. Meanwhile, Couzens "found himself shocked by certain points of view taken by Ford," wrote Barnard. Among these were Ford's anti-Semitism and his idea to store the payroll in cash in a company vault. The final flare-up between the two occurred on October 12, 1915. Saying that it did not reflect the company view, Couzens had removed a pacifist article on the war (World War I) that Ford had approved for publication in the Ford Times. Ford had an outburst when he learned of Couzens' action. This gave Couzens the excuse he needed to resign, a move he had been contemplating for some time. Before Ford could release a statement, Couzens contacted his friend Jay G. Hayden, a journalist, who spread the story of the resignation to other papers. That day the resignation of the chief executive of the business known as "The Seventh Wonder of the World" subordinated European war dispatches.
Couzens was 43 years old and worth $40-$60 million when he resigned. He could have become a man of leisure. However, he was a workaholic, and one who had developed a social conscience. Couzens remained a Ford Motor Company director and president of the Highland Park State Bank. He also retained his position with the Detroit Street Railway Commission. In 1913 Mayor Oscar B. Marx had appointed him to the commission, whose aim was to convert the streetcar lines to municipal ownership. As an employee of Michigan Central, Couzens complained about the lack of lines. He even threw a few bricks during the 1891 railway strike. Now he forced a referendum on the issue, using his own money to print literature and fight injunctions; but the proposition failed, as it did a second time in 1918.
In 1916 Couzens became more involved in politics. He served as treasurer of Senator Charles E. Townsend's campaign and was a delegate to the state and national Republican conventions. Mayor Marx appointed Couzens to head the police department. This appointment helped to win his re-election, which had been in doubt because of lax oversight of the police. Couzens accepted the appointment on the condition he be given a "free hand without political interference of any kind." His personal survey of police conditions revealed things to be worse than thought. With the goal of "a disciplined city," he ordered officers to enforce laws, took down the license numbers of cars parked near brothels, and eliminated parking in the busiest downtown sections. The city council rescinded the parking order, but later passed similar traffic control legislation. Noted Barnard, "Thus [Couzens] became the father of the city's modern traffic code." In 1917 Couzens became an inmate in his own jail. After issuing a statement about a municipal judge who gave blanket releases (let others fill in the names of those arrested), Couzens ordered the police officers to ignore the releases. When two officers did just that, he was called before the judge for contempt of court. He refused to pay a fine and was taken to jail. Couzens' fight with the judge went to the State Supreme Court and resulted in the outlawing of the giving of blanket releases.
Detroit had just adopted a "strong mayor charter" when Couzens announced he would run for mayor. He reached this decision, not because anyone had encouraged him to, but because he thought he would make "a good mayor." Oddly, it was the streetcar system that probably led to his election. In protest against a fare increase, Couzens got on a car and paid the old fare. The newspapers and photographers were there to record his being pushed off the car. The stunt was repeated by others and led to riots, and abandonment of the rate increase.
Couzens took the helm of the nation's fourth largest city in 1919 and embarked on an aggressive program of construction projects. During the first three years of his administration, he directed the expenditure of $243 million on schools, sewers, hospitals, and streets. Another project was the building of street railways. The city had finally passed the referendum in 1919. However, the Detroit Urban Railway refused to surrender its lines to the city until 1922, thereby establishing the nation's largest municipal-owned railway. Couzens assumed management of the street railway lines in addition to his mayoral duties.
During his tenure as mayor, Couzens tackled the problem of postwar unemployment by creating city jobs and providing doles to needy families. Herbert Hoover, who was then secretary of commerce, would model unemployment relief on Couzens' program. In addition, the city expanded to its present 138-square-mile boundaries. No scandals marred his two terms in office, and he made appointments based on merit alone.
