Norman Thomas

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Norman Thomas
Norman Thomas 1937.jpg
Norman Mattoon Thomas

(1884-11-20)November 20, 1884
DiedDecember 19, 1968(1968-12-19) (aged 84)
Alma mater
Political party Socialist
Frances Stewart
(m. 1910;died 1947)

Norman Mattoon Thomas (November 20, 1884 – December 19, 1968) was an American Presbyterian minister who achieved fame as a socialist, pacifist, and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.

Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers' self-management, as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, with social ownership being the common element shared by its various forms.

Pacifism opposition to war and violence

Pacifism is opposition to war, militarism, or violence. The word pacifism was coined by the French peace campaigner Émile Arnaud (1864–1921) and adopted by other peace activists at the tenth Universal Peace Congress in Glasgow in 1901. A related term is ahimsa, which is a core philosophy in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. While modern connotations are recent, having been explicated since the 19th century, ancient references abound.

Socialist Party of America United States political party

The Socialist Party of America (SPA) was a multi-tendency democratic socialist and social democratic political party in the United States formed in 1901 by a merger between the three-year-old Social Democratic Party of America and disaffected elements of the Socialist Labor Party of America which had split from the main organization in 1899.


Early years

Thomas was the oldest of six children, born November 20, 1884, in Marion, Ohio, to Emma Williams (née Mattoon) and Weddington Evans Thomas, a Presbyterian minister. Thomas had an uneventful Midwestern childhood and adolescence, helping to put himself through Marion High School as a paper carrier for Warren G. Harding's Marion Daily Star . [1] Like other paper carriers, he reported directly to Florence Kling Harding. "No pennies ever escaped her," said Thomas. The summer after he graduated from high school his father accepted a pastorate at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, which allowed Norman to attend Bucknell University. He left Bucknell after one year to attend Princeton University, the beneficiary of the largesse of a wealthy uncle by marriage. [2] Thomas graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University in 1905. [3]

Marion, Ohio City in Ohio, United States

Marion is a city in and the county seat of Marion County, Ohio, United States. The municipality is located in north-central Ohio, approximately 50 miles (80 km) north of Columbus.

Warren G. Harding 29th president of the United States

Warren Gamaliel Harding was the 29th president of the United States from 1921 until his death in 1923. A member of the Republican Party, he was one of the most popular U.S. presidents to that point. After his death a number of scandals, such as Teapot Dome, came to light, as did his extramarital affair with Nan Britton; each eroded his popular regard. He is often rated as one of the worst presidents in historical rankings.

Lewisburg, Pennsylvania Borough in Pennsylvania, United States

Lewisburg is a borough in Union County, Pennsylvania, United States, 30 miles (48 km) south by southeast of Williamsport and 60 miles (97 km) north of Harrisburg. In the past, it was the commercial center for a fertile grain and general farming region. The population was 5,620 at the 2000 census. It is the county seat of Union County. Located in central Pennsylvania, on the West Branch Susquehanna River, Lewisburg is northwest of Sunbury. It is home to Bucknell University and is near the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Its 19th-century downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places. Lewisburg is the principal city of the Lewisburg, PA Micropolitan Statistical Area, and is also part of the larger Bloomsburg-Berwick-Sunbury, PA Combined Statistical Area.

After some settlement house work and a trip around the world, Thomas decided to follow in his father's footsteps and enrolled in Union Theological Seminary. He graduated from the seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1911. [4] After assisting the Rev. Henry Van Dyke at the fashionable Brick Presbyterian Church on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, Thomas was appointed pastor of the East Harlem Presbyterian Church, ministering to Italian-American Protestants. [5] Union Theological Seminary had been at that time a center of the Social Gospel movement and liberal politics, and as a minister, Thomas preached against American participation in the First World War. This pacifist stance led to his being shunned by many of his fellow alumni from Princeton, and opposed by some of the leadership of the Presbyterian Church in New York. When church funding of the American Parish's social programs was stopped, Thomas resigned his pastorate. [6] Despite his resignation, Thomas did not formally leave the ministry until 1931, after his mother's death. [6]

The Social Gospel was a movement in Protestantism that applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labour, inadequate labour unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. It was most prominent in the early-20th-century United States and Canada. Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to operationalize the Lord's Prayer : "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". They typically were postmillennialist; that is, they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort. The Social Gospel was more popular among clergy than laity. Its leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing of the progressive movement, and most were theologically liberal, although a few were also conservative when it came to their views on social issues. Important leaders include Richard T. Ely, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch.

