I picked up a copy of Louisa Thomas’s recent book “Conscience” because from the cover it looked like it might be an interesting family memoir. I didn’t realize at the time that Louisa Thomas was the daughter of author Evan Thomas, and thus the great-granddaughter of American socialist leader, and six time presidential candidate, Norman Thomas. Norman Thomas has always interested me – in part because of what I understood to have been his orator charisma, but more because he worked for the establishment of a number of governmental programs well before they became governmental programs, including social security, medicare and more.
So this book is the story of the early years of Norman Thomas and his three brothers, with a fair amount of background about Norman’s parents, and Norman’s two sisters, who don’t get their biographies included in this work, although Louisa speaks of them quite positively.
Norman Thomas’ father was a well respected Presbyterian minister in central Ohio, and it was in a mid-western, religious atmosphere that he grew up. Norman himself went to Princeton (because of his diligence and a little bit of luck) as did two of his brothers. At Princeton, he studied under Woodrow Wilson (earlier in his life, he had a part time job in Marion Ohio working for future president Warren Harding), and it is clear that he had the knack of being in the right place, at the right time. From his early years, he became what I would call a communitarian, a believer that everyone should work together for the greater good, and (as expressed later in the book) that government should serve to fulfill people’s needs before it fulfills their wants. It was inevitable that he follow his father’s footsteps, although when he chose Union Theological Seminary, its liberal theology ruffled his parents’ sensitivity.
From the seminary, Norman was ordained by the Presbyterian Church (although this too was not easy because of his theological stands), and took difficult posts in churches in immigrant communities. As time went on, his commitment to social betterment increased, while his connections with Christianity weakened. He emerged as a socialist (much more a communal socialist than an economic socialist), speaker and politician.
Norman’s brother, Evan, took a more radical stand, becoming a jailed conscientious objector during World War I, participating in hunger strikes, and becoming more and more radicalized. (Eventually, in his late 30s, Evan went to medical school.) His brother Frank, on the other hand, joined the army, was commissioned as an officer, and was seriously wounded in France. His youngest brother, Arthur, the least elitist of the three, joined the army as well, but was still in training when the 1918 armistice was signed, and he never went into battle.
These biographical sketches are all interesting, but the key to the book is in the title, “Conscience”. These four young men all grappled with their conscience in a crucial time in American history, when the optimism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was ripped apart by the First World War and its aftermath. Where does your conscience take you when your country, long priding itself on its geographical and political isolation, suddenly enters into a world conflict. Before the war, and before the inevitable entry of America into the war, it was relatively easy to be a pacifist. It was respectable and it was certainly not considered anti-American.
When the war came, things changed. Do you support the country fully by joining the military (this is what Frank Thomas did)? Do you stick to your pacifist principles and refuse to cooperate with the new military conscription laws (this is Evan). Or do you stick to your principals as a general matter, but bend your short term goals to support your country’s military efforts, even as you work for greater rights for conscientious objectors (and other similar programs) (this is what Norman did)?
The book explores the thinking of the Thomas brothers (and their mother, their father having passed away at the relatively young age of 63) in fascinating detail, but it does it in a broad context of what was going on generally in the United States, when politics changed so rapidly, when President Wilson went from being the president who kept us out of war to the president who wanted Americans who did not cooperate with the war effort to be fully prosecuted, when having a German name became a problem in and of itself.
If you are at all interested in America during the time of the first world war, in the growth of sedition laws and prosecutions, in the development of the conscientious objector movement, or in the first spurt of anti-immigration fever, or if you are interested in Norman Thomas, I would recommend “Conscience”.