Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) is not among the most popularly well-known vegetarians of the 19th century, but his contributions to the vegetarian ideal on both a philosophical and practical level should not be lost or ignored.
Bronson Alcott, perhaps best known as the writer Louisa May Alcott's father, made signi-ficant contributions to the world in two areas: education and diet. His philosophies on both of these subjects were based on the idea that humans are innately good. He believed, for example, that children are closest to perfection while adults tend to become more corrupt with age, especially under the influence of industrialization and competition. He pro-posed that the duty of each individual is to try to regain the original purity that people are closest to at birth.
Alcott saw vegetarianism as an important and necessary means of restoring this lost purity. Meat, in Alcott's view, corrupts both the body and the soul. Not only did he con-sider the slaughter of animals to be morally reprehensible, but Alcott also claimed that a pure soul could not possibly emanate from a body made impure through meat consumption.
Alcott considered raising animals for food to be an ecologically unsound practice.
In an 1843 letter, Alcott wrote:
It is calculated that if no animal food were consumed, one-fourth of the land now used would suffice for human sustenance. And the extensive tracts of the country now appropriated to grazing, mowing, and other modes of animal provision, could be cultivated by and for intelligent and affectionate human neighbors.
Alcott started his transition to vegetarian-ism in 1835 after reading the works of Pyth-agoras and became a confirmed vegetarian a year later when he attended a series of Syl-vester Graham's lectures on the "Science of Life." Graham, a well-known 19th century health reformer, lectured not only on vege-tarianism, but on the benefits of cold baths, sexual restraint, and eating fibrous whole-wheat biscuits (ancestors of our 20th century graham crackers).
Soon after attending Graham's lectures, Alcott dreamed of creating a communal environment, which he called a consociate family, within which people could mature both intellectually and spiritually. In 1843, Alcott and English educational reformer Charles Lane purchased a property in Har-vard, Massachusetts, where they established their short-lived experiment called Fruit-lands.
Although Fruitlands lasted only for about seven months, it was a significant contribution to vegetarian history as the first intentionally vegan communal arrangement.
Not only did the people at Fruitlands eschew meat, but they also did not allow the use of dairy products, wool, leather, cotton (as a product of slavery), or manure for fertili-zation (they called it "as filthy a practice as an idea").
Although Alcott was a life-long friend of the famous transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and a contributor to the prestigious literary journal The Dial, Alcott was often subject to ridicule because of his unusual be-liefs, leading to such nicknames as the "Sage of Apple Slump" and "Consecrated Crank." Amos Bronson Alcott did not publish many works during his lifetime, and nothing spe-cifically about vegetarianism; yet his contri-bution to the vegetarian ideal through his speech and actions is immeasurable.
Francis, Richard, "Circumstances and Salvation: The Ideology of the Fruitlands Utopia," American Quarterly, 25 (May 1973), pp. 202-234.
Herrnstadt, Richard L., ed., The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott (Ames, Iowa: Iowa Univer- sity Press, 1969).
Hoeltje, Hubert, Sheltering Tree: A Story of the Friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Amos Bronson Alcott (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat, 1943)
Sanborn, F.B., Bronson Alcott: At Alcott House, England, and Fruitlands, New England (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1908).
Shepard, Odell, ed., The Journals of Bronson Alcott (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1938).
Shepard, Odell, Peddler's Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1938).
Donna Maurer is a graduate student in sociology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
This article appears in Vegan Handbook, published by The Vegetarian Resource Group.