It was Thomas's position as a conscientious objector that drew him to the Socialist Party of America (SPA), a staunchly antimilitarist organization. When SPA leader Morris Hillquit made his campaign for mayor of New York in 1917 on an antiwar platform, Thomas wrote to him expressing his good wishes. To his surprise, Hillquit wrote back, encouraging the young minister to work for his campaign, which Thomas energetically did. [7] Soon thereafter he himself joined the Socialist Party. [8] Thomas was a Christian socialist. [9]

A conscientious objector is an "individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service" on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion.

Morris Hillquit American lawyer and politician

Morris Hillquit was a founder and leader of the Socialist Party of America and prominent labor lawyer in New York City's Lower East Side. Together with Eugene V. Debs and Congressman Victor L. Berger, Hillquit was one of the leading public faces of American socialism during the first two decades of the 20th Century.

Christian socialism is a form of religious socialism based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Many Christian socialists believe capitalism to be idolatrous and rooted in greed, which some Christian denominations consider a mortal sin. Christian socialists identify the cause of inequality to be the greed that they associate with capitalism.

Thomas was the secretary (then an unpaid position) of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation even before the war. When the organization started a magazine called The World Tomorrow in January 1918, Thomas was employed as its paid editor. Together with Devere Allen, Thomas helped to make The World Tomorrow the leading voice of liberal Christian social activism of its day. [9] In 1921, Thomas moved to secular journalism when he was employed as associate editor of The Nation magazine. In 1922 he became co-director of the League for Industrial Democracy. Later, he was one of the founders of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the precursor of the American Civil Liberties Union.[ citation needed ]

The Fellowship of Reconciliation is the name used by a number of religious nonviolent organizations, particularly in English-speaking countries. They are linked by affiliation to the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR).

The World Tomorrow: A Journal Looking toward a Christian World (1918–1934) was an American political magazine, founded by the American office of the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and published in New York City by FOR's Fellowship Press at 108 Lexington Avenue. To June 1918, it was titled The New World. It was a leading voice of Christian socialism in the United States, with an "independent, militant" editorial line.

Devere Allen American activist

Devere Allen (1891–1955) was an American socialist and pacifist political activist and journalist. Allen is best remembered as the main editor of The World Tomorrow following the departure of Norman Thomas from the magazine in 1922. Allen was the author of more than 20 books and pamphlets and was active in the leadership of a number of political organizations, including the League for Independent Political Action (1928–1932) and the Socialist Party of America.

Electoral politics

Thomas ran for office five times in quick succession on the Socialist ticket—for governor of New York in 1924, for mayor of New York in 1925, for New York State Senate in 1926, for alderman in 1927, and for mayor of New York again in 1929. In 1934, he ran for the US Senate in New York and polled almost 200,000 votes, then the second-best result for a Socialist candidate in New York state elections; only Charles P. Steinmetz polled more votes, almost 300,000 in 1922 when he ran for State Engineer. [9]

Governor of New York head of state and of government of the U.S. state of New York

The Governor of New York is the head of government of the U.S. state of New York. The governor is the head of the executive branch of New York's state government and the commander-in-chief of the state's military and naval forces.

New York State Senate upper state chamber of New York State

The New York State Senate is the upper house of the New York State Legislature. There are 63 seats in the Senate, and its members are elected to two-year terms. There are no term limits.

New York City Council city council

The New York City Council is the lawmaking body of the City of New York. It has 51 members from 51 council districts throughout the five boroughs.

