Thomas, Norman Mattoon

views updated May 21 2018


Norman Mattoon Thomas (18841968) was the leader of the Socialist movement in the United States for more than four decades. He ran unsuccessfully for U.S. President on the socialist ticket six times. He also wrote numerous books, articles, and pamphlets touting the benefits of socialism and criticizing American capitalist society.

Norman Thomas was born on November 20, 1884 in Marion, Ohio, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He studied political science at Princeton University and then studied for the ministry at Union Theological Seminary. It was there that Thomas was introduced to the reform-minded Social Gospel Theology of Walter Rauschenbusch and the teachings of Christian Socialism. Thomas was ordained a minister in 1911 and became pastor of the East Harlem Presbyterian Church in New York.

During World War I (19141918), Thomas joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization of reformist and pacifist clergyman. He established a magazine for the group called World Tomorrow. In 1917 Thomas joined Roger Baldwin in founding the Civil Liberties Bureauwhich later became the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)to protect conscientious objectors who were trying to avoid military service.

In 1918 Thomas resigned from the church and became actively involved in the Socialist party. He served as associate editor of The Nation and became co-director of the League for Industrial Democracy, the educational branch of the Socialist party. When the head of the Socialist party, Eugene V. Debs (18551926), died in 1926, Thomas became his successor.

As leader of the Socialist party, Thomas spoke out in favor of public ownership and the democratic management of the country's industries, national resources, and transportation. He also supported a public employment system, unemployment insurance, a fiveday workweek, and a minimum wage. Thomas ran for president on the socialist ticket six times between 1928 and 1948. His most successful campaign was in 1932, when he earned 884,781 votes.

Despite Thomas' enthusiasm and dedication, the Socialist party gradually lost supporters during his tenure. Many of the party's ideas had been incorporated into President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (19331945) New Deal, and there was mounting dissention within the Socialist Party over the proper role of the United States in foreign affairs. Thomas retired from politics in 1948, though he continued to publicly support causes such as world peace, nuclear disarmament, and crusade against poverty. Although many people did not agree with his views, Thomas was nonetheless a well-respected political figure until his death on December 19, 1968.

See also: Socialism


Duram, James C. Norman Thomas. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.

Fleischman, Harry. Norman Thomas, A Biography: 18841968. New York: Norton, 1969.

Gorham, Charles. Leader at Large: The Long and Fighting Life of Norman Thomas. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1970.

Johnpoll, Bernard K. Pacifist's Progress: Norman Thomas and the Decline of American Socialism. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970.

Seidler, Murray Benjamin. Norman Thomas: Respectable Rebel. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1967.

Thomas, Norman. The Norman Thomas Papers, 1904 1967. Alexandria, Virginia: Chadwyck-Healey, 1983.

Norman Mattoon Thomas

views updated May 23 2018

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

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 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. □

Thomas, Norman

views updated May 29 2018


Socialist Party leader Norman Mattoon Thomas (November 20, 1884–December 19, 1968) was born in Marion, Ohio, to a family of Presbyterian ministers. Thomas was educated at Princeton University in New Jersey and Union Theological Seminary in New York. An adherent to Social Gospel theology, Thomas worked in a settlement house in New York City and in 1911 he received a pastorate in East Harlem. World War I turned Thomas into a pacifist. In 1918, endorsing the political left's opposition to business profiteering and government repression, Thomas resigned his church and joined the Socialist Party, quickly becoming one of its leading spokesmen. Thomas emerged as the heir to Eugene V. Debs's "American" brand of socialism, somewhat distant from its European immigrant roots, espousing gradual democratic change and rejecting the absolutist and revolutionary dogma of the American Communist Party and others.

In the 1920s Thomas produced numerous books, articles, and speeches attacking that decade's alliance of business and government and recommending central economic planning and the nationalization of industries and utilities. He ran for the mayoralty of New York and for other offices, and in 1926 he succeeded Debs as leader of the U.S. Socialist Party. In 1928 he mounted the first of six consecutive campaigns as the party's candidate for the presidency.

