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Norman Thomas

co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and 6-time Socialist Party candidate for President

Norman Thomas

Norman Mattoon Thomas was born in Marion, Ohio, on November 20, 1884, the oldest of six children born to Weddington Evans Thomas, a Presbyterian minister, and Emma Williams (Mattoon) Thomas. The summer after he graduated from high school, his father accepted a pastorate in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, allowing Norman to attend Bucknell University. He left Bucknell in 1902 and transferred to Princeton University, where he studied political science under Woodrow Wilson.

After graduating from Princeton as class valedictorian in 1905, Thomas spent two years doing volunteer work at the Spring Street Church and at Neighborhood House in New York City. In 1905, he married Frances Violet Stewart, whom he had met at a tuberculosis clinic where she was a social worker. In that same year, he helped establish the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, whose stated purpose was to "throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism." Other members of the Society included Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Clarence Darrow, Florence Kelley, Anna Strunsky, Bertram D. Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Rose Pastor Stokes, and J.G. Phelps Stokes.

It was while studying at the Union Theological Society that Thomas was first introduced to the writings of Christian Socialists in Great Britain. Ordained in 1911, he became pastor of the East Harlem Presbyterian Church that same year.

An opponent of the First World War in general, Thomas was one of the co-founders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, along with Abraham Muste, Scott Nearing, and Oswald Garrison Villard. In 1918 he became editor of the Fellowship's magazine World of Tomorrow, and he served in that capacity until 1921. In 1917, he, Crystal Eastman, and Roger Baldwin established the National Civil Liberties Bureau. He joined the Socialist Party of America about this same time. In 1920, he, Jane Addams, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Upton Sinclair formed the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1922, he, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair formed the League of Industrial Democracy, of which he served as co-director until 1937. He was also a frequent contributor to the League's journal, The Unemployed.

Thomas began his multiple campaigns for political office in 1924, when he was the Socialist Party's candidate for Governor of New York. He was subsequently the Party's candidate for Mayor of New York City (1925 and 1929), for the New York Senate (1926), for New York City Alderman (1927), and for one of New York's seats in the U.S. Senate (1934). After the death of Eugene Debs, Thomas became the Socialist Party's only viable candidate for President of the United States; he made his first bid for that office in 1928, and ran in every presidential election thereafter through 1948. Although he was never successful in any of his bids for political office, Thomas often had the satisfaction of seeing the winner adopt some of the policies he had advocated during the campaign.

In September of 1940, with another major war raging in Europe, Thomas, along with Burton K. Wheeler and Charles Lindbergh, formed the America First Committee, which soon became the most powerful isolationist group in the United States. The Committee's four main principles were: (1) The United States must build an impregnable defense for America; (2) No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America; (3) American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European War; (4) "Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad. The Committee dissolved four days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Thomas became a supporter of U.S. involvement in World War II. He did, however, openly criticize many of President Franklin Roosevelt's policies during the war, especially the internment of Japanese-Americans.

After World War II, Thomas opposed Soviet-style Communism, rearmament, the "Cold War," and the Vietnam War. He also began speaking out against poverty and racism, among other social issues. He died at his home in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, on December 19, 1968.

Thomas was the author of numerous books and articles, the most important of which include Is Conscience a Crime? (1927), As I See It (1932), A Socialist Faith (1951), The Test of Freedom (1954), The Prerequisites of Peace (1959), and Socialism Re-examined (1963).

Woodrow Wilson
Clarence Darrow
First World War
Jane Addams
Eugene Debs
Charles Lindbergh
World War II
President Franklin Roosevelt

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This page was last updated on September 28, 2017.