Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family--a Test of Will andFaith in World War I

Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family--a Test of Will andFaith in World War I

by Louisa Thomas
     
 

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Norman Thomas and his brothers' upbringing prepared them for a life of service-but their calls to conscience threatened to tear them apart

Conscience is Louisa Thomas's beautifully written account of the remarkable Thomas brothers at the turn of the twentieth century. At a time of trial, each brother struggled to understand his obligation to his

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Overview

Norman Thomas and his brothers' upbringing prepared them for a life of service-but their calls to conscience threatened to tear them apart

Conscience is Louisa Thomas's beautifully written account of the remarkable Thomas brothers at the turn of the twentieth century. At a time of trial, each brother struggled to understand his obligation to his country, family, and faith. Centered around the story of the eldest, Norman Thomas (later the six-time Socialist candidate for president), the book explores the difficult decisions the four brothers faced with the advent of World War I. Sons of a Presbyterian minister and grandsons of missionaries, they shared a rigorous moral upbringing, a Princeton education, and a faith in the era's spirit of hope.

Two became soldiers. Ralph enlisted right away, heeding President Woodrow Wilson's call to fight for freedom. A captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, he was ultimately wounded in France. Arthur, the youngest, was less certain about the righteousness of the cause but sensitive to his obligation as a citizen-and like so many men eager to have a chance to prove himself. The other two were pacifists. Evan became a conscientious objector, protesting conscription; when the truce was signed on November 11, 1918, he was in solitary confinement. Norman left his ministry in the tenements of East Harlem, New York, and began down the course he would follow for the rest of his life, fighting for civil liberties, social justice, and greater equality, and against violence as a method of change. Conscience reveals the tension among responsibilities, beliefs, and desires, between ideas and actions-and, sometimes, between brothers.

Conscience moves from the gothic buildings of Princeton to the tenements of New York City, from the West Wing of the White House to the battlefields of France, tracking how four young men navigated a period of great uncertainty and upheaval. A Thomas family member herself (Norman was Louisa's great grandfather), Thomas proposes that there is something we might recover from the brothers' debates about conscience: a way of talking about personal liberty and social obligation, about being true to oneself and to one another.

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Editorial Reviews

It is not surprising that the World War I experiences of Norman Thomas (1884-1968) form a major part of Louisa Thomas' new book: This long-lived peace advocate was, after all, the author's great grandfather and a six-time Socialist presidential candidate. Conscience does pay due attention to her forebear, but it also traces the parallel stories of his three brothers. Two of them answered President Woodrow Wilson's call to war by becoming soldiers; Norman and his brother Evan both became conscientious objectors. This thoughtful group biography reveals how four members of one remarkable family coped with the moral complexities of responsibilities and beliefs. An extraordinary microhistory of a conscientious period in American history.

From the Publisher
“Daring … The thrust of this enthralling book lies with its title: through the experience of her forebears, Thomas examines how conscience fares when society considers it subversive.” — THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

“….a well-paced, well-told story of an American family nurtured on mainstream middle-class, Christian respectability, testing its values as the Great War threatened to suck in America.” — NEWSDAY

“….a fascinating story from a fascinating moment in New York’s (and the nation’s) history..” — THE NEW YORKER Book Bench

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594202940
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
06/02/2011
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
9.08(w) x 6.28(h) x 1.09(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Walter Isaacson
This is an unforgettable saga of four brothers, each fighting for freedom in his own way. With powerful narrative writing, great historical sensitivity, and a wealth of poignant letters, Louisa Thomas explores the bonds of family and the nature of conscience. This gem of a book is both a wonderful story and a guide to the nature of moral commitments.”--(Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life)
Joseph Kip Kosek
"The Thomas brothers disagreed on the most important political questions of the day, but never lost their love for one another. In telling their story, Conscience presents both a vivid account of a tumultuous moment in world history and a reflection on democratic citizenship that speaks powerfully to our own time."--(Joseph Kip Kosek, author of Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy)
Doris Kearns Goodwin
“Every once in a while the story of one man or one family is so well told that it becomes a vehicle for exhibiting an entire age. So it is with this triumphant work. Through the prism of the four Thomas brothers, the dramatic years at the turn of the twentieth century are recreated with such vitality that they seem to have happened only yesterday.”--(Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals )
Cooper
“Near the end of his life, Norman Thomas wrote to the widow of one of his younger brothers, “I was extraordinarily fortunate to belong to a group of brothers and sisters who didn’t agree on a lot of things, but who found it very easy to feel continuing respect and affection for each other.” Louisa Thomas recounts with both tenderness and a critical eye the ways that World War I divided and changed the brothers but never severed and even deepened their love and mutual respect. It is a moving story of a remarkable family and of how Norman Thomas, the Princetonian Presbyterian minister, became the great kind and gentle Socialist.”--(John Milton Cooper, Jr. author of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography)
Hendrik Hertzberg
“In the home I grew up in, Norman Thomas was something of a household god. Yet the story his great-granddaughter tells with such a sure touch is a revelation to me. I don’t know which is more moving: the strength and courage of the Thomas brothers’ clashing convictions or their profound respect and concern for one another despite their differences. Conscience, the story of a family and a nation in a time of testing, is a remarkable achievement.”--(Hendrik Hertzberg, author of Politics )

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Meet the Author

Louisa Thomas is a contributing editor at Newsweek. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Vogue, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and other publications.

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