Conscience by Louisa Thomas

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It was a time of testing and uncertainty. Even before World War I, there was a sense that country was changing. As Louisa Thomas reveals in Conscience, for the Thomas brothers, the struggle did not only take place on the battlefields. It was within themselves. Sons of a Presbyterian minister and grandsons of missionaries, the brothers shared a rigorous moral code, Princeton educations, and a faith in the era’s spirit of hope. Their upbringing prepared them for a life of service, but the war challenged their notions of citizenship, faith, and freedom and threatened to tear their family apart. Centered around the life of the oldest, Norman Thomas, Conscience tells the story of four brothers, and the choices they made.  

When the United States entered the Great War, Ralph Thomas enlisted right away, heeding President Woodrow Wilson’s call to fight for freedom. A captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, he would be wounded in France. Arthur, the youngest, was less certain about the righteousness of the cause but was sensitive to his obligation as a citizen—and like so many men eager to have a chance to prove himself. Evan became a conscientious objector, protesting conscription; when the truce was signed on November 11, 1918, he was in solitary confinement. Norman Thomas was a Presbyterian minister when the war began. Before the United States entered the war, he became a pacifist, and by the time it was over, he was a Socialist. He would go on to run for President six times on the Socialist ticket. The Thomas brothers argued about what was possible and what was principled, what was right and what was wrong—and they told each other to have courage. .

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 four young men navigating upheaval. In telling the story of their journeys, Thomas recovers a way of talking about personal liberty and social obligation, about being true to oneself and to one another. 


About Louisa Thomas

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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. She lives in New York.
Published June 2, 2011 by Penguin Books. 339 pages
Genres: History, Biographies & Memoirs, Political & Social Sciences, War. Non-fiction

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The New York Times

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Writing about her great-grandfather, the socialist Norman Thomas, Louisa Thomas considers how conscience fares when society deems it subversive.

Jul 01 2011 | Read Full Review of Conscience

New York Journal of Books

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“The author offers considerable insight into the political climate in the country at that time—particularly President Woodrow Wilson’s tormented conscience regarding entry into the fray.”

Jun 06 2011 | Read Full Review of Conscience

Washington Independent Review of Books

Louisa Thomas, the young author of Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War I, seems to have wrestled with these issues in shaping the interesting story of the four Thomas brothers whose consciences she explores: Norman, Ralph, Evan and Arthur.

Jul 25 2011 | Read Full Review of Conscience

Open Letters Monthly

The story starts before Norman’s birth in 1885, and traces his and his siblings’ extraordinary commitment to public service through the figures of their father Welling, son of a Welsh immigrant farmer ‘insistently named Thomas Thomas,’ and mother Emma, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, a...

Aug 01 2011 | Read Full Review of Conscience

The New Yorker

Online version of the weekly magazine, with current articles, cartoons, blogs, audio, video, slide shows, an archive of articles and abstracts back to 1925

Jul 04 2011 | Read Full Review of Conscience

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