Speaking of his wealth, Couzens once said to his daughter, "It's a trust. It's a responsibility, and a tough one." As early as 1915, he began distributing money. He gave Blanche Leuven Brown $10,000 for her home for crippled children. In 1918 he paid the salary for an executive to set up the Detroit Patriotic Fund, the forerunner of the Detroit Community Fund and Community Chest, then served as its president and gave it yearly gifts averaging $150,000 for several years. A million-dollar gift in 1919 helped crippled children by converting the Brown home into a scientific institution. This institution later merged with the Michigan Hospital School, then Children's Free Hospital of Detroit (the "Free" has since been dropped). Another million dollar gift in 1922 paid for a branch of the hospital in Farmington, Michigan.
Other Couzens' gifts built residences for nurses and established a fund for providing loans for business startups to physically handicapped veterans. However, Couzens' most impressive philanthropic project was the launch, in 1929, of the Children's Fund of Michigan. The fund, begun with an irrevocable gift of ten million dollars, to which Couzens added nearly two million more in 1934, supported existing agencies helping children and initiated activities in neglected fields. Principal areas of interest were public health, mental hygiene, research, and orthopedic treatment. The fund established clinics and laboratories in Detroit and out of state. Couzens oversaw the fund as its chairman until his death. Per his wishes, the fund was liquidated 25 years after its establishment. Couzens' charitable contributions totaled $30 million—the sum he received when he sold his Ford Motor Company stock in 1919.
Governor Alex J. Grosbeck's appointment of Couzens to replace Commodore Newberry in the U.S. Senate caused quite a stir. "His career in industry as well as in municipal government, plus his wealth and his reputation as a fighter formed a combination that caught the public fancy. … Indeed, he rivaled in public attention, quite successfully, that distinctive feature of the year 1922—the flapper," exclaimed Barnard. As a senator he remained true to his convictions. Unlike most politicians, he didn't kowtow to party lines, though often acting with Progressives. Consequently he never built a political bloc for himself. He was chairman of the Committee on Civil Service for one term, and sat on the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on Interstate Commerce during other terms.
"Though wealthy himself, Couzens often employed class-warfare rhetoric as an advocate of 'soak-the-rich' tax policies, and his principal nemesis was Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon," declared Lawrence W. Reed and David Bardallis in "Jeffords's False Parallel." After Mellon proposed reducing income taxes, Couzens introduced a resolution in February 1924 calling for an investigation of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which had never been examined before. President Calvin Coolidge, in an attempt to cut Couzens out of the investigation, offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James. His answer: "I won't be kicked upstairs." The inquiry ultimately found nothing illegal, just loose interpretations of the law resulting in large tax refunds and special deference. After the investigation, President Herbert Hoover signed an executive order stating that tax refunds greater than $20,000 be made public, and Congress created the Joint Committee on Taxation of the Senate and House, the first continuously staffed committee on a legislative subject. In 1925 Mellon brought suit for underpayment of taxes against Couzens and others who had sold their Ford stock to the Fords. Couzens was vindicated three years later when it was determined that he had overpaid his taxes by $900,000.
Couzens was undecided whether to run for election in 1924. The Anti-Saloon League, chambers of commerce, manufacturers' associations, and the Ku Klux Klan (because Mrs. Couzens was a Catholic) all opposed him, and he had refused to sign a pledge of support for Republican candidates. When he did declare his candidacy on the 4th of July, he made it clear that party bosses could not dictate to him. He won the election by an enormous majority. During this term he was concerned about the speculation in banking securities. On the Senate floor, wrote Barnard, Couzens "criticized the Federal Reserve Board for encouraging 'a great orgy of speculation.' This, he said, was a 'dumb' policy that could only end in disaster." The stock market crash and bank closings would prove him prophetic. The issues of guaranteed wages for industrial workers, which he promoted after the crash, as well as the need for unemployment insurance and old-age pensions, were also of concern to Couzens.
