Thomas, Norman [Mattoon]

Thomas, Norman [Mattoon] (1884-1968), six times Socialist candidate for president of the United States, 1928 through 1948, began what he called a lifelong ``love affair with Old Nassau'' when, as a ``gangling lad'' in Marion, Ohio, a family friend gave him a copy of Jesse Lynch Williams's Princeton Stories.

After a year at Bucknell, Thomas was admitted to Princeton in the fall of 1902 as a ``heavily conditioned'' sophomore thus becoming ``a member of the glorious Class of 1905.'' He passed off his conditions, qualified for the ``first general group'' all three years, and was chosen class valedictorian at graduation. He did not think the education he received first-rate; ``the curriculum . . . should have set higher, more demanding goals,'' and there were not enough good teachers -- Wilson's preceptorial system was not to begin until the year after his graduation. He thought his lecturers good, particularly Professors Daniels and Wyckoff in economics. To Mr. Daniels he owed ``a sound grounding in a laissez faire economy'' so that later in life he ``knew what he was rejecting.'' He also thought ``Weary Willie Walter Wyckoff did a pretty good if by no means lasting job'' in teaching him ``why socialism would never work.'' He was enthusiastic about the honor system in examinations (a major contribution to any man's education'').

He excelled in Whig Hall activities, especially in competitive debate. He remembered a formal debate in Alexander Hall at which President Wilson presided, when all the participants wore academic gowns. ``Just as we were about to go in,'' he recalled, ``Mr. Wilson looked at my legs and where the gown stopped observed my gray trousers -- they were pressed -- and said, `Mr. Thomas, it is proper to wear dark trousers.' In spite of that I won the debate.''

At graduation, the 1905 Nassau Herald revealed, he regarded himself as a Presbyterian and a Republican, was called ``Tommy'' by his classmates, and intended to become a minister (like his father and his grandfather). The first two years after graduation he worked at Spring Street Church and Neighborhood House in New York City; he told his class secretary that he had come to see that ``as a nation we face a social problem of tremendous gravity, whose solutoin will take the best that we have in us of thought and service.''

~~For 1905's Five-Year Record, Tommy began his report: ``Bliss has no history. This letter will be brief.'' He had just been married to Frances Violet Stewart (granddaughter of John Aikman Stewart, financial adviser to President Lincoln and to President Cleveland, and a trustee of Princeton for many years), whom he had met at a tuberculosis clinic where she was a social worker. They were living in an apartment in a crowded tenement district where he was doing social work for Christ Church while attending Union Theological Seminary, and where all 1905 men would be welcome. He ended his letter: ``With sincere sympathy for all the unmarried.''

In the Twenty-Year Record in 1925 Thomas reported that he was now executive director of the League for Industrial Democracy. He had been a parish minister in East Harlem, an editor of three publications, and an ``advocate of unpopular causes.'' ``My path has led me away from the road travelled by many old friends,'' he wrote. ``That I regret, but nothing else.''

Thomas later recalled that he had been barred as a speaker from the Princeton campus from 1917 to 1924 but that to his ``pleased surprise'' he was given an honorary degree in 1932. It was President Hibben (an ardent interventionist in World War I) who barred him from the campus, and it was Hibben also who persuaded the trustees to give Thomas the degree at Hibben's last Commencement.

The conferring of his degree, which was to have occupied an unobtrusive ~~~~position third from the end, involved a minor mishap. The University Orator, Dean Augustus Trowbridge, completed the presentation of honorary graduands without any mention of Thomas, concluding in a resonant voice: ``And finally, Mr. President, for the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, Benjamin Nathan Cardozo. . . .'' Justice Cardozo's degree conferred, the University Orator started to return to his seat. The Chief Marshal, Secretary V. Lansing Collins, caught him by the sleeve and whispered in his ear. The orator wheeled back into position, rifled through his papers, and announced, ``And finally, Mr. President, I have the honor to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Norman Thomas.''

After the exercises Trowbridge explained to Thomas that the sheet containing his citation had got attached to the preceding sheet by a paper clip. ``I know,'' said Thomas, ``a capitalistic clip.''

Trowbridge's citation called Thomas ``a brilliant and successful clergyman . . . who for conscience's sake gave up a conventional form of ministry . . . to become the fearless and upright advocate of change in the social order.'' ``Irrespective of party preferences,'' Trowbridge concluded, ``we join to honor this valiant and distinguished son of Princeton.''

Thomas gave ``critical support'' to American participation in World War II because he feared an Axis victory would condemn the world to the ``lowest circle of hell.'' But when the United States used the atomic bomb against Japan, he cried out in protest.

In 1955 the editors of 1905's half-century record said Tommy was beloved by all his classmates and no 1905 gathering was complete without his presence and some utterance from his `'silver tongue.'' All of them, the editors said -- ``even those in violent dissent'' -- agreed that he was ``a man of the highest integrity, of utter, self-effacement [and] concern for the welfare of his fellow men, and of kindliness rarely seen in . . . iconoclasts.'' Thomas, for his part, wrote his classmates:

``I've failed -- doubtless to your general satisfaction! -- in the chief purpose of my career. That was to bring about, or help bring about, in our country a more realistic political alignment which might give us two major responsible parties, one of them democratic socialist in principle whatever its name.

``None of us at Princeton in 1905 could possibly have dreamed what this half-century has brought forth. But I suspect that in years of war and turmoil, among our comforts has been satisfaction that Princeton and the things it stands for has endured. Often we have warmed our hearts at the flame of our Princeton loyalties.

``And Princeton's beauty, present before our eyes or in memory, has been like Princeton's friendships, an abiding joy, a part of life's wealth that cannot be taken away.''

In his later years Thomas was almost sightless, hard of hearing, and crippled by arthritis, but he maintained his keen interest in people and affairs until the very end. Interviewed by long distance telephone on his eighty-first birthday, while listening by radio to the Princeton-Dartmouth football game, he told a reporter: ``I like human beings. I'm very glad I'm one of them. But I think we're crazy.''

In a speech to students from thirty countries just before his eighty-third birthday, delivered according to one reporter ``at 200 words a minute,'' he castigated the United States for its policies in Vietnam and its inadequate antipoverty efforts, but he insisted nevertheless that he had affection for his country as well as criticism. He didn't like the sight of young people burning the American flag. ``A symbol?'' he asked, ``if they want an appropriate symbol they should be washing the flag, not burning it.'' He thought loyalties necessary in life. ``Most of us live by our group loyalties . . . but we have to rise above them to the values of humanity so that we can co-exist lest we don't exist at all.''

He died in his sleep soon after his eighty-fourth birthday. In the Alumni Weekly the secretary of 1905 reminded his forty-five surviving classmates that in senior year they had voted Tommy the brightest man in the class. ``If we could have foreseen the future,'' the secretary added, ``we must also have acclaimed him the most courageous.''


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion