1917 July 16

“War’s Heretics:” Norman Thomas Makes Historic Plea for the Value of Heresy, Dissent in a Democracy


Norman Thomas, a pacifist and opponent of American involvement in World War I, on this day issued an eloquent defense of the role of heretics and dissenters as a crucial element of a democratic society. “Every movement worthwhile began with a minority,” he wrote. He might have added that important ideas usually originate with unpopular minorities. The essay was first published in the July 1917 issue of The World Tomorrow, the magazine of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (founded November 11, 1915); in August, it was reprinted and widely circulated by the National Civil Liberties Bureau.

Thomas’ point about the role of dissent in a democracy is essentially a religious-based expression of the core argument in the historic dissenting opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (joined by Louis Brandeis) in the pivotal Supreme Court decision, Abrams v. United States (November 10, 1919) which shaped the course of First Amendment law for decades to come.

Thomas was a founding member of the ACLU Board of Directors and long-time champion of freedom of speech, the rights of working people to organize unions, and of racial justice. He was also a candidate for president in six elections.

Thomas:We are pleading for the recognition of the social value of heresy. Every movement worthwhile began with a minority. Democracy degenerates into mobocracy unless the rights of the minority are respected.”

Read about Norman Thomas’s brother, Evan Thomas: Louisa Thomas, Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family – A Test of Will and Faith in World War I (2011)

Read the important new book on free speech: Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016)

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