Norman Thomas

Norman Thomas

The Nation follows Norman Thomas as he campaigns for the presidency on the Socialist ticket in 1928. While he had no chance of winning, his campaign was seen as a success.


Norman Thomas knew he wouldn’t come close to capturing the presidency in 1928, but that wasn’t the point–spreading the word of socialism was, and nobody ever did it better than he.

A lanky six-feet-two of Ohio-born bone and muscle unlimbers itself above the speaker’s platform at the corner of Avenue B and Houston Street, on New York’s East Side. Flare-lights throw the long shadow of Norman Thomas across the heads of his audience, squat little tailors, for the most part, with here and there smudged mechanics, truck-drivers, and a sprinkling of women and children.

The speaker holds up a huge enlargement of a photograph of a working-class apartment erected by the Socialists of Vienna and then proceeds to wonder loudly and vehemently how it comes that in a comparatively poverty-stricken city like Vienna folks pay around two dollars a room a month for such splendid quarters, whereas in “prosperous” New York a worker is hard put to it to find decent housing at fifteen dollars. His audience begins to wonder with him. And then Thomas goes on to talk of things as they are and things as they might be; simple things like gas bills and rents and pay envelopes and the youngsters’ schooling and the prices the women pay in the stores round about Avenue B.

One night last year toward the end of a hot campaign in the Eighth Aldermanic District a truck loaded with a Tammany band and a collection of children armed with rattlers and other noisemaking horrors drove through the crowd in front of the platform where Thomas was speaking. The chieftain in charge of the invasion raised a pudgy hand as a signal to his youthful braves to cut loose and drown out Thomas. To his consternation, the kids, after one look at the speaker, piped with shrill gusto, “Yeaa! Norman Thomas!” That’s a familiar enough war-cry on the East Side whenever he goes campaigning. The children, as yet unterrified by Tammany’s elaborate and subtle machinery of fear, suspicion, and greed, have no hesitancy in voicing their love for Norman Thomas. Battalions trudge trustingly after him as he goes from one meeting-place to another, hang on the running-board of his campaign car, and besiege his headquarters the minute school is out. And at least three or four times when Thomas was running for alderman, mothers appeared with amazingly vocal infants whose last names ended in “ski” or “baum” but whose first two names were Norman Thomas.

Sometimes a former classmate of Thomas’s at Princeton or a “respectable” hangover from the old Brick Church days, passing by a street meeting at which Thomas is wondering aloud, stops to do some wondering of his own. How does it happen that a man of such obvious ability, magnetism, and fiery force can stoop to conquer the imaginations and hearts of the city’s most submerged–the workers on the East Side, in the Bronx, and in Brownsville?

If Thomas is interested in the labor movement, all well and good. Ever so many intellectuals are “taking up the movement,” writing pieces about it for magazines and newspapers, evincing an intelligently alert awareness of its existence. But here is Thomas running his good head off at the beck and call of every little union organizer, every Socialist who is getting up a meeting in some remote hall, every rank-and-filer who has a crowd to reach and a cause to preach. In last autumn’s campaign Thomas made more than sixty speeches in two months, most of them out-of-doors, and he wrote enough words to fill a double-decker novel–all because he had been nominated for alderman by a small local of the Socialist Party in a strong Tammany district. When the votes were counted, an ignorant Tammany optometrist, whose boast was “I never go outdoors during a campaign,” was sent back to the aldermanic chamber with a big majority. And now Thomas is running for President of the United States, as the leader of a party whose death has been officially announced time and again these past few years by conservatives and liberals and extreme radicals alike.

No one need feel sorry for Norman Thomas. There is little glory in what he is doing. Long nights in stuffy sleepers, long days filled with speech-making in labor halls, at farmers’ picnics, at Socialist rallies; party conferences; newspaper interviews; pamphlet-writing; handshaking (at which, by the way, in spite of long practice Thomas is still singularly inept)–this is not most people’s idea of a good time. But Thomas is having a magnificent time. He is doing what he wants to do and doing it well.

It is in the Thomas blood from the days when the Welsh preacher-men Thomases expounded their vigorous doctrines in the old country–this business of articulating ideas and ideals. The first of the Thomases to arrive in this country came from Wales in 1824. He was Thomas Thomas, a parson with a hill hunger on him which took him to the mountains of Pennsylvania, where he preached the forbidding doctrines of Calvin with a certain mellow touch that made him the most beloved man of all the country round. He had found time to work his way through Lafayette College. His son, Welling Evan Thomas, followed in his footsteps and found himself, of all places, in charge of the Presbyterian Church in the late Mr. Harding’s home town of Marion, Ohio, where Norman was born on November 20, 1884.

The two-story brick parsonage was on Prospect Street, a home sheltered by huge old maples, with a grape arbor in the rear, and woods and pasture-land right outside the door. Even when they moved further into town, and added a cow and a bathtub to the establishment, life at the Thomases’ was still largely rural. Norman, the eldest of six children, soon learned what hard work meant. A ministerial income of 1,200 a year for the clothing and feeding of four boys and two girls, especially such upshooting children as the Thomases, was in sad need of supplement. Everybody worked in that family, and mingled a keen respect for the father with a deep love for the mother, who before her marriage was Emma Matoon, a descendant of the French Huguenots who came to this country in 1650. Her father was a missionary to Siam and later became American consul. On his return to this country, immediately after the Civil War, he started one of the first schools for Negroes, near Charlotte, North Carolina. Starting schools for Negroes in the South in the turbulent days of reconstruction was no light undertaking.