As the Great Depression began, Thomas advocated national, state, and municipal reform. Condemning the limited relief efforts of Herbert Hoover and New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt, he called for labor legislation, complete rights for unions, full social security, and governmentsponsored worker retraining. Thomas's City Affairs Committee attacked Tammany Hall, whose mismanagement of New York City had created financial near-ruin and ineffective relief programs. Although his articulate criticism helped to topple Tammany mayor Jimmy Walker, Thomas gained few political advantages. In 1932 he won only 884,781 votes for president, finishing a distant third behind Roosevelt and Hoover. This, however, was also by far his best nationwide showing; in 1944 he would receive less than one-tenth as much support.

This statistic underscores the drastic decline of socialism under Thomas's leadership, paradoxically occurring during capitalism's darkest years. A diffident political manager, he allowed his party to dissolve into bitterly opposed factions and to lose much support in New York to the antiradical new American Labor Party. Thomas's cerebral style won little mass support for his cause, although he vigorously supported labor organizing and even suffered a beating in Arkansas while helping to organize the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. He criticized the New Deal but grudgingly admired its "socialistic" aspects. Thomas deplored Roosevelt's political opportunism but could not counter his popular rhetoric (or that of more demagogic New Deal critics such as Huey Long).

The Socialist Party dwindled even further in the late 1930s when Thomas, still a pacifist, passionately opposed U.S. war preparedness measures. Labeled an isolationist, Thomas and his party became further relegated to the political fringe. Throughout the 1930s—and for decades beyond—Norman Thomas was the genteel, articulate tribune of the doomed cause of American socialism, at a time when ideological passions overtook the political left and Roosevelt's centrism proved far more decisive.



Fleischman, Harry. Norman Thomas: A Biography. 1964.

Swanberg, W. A. Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist. 1976.

Thomas, Norman. After the New Deal, What? 1936.

Thomas, Norman. America's Way Out: A Program For Democracy. 1931.

Thomas, Norman, and Paul Blanshard. What's the Matter with New York: A National Problem. 1932.

Burton W. Peretti

Thomas, Norman

views updated May 11 2018

Thomas, Norman (1884–1968), minister, antiwar and civil rights activist, leader of the Socialist Party of America, and social critic.Preeminently in his generation, Norman Thomas secularized the pacifist impulse and criticized militarism in relation to social systems: ideology and institutions tending to impose military responses on political challenges.

Thomas was introduced to the religious Social Gospel at Union Theological Seminary and was immersed in the urban reality of an immigrant parish in New York. In World War I, he joined progressive peace organizations to prevent U.S. intervention. During U.S. belligerency, he resigned his pastorate, became the founding editor of the World Tomorrow (1918), and helped organize the National Civil Liberties Bureau, primarily to defend conscientious objectors.

He also joined the Socialist Party because of its social vision and antiwar stance. In the 1920s, Thomas became the party's acknowledged leader, its presidential candidate from 1928 to 1948. From that base he criticized the New Deal as inadequate and opposed the nation's rearmament and drift toward war.

Thomas gave critical support to the Roosevelt administration in World War II, but condemned internment of Japanese Americans and policies such as the bombing of civilians and unconditional surrender. He lobbied for a postwar foreign policy that would address real conflicts of power by institutionalizing mutual interests. He advocated measuring power politics against social reconstruction and flexible and realistic policies against democratic and just principles. Skeptical of both unilateral disarmament and arms control, he helped to form the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (1957).

Norman Thomas was significant precisely because he put military issues in their social context, warning that military approaches both reflect and reify arbitrary institutions and unjust social orders. War is therefore the crisis of democracy, and, whatever the merit of a specific conflict, does not offer a realistic or acceptable solution for political problems. In speeches, articles, and books, Thomas insisted that the alternative to war is social change that increases equity, democracy, and stability.
[See also Conscientious Objection; Japanese‐American Internment Cases; Militarism and Antimilitarism; Peace; Peace and Antiwar Movements; War.]


James C. Duram , Norman Thomas, 1974.
W. A. Swanberg , Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, 1976.
Charles Chatfield , Norman Thomas: Harmony of Word and Deed, in Peace Heroes in Twentieth‐Century America, ed. Charles DeBenedetti, 1988, pp. 85–121.

Charles Chatfield

Thomas, Norman Mattoon

views updated Jun 27 2018

Thomas, Norman Mattoon (1884–1968) US politician. In 1926 Thomas became leader of the Socialist Party and was its unsuccessful candidate for president six times between 1928 and 1948. A strong anti-communist, he campaigned for social welfare measures, civil rights, free speech and world peace.