Thomas's political activity also included attempts at the US presidency. Following Eugene Debs's death in 1926, there was a leadership vacuum in the Socialist Party. Neither of the party's two top political leaders, Victor L. Berger and Hillquit, was eligible to run for president because of their foreign birth. The third main figure, Daniel Hoan, was occupied as mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. [9] Down to approximately 8,000 dues-paying members, the Socialist Party's options were limited, and the little-known minister from New York with oratorial skills and a pedigree in the movement became the choice of the 1928 National Convention of the Socialist Party.

The 1928 campaign was the first of Thomas's six consecutive campaigns as the presidential nominee of the Socialist Party. As an articulate and engaging spokesman for democratic socialism, Thomas had considerably greater influence than the typical perennial candidate. Although most upper- and middle-class Americans found socialism unsavory, the well-educated Thomas—who often wore three-piece suits and looked and talked like a president—gained grudging admiration.

Thomas frequently spoke on the difference between socialism, the movement he represented, and communism, revolutionary Marxism. His early admiration for the Russian Revolution had turned into energetic anti-Stalinism. (Some revolutionaries thought him no better; Leon Trotsky criticized Thomas on more than one occasion.) [10]

He wrote several books, among them his passionate defense of World War I conscientious objectors, Is Conscience a Crime?, and his statement of the 1960s social democratic consensus, Socialism Re-examined.

Socialist Party politics

At the 1932 Milwaukee Convention, Thomas and his radical pacifist allies in the party joined forces with constructive socialists from Wisconsin and a faction of young Marxist intellectuals called the "Militants" in backing a challenger to National Chairman Morris Hillquit. While Hillquit and his cohort retained control of the organization at this time, this action earned the lasting enmity of Hillquit's New York-based allies of the so-called "Old Guard". The diplomatic party peacemaker Hillquit died of tuberculosis the following year, lessening the stability of his faction.

At the 1934 National Convention of the Socialist Party, Thomas's connection with the Militants deepened when he backed a radical Declaration of Principles authored by his longtime associate from the radical pacifist journal The World Tomorrow, Devere Allen. The Militants swept to majority control of the party's governing National Executive Committee at this gathering, and the Old Guard retreated to their New York fortress and formalized their factional organization as the Committee for the Preservation of the Socialist Party, complete with a shadow Provisional Executive Committee and an office in New York City.

Thomas favored work to establish a broad Farmer-Labor Party upon the model of the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, [11] but remained supportive of the Militants and their vision of an "all-inclusive party", which welcomed members of dissident communist organizations (including Lovestoneites and Trotskyists) and worked together with the Communist Party USA in joint Popular Front activities. The party descended into a maelstrom of factionalism in the interval, with the New York Old Guard leaving to establish themselves as the Social Democratic Federation of America, taking with them control of party property, such as the Yiddish-language The Jewish Daily Forward , the English-language New Leader , the Rand School of Social Science, and the party's summer camp in Pennsylvania.

In 1937, Thomas returned from Europe determined to restore order in the Socialist Party. He and his followers in the party teamed up with the Clarity majority of the National Executive Committee and gave the green light to the New York Right Wing to expel the Appeal faction from the organization. These expulsions led to the departure of virtually the whole of the party's youth section, who affiliated to the new Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. Demoralization set in and the Socialist Party withered, its membership level below that of 1928.


Thomas speaking at a STFU meeting in 1937 (by Louise Boyle) Norman Thomas speaking at an outdoor STFU meeting.jpg
Thomas speaking at a STFU meeting in 1937 (by Louise Boyle)

Thomas was initially as outspoken in opposing the Second World War as he had been with regard to the First World War. Upon returning from a European tour in 1937, he formed the Keep America Out of War Congress, and spoke against war, thereby sharing a platform with the non-interventionist America First Committee. [12] In the 1940 presidential campaign he said Republican Wendell Willkie was the candidate of "the Wall Street war machine" and that he "would take us to war about as fast and about on the same terms as Mr. Roosevelt". [13]

In testimony to Congress in January 1941 he opposed the proposed Lend Lease program of sending military supplies to Great Britain, calling it "a bill to authorize undeclared war in the name of peace, and dictatorship in the name of defending democracy". He said that the survival of the British Empire was not vital to the security of the United States, but added that he favored helping Britain to defend herself against aggression. [14]

