Norman Mattoon Thomas

Norman Mattoon Thomas

[tom-uhs for 1, 2, 4–14; taw-mah for 3]
Thomas, Norman Mattoon, 1884-1968, American socialist leader, b. Marion, Ohio; grad. Princeton (1905), Union Theological Seminary (1911). He served as pastor of several Presbyterian churches and did settlement work in New York City until 1918. (He formally left the ministry in 1931.) In World War I, he became a pacifist and joined (1918) the Socialist party. He founded (1918) The World Tomorrow, was (1921-22) an associate editor of the Nation, and became (1922) codirector of the League for Industrial Democracy. He was also active in setting up the American Civil Liberties Union. Thomas unsuccessfully sought election as governor of New York (1924, 1938) and as mayor of New York City (1925, 1929). After the death (1926) of Eugene Debs, he assumed leadership of the Socialist party and was repeatedly (1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948) the party's candidate for president. He polled his highest vote, about 880,000, in 1932. An advocate of evolutionary socialism, Thomas was a constant critic of the American economic system and of both major parties; he strongly opposed American entry in World War II while bitterly denouncing both fascism and Soviet communism. After the war, he lectured and wrote extensively on the need for world disarmament and the easing of cold war tensions. In 1955, he resigned his official posts in the Socialist party, but he remained its chief spokesman until shortly before his death. His works include The Conscientious Objector in America (1923), Socialism of Our Time (1929), Human Exploitation (1934), Appeal to the Nations (1947), Socialist's Faith (1951), The Test of Freedom (1954), The Prerequisite for Peace (1959), Great Dissenters (1961), and Socialism Reexamined (1963).

See biographies by M. B. Seidler (2d ed. 1967), H. Fleischman (1964, repr. 1969), and B. K. Johnpoll (1970).

Norman Mattoon Thomas (November 20, 1884December 19, 1968) was a leading American socialist, pacifist, and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.

Early years

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Thomas was born and raised in Marion, Ohio, and graduated from Marion High School. As a schoolboy, Thomas was a paper carrier for Warren G. Harding's Marion Daily Star. Like other paper carriers, he reported directly to Florence Kling Harding. "No pennies ever escaped her," said Thomas. Thomas later attended and graduated from Princeton University in 1905.

Ordination as Presbyterian Minister

He then attended Union Theological Seminary, and there became a socialist. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1911. After assisting the Rev. Henry Van Dyke at the fashionable Brick Presbyterian Church on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, Thomas was appointed as pastor for the East Harlem Presbyterian Church, ministering to Italian-American Protestants. 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. His 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 as pastor and joined the Socialist Party. However, he did not formally leave the ministry until 1931, after his mother's death.


Thomas opposed the United States' entry into the First World War. He founded a magazine, The World Tomorrow, in January, 1918, and in 1921-22 he was associate editor of The Nation.

In 1922 he became codirector 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) and The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. He was an unsuccessful Socialist candidate for Governor of New York State in 1924, and for Mayor of New York City in 1925 and 1929.

Presidential candidate

Following Eugene Debs' death in 1926, Thomas became the Socialist standard-bearer and was the party's Presidential nominee in every election from 1928 to 1948. As an articulate and engaging spokesman for democratic socialism, Thomas' influence was considerably greater than that of the typical perennial candidate. Although socialism was viewed as an unsavory form of political thought by most middle-class Americans, the well-educated Thomas -- who often wore three-piece suits -- looked like and talked like a president and gained grudging admiration.

Thomas frequently spoke on the difference between socialism and Communism, explaining the differences between the movement he represented and that of revolutionary Marxism. His early admiration for the Russian Revolution subsequently turned into devout anti-Communism. (The revolutionaries thought him no better; Leon Trotsky, on more than one occasion, levelled high-profile criticism at Thomas.) 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.


Thomas was as outspoken in opposing the Second World War as he was the first, and served on the board of the America First Committee. However, once the United States was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, his stance changed to support for US involvement He and his fellow democratic socialists were also some of the few public figures to oppose the internment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor at a time when virtually every public figure and government official approved of it. Thomas loudly condemned the ACLU for "dereliction of duty" when the organization supported the internment. Thomas was also a pioneer in his campaigning against racial segregation, war, environmental depletion, anti-labor laws and practices, and for his efforts to try to open up the United States to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution in the 1930s.

Later years

After 1945 Thomas sought to make the non-Communist left the vanguard of social reform, in collaboration with labor leaders like Walter Reuther. He championed many seemingly unrelated progressive causes, while leaving unstated the essence of his political and economic philosophy. From 1931 until his death, to be a "socialist" in the United States meant to support those causes which Norman Thomas championed (as per [Hyfler 137]).

Thomas' 80th birthday 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 and Earl Warren. 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." (As quoted in TIME Magazine, December 18, 1964, available at:

The Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan and the Norman Thomas '05 Library at Princeton University's Forbes college are named after him. He was also the grandfather of Newsweek columnist Evan Thomas.

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."

Famous quotes

  • "If you want a symbolic gesture, don't burn the flag, wash it."
  • "The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism, but under the name of liberalism, they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program until one day America will be a socialist nation without ever knowing how it happened."
  • "To us Americans much has been given; of us much is required. With all our faults and mistakes, it is our strength in support of the freedom our forefathers loved which has saved mankind from subjection to totalitarian power."

External Links


  • Harry Fleischmann, Norman Thomas: A Biography, New York, Norton & Co., 1964.
  • Robert Hyfler, Prophets of the Left: American Socialist Thought in the Twentieth Century, Greenwood Press, 1984.
  • Bernard K. Johnpoll, Pacifists Progress: Norman Thomas and the Decline of American Socialism, 1987. ISBN 0-8129-0152-5 (1970 first edition)
  • Murray Seilder, Norman Thomas: Respectable Rebel, Binghamton, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1967. Second Edition.
  • W. A. Swanberg, Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, New York, Charles Scribner and Sons, 1976.

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