In 1930 Couzens almost ran unopposed when he stood for re-election. Back in the Senate, he led a revolt that blocked a national sales tax and pushed for relief for the unemployed. Although he tried to keep Detroit banks open, he was blamed for Governor William A. Comstock decision to close them on February 14, 1933. The "Couzens Resolution" presented a plan for reopening the banks, but the plan fell through. On Inauguration Day, March 4, nearly all banks nationwide were closed. One of Franklin Roosevelt's first acts as president was to declare a nationwide bank holiday and devise a plan for their reopening. After serving as a delegate to the World Economic and Monetary Conference in London, Couzens returned home to find a Detroit grand jury blaming him again for the bank failures. The smear campaign ended with his exoneration by a Senate committee.
Declining to participate in partisan politics, Couzens supported the New Deal. He initiated an amendment for a ten percent surtax on large incomes to pay for unemployment relief, which garnered attacks, especially by publisher William Randolph Hearst. Because he wouldn't oppose Roosevelt and had voted against Republican legislation, Couzens knew his party probably would not support him for re-election. In 1935 Democrats began approaching Couzens about switching parties. In 1936 Michigan's state Democratic Party passed a resolution endorsing Couzens for re-election on their ticket. He turned down the overture, saying he wanted to maintain his independence by not being a "turncoat." Couzens also considered running as both a Republican and Democrat in the primary, but decided against this after Michigan's attorney general said he would have to declare a party for the general election, which might be Democratic. He also considered running as an independent, or not running at all.
Further complicating Couzens' decision was his ill health. For years, he had suffered from various ailments. He had undergone numerous operations and hospitalizations. The year 1935 was no exception. However, he could not stand inactivity. Therefore, against his doctor's advice and wracked with pain, he was back in the Senate on January 3, 1936. It was impossible for him to imagine not being busy.
On June 15, Couzens announced that he would be a Republican candidate for the Senate. In the only speech he made after his declaration, he told the Detroit Optimist Club: "I will be entirely content if the people of Michigan say I am through, if they are dissatisfied with my work." He then chartered a yacht and cruised through the Great Lakes with his son and friends instead of campaigning. In August he cancelled the campaign ads that had been developed, then cemented the end of his political career by issuing a statement in support of Roosevelt, saying "the outcome of my own candidacy is neither important to the nation nor to me, … " Roosevelt had confided to Couzens that he thought war might be coming; Couzens believed Roosevelt was the leader that the country would need.
For his honesty and convictions, Couzens was defeated at the polls. Within days, Roosevelt declared that "the country needs you in public service," and offered him the chairmanship of the Maritime Commission. Although in and out of the hospital with serious illnesses after the September 12 primary, Couzens mustered the strength to be the honorary chairman of the committee for the Detroit reception of the president. On October 15, he left his hospital bed to meet with Roosevelt in his campaign rail car and join him in a parade and rallies. Couzens was pleased to hear the president giving voice to many of the government policies he had championed. Afterward he was taken back to the hospital. He never survived his final surgery and died in Detroit on October 22, 1936.
Admiration for Couzens was demonstrated after his death. "Suddenly, it was remembered that he had been one of the great builders of American industry, starting from scratch; that he had struck mighty blows for the workingmen while still an industrialist; that, after making millions, he had retired not to leisure, but to public service; that he had been a great and constructive mayor before he had become an outstanding senator; that he had been a benefactor of children through philanthropy equaled by few; that he was that rare thing, an honest man in politics," summarized Barnard. The Detroit City Council honored him by passing a resolution to have his body lie in state at City Hall and the flags in the city flown at half-mast for 30 days.
Barnard, Harry, Independent Man: The Life of Senator James Couzens, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.
"James Couzens," infoplease.com,http://www.infoplease.com/cele/people/A0813832.html (October 17, 2001).
"James Couzens," Political Graveyard,http://www.politicalgraveyard.com/bio/courts-covode.html (October 17, 2001).
Reed, Lawrence W. and David Bardallis, "Jeffords's False Parallel," Guest Comment on NRO,http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-reedprint052501.html (October 17, 2001). □