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.
Thomas was the oldest of six children, born November 20, 1884 in Marion, Ohio, to Emma Williams 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.
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.
Thomas graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University in 1905.
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.
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.
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.
Despite this resignation of his position, Thomas did not formally leave the ministry until 1931, after his mother’s death.
It was Thomas’ position as a conscientious objector which 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 anti-war 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. Soon thereafter he himself joined the Socialist Party.
Despite his membership in the Marxist SPA, Thomas was never himself an orthodox Marxist, instead favoring a Christian socialist orientation.
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 his co-thinker Devere Allen, Thomas helped to make The World Tomorrow the leading voice of liberal Christian social activism of its day.
In 1921, Thomas moved to secular journalism, when he was employed as associate editor of The Nation magazine.
In 1922 Thomas 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.
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 U.S. Senator from New York and polled almost 200,000 votes, then the second best result for Socialist candidates in New York state elections; only Charles P. Steinmetz polled more votes, almost 300,000 in 1922 when he ran for State Engineer.
Thomas’s political activity even included attempts at the presidency of the U.S.A. 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—were eligible to run for president by virtue of their foreign birth. The third main figure, Daniel Hoan, was occupied as mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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 for standard bearer.
The 1928 campaign was the first of six consecutive campaigns of Thomas running as the presidential nominee of the Socialist Party. As an articulate and engaging spokesman for democratic socialism, Thomas’ influence was considerably greater than that of the typical perennial candidate.
Although most upper and middle class Americans viewed socialism as an unsavory form of political thought, 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-communism. (Some revolutionaries thought him no better; Leon Trotsky, on more than one occasion, criticized 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.
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.
In 1961, Thomas 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.
Thomas’ 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 Dr. 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.”
In 1966, he was chosen by conservative editor William F. Buckley, Jr to be the first guest on Buckley’s new television interview show Firing Line. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
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 scattered on Long Island.
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.
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.”