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a bitter split took place in the Socialist Party regarding support for the war; Thomas reluctantly supported it, though he thought it could have been honorably avoided. His brother and many others continued their pacifist opposition to all wars. [15] Thomas later wrote self-critically that he had "overemphasized both the sense in which it was a continuance of World War I and the capacity of nonfascist Europe to resist the Nazis". [16]

Thomas was one of the few public figures to oppose President Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He accused the ACLU of "dereliction of duty" when the organization supported the internment. [17] [18] Thomas also campaigned against racial segregation, environmental depletion, and anti-labor laws and practices, and in favor of opening the United States to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution in the 1930s.

Thomas was an early proponent of birth control. The birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger recruited him to write "Some Objections to Birth Control Considered" in Religious and Ethical Aspects of Birth Control, edited and published by Sanger in 1926. Thomas accused the Catholic Church of hypocritical opinions on sex, such as requiring priests to be celibate and maintaining that laypeople should have sex only to reproduce. "This doctrine of unrestricted procreation is strangely inconsistent on the lips of men who practice celibacy and preach continence." [19]

Thomas also deplored the secular objection to birth control because it originated from "racial and national" group-think. "The white race, we are told, our own nation—whatever that nation may be—is endangered by practicing birth control. Birth control is something like disarmament—a good thing if effected by international agreement, but otherwise dangerous to us in both a military and economic sense. If we are not to be overwhelmed by the 'rising tide of color' we must breed against the world. If our nation is to survive, it must have more cannon and more babies as prospective food for the cannon." [20]

Thomas was also very critical of Zionism and of Israel's policies toward the Arabs in the postwar years (especially after the Suez Crisis) and often collaborated with the American Council for Judaism.

Later years

After 1945, Thomas sought to make the anti-Stalinist left the leader of social reform, in collaboration with labor leaders like Walter Reuther. In 1961, he released an album, The Minority Party in America: Featuring an Interview with Norman Thomas, on Folkways Records, which focused on the role of the third party.[ citation needed ]

Thomas's 80th birthday in 1964 was marked by a well-publicized gala at the Hotel Astor in Manhattan. At the event Thomas called for a cease-fire in Vietnam and read birthday telegrams from Hubert Humphrey, Earl Warren, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He also received a check for $17,500 in donations from supporters. "It won't last long," he said of the check, "because every organization I'm connected with is going bankrupt." [21]

In 1966, the conservative journalist and writer William F. Buckley, Jr chose Thomas to be the first guest on Buckley's new television interview show, Firing Line . In 1968, Thomas signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. [22]

Also in 1966, Thomas traveled to the Dominican Republic along with future Congressman Allard K. Lowenstein to observe that country's general election. The two were leaders of the "Committee on free elections in the Dominican Republic", an organization based in the United States that monitored the election. [23] In the autumn of that year, Thomas received the second Eugene V. Debs Award for his work in promoting world peace. [24]

Personal life

In 1910, [25] Thomas married Frances Violet Stewart (1881-1947), [26] [27] the granddaughter of John Aikman Stewart, financial adviser to Presidents Lincoln and Cleveland, and a trustee of Princeton for many years. [28] Together, they had three daughters and two sons: [26]


Thomas died at the age of 84 on December 19, 1968, in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, where he had lived for some years. Pursuant to his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered on Long Island. [36]


The Norman Thomas High School (formerly known as Central Commercial High School) in Manhattan and the Norman Thomas '05 Library at Princeton University's Forbes College are named after him, as is the assembly hall at the Three Arrows Cooperative Society, where he was a frequent visitor. He is also the grandfather of Newsweek columnist Evan Thomas and the great-grandfather of writer Louisa Thomas. [37]

A plaque in the Norman Thomas '05 Library reads: Norman M. Thomas, class of 1905. "I am not the champion of lost causes, but the champion of causes not yet won."[ citation needed ]


