Norman Mattoon Thomas

Norman Mattoon Thomas (1884-1968), leader of the Socialist movement in the United States for more than 4 decades, was six times the Socialist candidate for president, as well as an author and lecturer. He was one of the most respected critics of American capitalist society.

On Nov. 20, 1884, Norman Thomas was born in Marion, Ohio, the son and grandson (on both sides) of Presbyterian ministers. After Norman's graduation from high school, the family moved to Lewisburg, Pa., where Norman entered Bucknell University for a year. He transferred to Princeton University, studying political science under future president Woodrow Wilson and graduating in 1905 as valedictorian.

Upon leaving Princeton, Thomas worked as a settlement house and pastoral assistant in the poorer sections of New York. Studying for the ministry at heterodox Union Theological Seminary, he was impressed by the reform-minded Social Gospel theology of Walter Rauschenbusch and the teachings of Christian Socialism. Ordained in 1911, Thomas became pastor of East Harlem Presbyterian Church. Meanwhile he had married Frances Violet Stewart; they had six children, enjoying an uncommonly happy marriage.

World War I was apparently the major turning point in Thomas's life. He had joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization of reformist and pacifist Protestant clergymen. After America's entry into the war, his brother Evan went to prison for draft resistance, and Thomas became adamantly opposed to America's participation in what he regarded as an immoral, senseless struggle among rival imperialisms. He founded and edited World Tomorrow, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and helped establish what became the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 1918, resigning his pastorate, he joined the Socialist party.

Although Eugene V. Debs, the Socialists' longtime leader, polled a record 900, 000-plus votes in the presidential election of 1920, the party, harassed by Federal and state governments for opposing the war, and torn by internal controversy over the relevance of the Russian Revolution to American experience, steadily lost members and popular support during the 1920s. Thomas rose rapidly in the Socialist party. Well known as editor of World Tomorrow, as a contributing editor to the Nation, and as a leader in such organizations as the ACLU and the League for Industrial Democracy, Thomas was the logical leader after Debs's death in 1926.

In 1928 Thomas made the first of his six consecutive races for the presidency. However, the Socialist party continued losing strength, ending the decade as a minor element in America's political system. As the Socialist candidate for president every 4 years, Thomas at least had the satisfaction of seeing much of his program taken over by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Many Socialists joined Roosevelt and the Democratic party, others left the party to endorse the Popular Front movement of the late 1930s, and still others left because Thomas opposed United States involvement in the European and Asian wars after 1939. Thomas gave his "critical support" to the American war effort after Pearl Harbor. Yet he also denounced the forced relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans, attacked big business dominance in the war production effort, and argued that Roosevelt's "unconditional surrender" doctrine handicapped prospects for a just and lasting peace.

Thomas became a staunch foe of Soviet communism but also severely criticized the militarization of American foreign policy and the growing power of the military in American government. He addressed his superb oratorical powers, biting wit, and passionate conviction to virtually every public issue, including disarmament, the persistence of poverty and racism, and United States intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, especially in Vietnam. During his last 2 decades, Thomas became a patriarchal figure, revered and honored even by many who could not accept his political views. He remained amazingly active until his last year; he died on Dec. 19, 1968.


Further Reading on Norman Mattoon Thomas

The most thorough biography of Thomas is Bernard K. Johnpoll, Pacifist's Progress: Norman Thomas and the Decline of American Socialism (1970), which offers much on the inner workings of the Socialist party. Briefer biographies are Murray B. Seidler, Norman Thomas: Respectable Rebel (1961; rev. ed. 1967), and Harry Fleischman, Norman Thomas (1964), both by admiring acquaintances of Thomas. The history of the Socialist party is treated in Charles H. Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865-1915 (1940); David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (1949); and Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States (1952). Revealing information on Thomas is in autobiographical writings of contemporaries such as Morris Hillquit, Loose Leaves from a Busy Life (1934); Louis Waldman, Labor Lawyer (1944); and John Haynes Holmes, I Speak for Myself (1959).


Additional Biography Sources

Duram, James C., Norman Thoma, New York, Twayne Publishers 1974.

Johnpoll, Bernard K., Pacifist's progress: Norman Thomas and the decline of American socialism, New York: Greenwood Press, 1987, 1970.

Swanberg, W. A., Norman Thomas, the last idealist, New York: Scribner, 1976.