Article abstract: Often called “the conscience of America,” Thomas ran six times for president on the Socialist Party ticket and became one of the country’s greatest critic-reformers.
Norman Mattoon Thomas was born November 20, 1884, in Marion, Ohio, the home of Warren Gamaliel Harding, where he earned pocket money by delivering the Marion Star. He was the eldest of six children sired by the Reverend Welling Thomas, a Presbyterian minister whose father, also a Presbyterian minister, had been born in Wales. Norman’s mother, Emma Mattoon, was also the child of a Presbyterian clergyman. The Thomas household was Republican in politics, devout in religion, and conservative in conduct, opposed to dancing, cardplaying, and Sunday merrymaking. Emma Thomas was acknowledged by the family as its dominant force, emphasizing a keen sense of personal and social responsibility that her firstborn practiced all of his life.
After his 1905 graduation from Princeton University as valedictorian of his class, Thomas took his first full-time job as a social worker at New York City’s Spring Street Presbyterian Church and Settlement House, located in a poverty-stricken area. In 1907, he became assistant to the pastor of Christ Church in Manhattan. There he met Frances Violet Stewart, active in Christian social service and born into a moderately wealthy family of financiers. They were married September 1, 1910, and led a notably happy marital life, in their turn having six children and fifteen grandchildren.
From 1910 to 1911, Thomas attended the heterodox Union Theological Seminary. There he was most impressed by the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the leading figures of the Social Gospel movement, who argued that the ethical precepts of Jesus did not harmonize with the selfish materialism of a capitalist society. Thirty years later, Thomas wrote, “Insofar as any one man . . . made me a Socialist, it was probably Walter Rauschenbusch.” Ordained in 1911, Thomas became pastor of the East Harlem Presbyterian Church and chairman of the American Parish, a federation of Presbyterian churches and social agencies located in immigrant neighborhoods. In 1912, he declared, “The Christian Church faces no more burning question than the problem of making brotherhood real.”
The agonies of World War I crystallized Norman Thomas’ social radicalism. He came to consider the war an immoral conflict between competing imperial powers, and in January, 1917, joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a religious pacifist group with a commitment to drastic social reform. Thomas came to regard resistance to the war as a clear choice of individual conscience over the dictates of an amoral state. His militant pacifism led him to support Morris Hillquit, the Socialist candidate, who ran on an antiwar platform in the 1917 New York City mayoralty race.
Thomas joined another pacifist, Roger Baldwin, in the 1917 establishment of the Civil Liberties Union, later renamed the American Civil Liberties Union. In the spring of 1918, he resigned from his church and the parish, aware that his radicalism was jeopardizing these institutions’ chances for outside financial assistance. In October, 1918, he applied for membership in the American Socialist Party; he was motivated, he recalled later, by “grotesque inequalities, conspicuous waste, gross exploitation, and unnecessary poverty all around me.”
The Party was led by three talented men: Victor Berger, Morris Hillquit, and Eugene V. Debs. The first two were its theoreticians and tacticians, but it was the populist, pragmatic Debs (1855-1926) who became American Socialism’s greatest leader until Thomas’ ascendancy. Debs grounded his convictions on emotional rather than philosophic premises: He had an evangelical devotion to social justice, a generous and sensitive temperament, sincerity, warmth, and an intuitive understanding of popular opinion.
In the 1920 election, Debs received 920,000 votes, but they were largely a tribute to his courage for having chosen imprisonment (from 1918 to 1921) to dramatize his pacifism; membership in the Socialist Party was down that year, from a 1912 peak of 108,000 to twenty-seven thousand. During the 1920’s several conditions combined to keep the American Socialist Party’s numbers and influence low: a dominant mood among the electorate of economic conservatism and intense nativism; hostility to organized labor by all three branches of government; a number of failed strikes; and the 1919-1920 “Red scare” mass arrests of radicals and labor leaders by the Department of Justice under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. When Senator Robert M. La Follette campaigned for the presidency in 1924, he refused to run solely as the Socialist candidate, preferring to call himself a Progressive. Nevertheless, the Socialist Party energetically supported his campaign; 855,000 of La Follette’s 3,800,000 votes were cast on Socialist levers.
Norman Thomas began his long career of seeking public office in 1924, running as a New York gubernatorial candidate on both the Socialist and Progressive tickets. Ironically, he had risen to Socialist leadership at a time when many people were leaving the Party. More ironically, the income his wife inherited from her conservative father enabled him to crusade for his causes on a full-time basis. He admitted that in this instance, “the critic of capitalism was its beneficiary.”
By the mid-1920’s, Thomas was the consensual choice to succeed Eugene V. Debs—who had never regained his health after his three-year imprisonment, and who died in 1926—as the leader of American Socialism. In 1928, he was chosen the party’s presidential candidate—the first of six such nominations; he received 267,000 votes. In 1932 he was to poll 885,000; in 1936, 187,000; in 1940, 100,000; in 1944, 80,000; in 1948, 140,000.
Thomas attracted the deep affection and admiration of many people, often including ideological opponents. His physical appearance was impressive: He stood over six feet two, had strongly marked patrician features, vibrant blue eyes, well-bred manners, and an air of genteel self-confidence. Although a man of dignity, he could communicate warmth and cordiality to a wide range of people. His physical energy was phenomenal until his late seventies, when failing eyesight and crippling arthritis began to plague him. Since he had no hobbies, he focused his unflagging pace on not only campaigning, but also on writing sixteen books and scores of pamphlets, maintaining an enormous correspondence, attending countless conventions and committee meetings, and delivering thousands of speeches. Perhaps his only flaw as a leader was his remoteness—in contrast to Debs—from the rough-and-tumble realities of the American political panorama. He was by temperament an educator, moralist, and intellectual rather than a pragmatic accommodator of conflicting interests. Since he had no solid prospect of winning public office, he could afford to maintain an...
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