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  1. Kauffman, Bill (2010-08-01) Up Against the Wall, The American Conservative
  2. David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America: A History. New York: Macmillan, 1955; pg. 189.
  3. Johnpoll, Bernard K. Pacifist's Progress: Norman Thomas and the Decline of American Socialism. Quadrangle Books, 1970. pp 13.
  4. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America, pp. 189–190.
  5. Current Biography 1945, pp. 688–91.
  6. 1 2 Current Biography 1945, page 688.
  7. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America, pg. 190.
  8. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America, pp. 190–91.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Shannon, The Socialist Party of America, pg. 191.
  10. Leon Trotsky (June 1938). "Their Morals and Ours". The New International. Retrieved 21 June 2018. The drawing-room socialist, Thomas, is [...] only a bourgeois with a socialist 'ideal'. [...] His personal life, interests, ties, moral criteria exist outside the party. With hostile astonishment he looks down upon the Bolshevik to whom the party is a weapon for the revolutionary reconstruction of society, including also its morality." [...] "This righteous man expelled the American 'Trotskyists' from his party precisely as the GPU shot down their co-thinkers in the U.S.S.R. and in Spain.
  11. Johnpoll, Pacifist's Progress, pp. 138–39.
  12. Norman Thomas, A Socialist's Faith. (1951); pp. 312–13.
  13. Facts on File: World News Digest November 05, 1940
  14. Facts on File: World News Digest, January 28, 1941.
  15. Swanberg, Norman Thomas, p 260
  16. Thomas, A Socialist's Faith, pg. 313.
  17. The ACLU national board supported the government and tried to stop a rogue chapter on the West Coast from going to court. "American Civil Liberties Union," Densho Encyclopedia (2013)
  18. For more detail see Samuel Walker (1999). In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU. SIU Press. pp. 139–43. ISBN   9780809322701..
  19. The Abortion rights controversy in America, A Legal Reader, edited by N.E.H. Hull, William James Hoffer and Peter Charles Hoffer, 2004. p. 60
  20. The Abortion Rights Controversy, p. 61
  21. "People: Dec. 18, 1964". 1964-12-18. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  22. "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest", New York Post, January 30, 1968.
  23. Forman, James (1972). The Making of Black Revolutionaries. University of Washington Press. pp. 358–. ISBN   9780295976594 . Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  24. "Eugene V. Debs Award". Eugene V. Debs Foundation Website. Eugene V. Debs Foundation. 2017-09-18.
  25. "REV. N.M. THOMAS WEDS MISS STEWART; Assistant Pastor of Brick Presbyterian Church and His Bride Active in Charities. " ANGEL OF HELL'S KITCHEN " Bride Endeared to the Poor by Her Devotion to Them--She Aided Mr. Thomas In Summer Garden Work". The New York Times. September 2, 1910. Retrieved 13 April 2016.
  26. 1 2 3 4 "Princeton Alumni Weekly". 48. Princeton Alumni Weekly. January 1, 1947: 20. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  27. "Frances Violet Stewart Thomas". Our Campaigns. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  28. "Thomas, Norman [Mattoon]". Princeton University. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  29. "Paid Notice: DeathsMILLER, MARY (POLLY)". The New York Times . August 1, 2010. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  30. "The Country And Our State Are Looking To Us". KU History. University of Kansas . Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  31. "Deaths: GATES, FRANCES THOMAS". The New York Times . 18 December 2015. Retrieved 13 April 2016.
  32. "1940 - Vassar Alumnae/i Hub". Vassar College. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  33. "Evan Thomas II". SFGate. SFGate. March 6, 1999. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  34. "Paid Notice: Deaths THOMAS, EVAN WELLING II". The New York Times . March 1, 1999. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  35. "Paid Notice: Deaths THOMAS, ANNE DAVIS ROBINS". The New York Times . March 28, 2004. Retrieved April 13, 2016.
  36. "Norman Mattoon Thomas (1884-1968) - Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  37. Archived December 31, 2006, at the Wayback Machine

Further reading

Party political offices
Preceded by
Robert M. La Follette
Socialist nominee for President of the United States
1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948
Succeeded by
Darlington Hoopes