Norman was obviously predestined for the ministry. He took the Marion High School in his long stride, being one of the youngest ever to be graduated from that institution. And then, when the family moved to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, he entered Bucknell. He was a long, gangling freshman, sticking out of his clothes, and out of his class as well, for he had read greedily all sorts and varieties of books back in the Marion parsonage and easily led his fellows in classroom work. Bucknell in those days was about as rigidly orthodox a place as one could find, but already the youngster was beginning to doubt and question the validity of creeds and dogmas. An unexpectedly beneficent relative gave him the chance to enter Princeton.

He left the small Pennsylvania college in a mood approaching exaltation. Princeton, to him, had been a place to dream about. “I was so afraid I would flunk out,” he says, “that I worked like a trooper, tutoring at nights, working in a chair factory in summer, and selling aluminum-ware.” So he stuck in the first group of his class for the next three years, and he was valedictorian of that class of 1905, and one of the most popular men in college. He was on the debating team, took all the courses in economics and polities which Princeton offered, and was moved, as were so many of the young men of those days, by the Princetonian Walter Wyckoff’s pioneer labor book, “The Workers,” and by the great strike of the anthracite miners led by John Mitchell. He was caught in the Thomas tradition, and he made the best compromise with it that he could by taking a job in the Spring Street Settlement, in New York’s slums.

A trip around the world with the director of the settlement laid the foundations for his international outlook, but it was the World War which finally took him clear out of church circles into the heart of the labor and Socialist movement. He was in a church in East Harlem, working among the foreign-born of a tenement district, when the war brought its challenge to him as it did to every Christian minister. He answered that challenge by flatly refusing to have anything to do with the bloody mess. Instantly “patriotic” pressures were brought to bear on him from all sides. Contributions to his social work stopped. There were attempts, mainly futile, at social ostracism. Then Morris Hillquit started his crusading campaign for mayor of New York City, and Thomas, to the utter consternation of all his respectable flag-waving associates, stood up with Hillquit in that historic struggle. At the close of the campaign Thomas found himself a full-fledged card-carrying, dues-paying member of the Socialist Party, with no church and only the slender editorial salary from his paper, the World Tomorrow, for the support of a large and husky family. His brother Evan was lugged off to jail as a conscientious objector. Snoopers and spies, official and self-appointed, dogged Norman night and day. Postmaster General Burleson paid him the compliment of saying that Thomas was a more dangerous man than Debs. He was dangerous–for those who were attempting to make a clean sweep of civil liberties; who used the war to exploit labor; dangerous for the peace of mind of every militarist minister.

With Roger Baldwin and Hollingsworth Wood he helped form the American Civil Liberties Bureau. What a hated institution that was! After the headquarters of the bureau had been raided, and the magnificently defiant Baldwin had been sent to jail, much of the pioneering work fell on Thomas’s shoulders. And when he was not busy with editorial and civil-liberties affairs, he was going among the colleges, speaking for the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, the predecessor of the League for Industrial Democracy.

To these two organizations, the one with its program of freedom of speech, press, and assemblage, and the other with its goal of production for use rather than profit, and to the political expression of these ideals through the medium of the Socialist Party, Thomas has devoted his surprisingly varied and rich talents.

I have said that Thomas’s empirical philosophy has unity and consistency, and this despite the fact that his usual activities in the course of a day cover what seem to be a bewildering range of subjects. When the Chinese Nationalists cable for funds, Thomas is on the Committee for Justice to China. When the Pullman porters organize a pioneer Negro industrial union, Thomas is called on for counsel. When the textile strikers in Passaic are prohibited from meeting, Thomas is the man who goes over to New Jersey and speaks under the menace of high-powered rifles in the hands of the operators’ gunmen, and goes to jail with his head up, so that from then on the strikers may meet unmolested. When some adequate reply to the propaganda of the power lobby becomes a public necessity, Thomas is the driving spirit of the Committee on Coal and Giant Power which makes that ringing answer.

Always in the back of Thomas’s mind is the fundamental necessity for the organization in this country of a political party representing the hopes and aspirations of those who produce the country’s wealth by work of hand or brain. He was one of those who were instrumental in swinging his party’s forces into the La Follette campaign, despite the opposition of many party Socialists. I have heard Thomas speak under all sorts of circumstances, and to all sorts of people, but I cannot remember his ever having used the credal Marxian dialectic “proletariat,” “bourgeoisie,” “the economic interpretation of history”–these are not in his vocabulary when he goes out to talk to workers and farmers, college students, and professional men and women.

Still he remains an internationalist, passionately following the poignant dream of bread, peace, and freedom for all people. Whether his speech or pamphlet or statement to the press begins with a discussion of the intricacies of municipal government, to which he brings expert knowledge, or a headlong attack upon the corruption of both old parties, or the deep damnation of imperialism, he generally concludes with a compelling plea for a peaceful world.

When Thomas told the convention which nominated him in New York that he did not expect to be elected President this year, many veteran hands were raised in horror. That was not the sort of thing that a candidate says to his constituents. A sense of proportion, a richly mellowed understanding of reality, is not found in the arsenals of most campaigners. It is to the credit of the old-timers in the movement that, knowing very well Norman Thomas’s frequent departures from the faith of the fathers, they chose him for their leader, and are giving liberally to make his campaign a success. And a success it will be, if there is found in this country by next November a collective intelligence powerful enough to present to the united front of the two old parties an opposition worthy of the name.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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