While it is becoming more common to see articles on vegetarian diets in general interest publications, references to the history of vegetarianism often don't appear in the media. Many articles treat vegetarianism as something new. In other cases, when early American vegetarians are mentioned, the account may not be very accurate or complete. Often the coverage fails to appreciate adequately the long tradition vegetarianism has in this country.
Few people know that Benjamin Franklin was vegetarian for part of his lifetime. How did vegetarianism actually appear to this famous man?
Background for an answer to this question can be gathered from his writings, from the written sources that influenced him, and from the words of other vegetarians Franklin knew and befriended. All this evidence shows that, whether or not he was able to live up to them himself, the reasons he saw for vegetarianism in the 1700's were ethical and practical.
His writings demonstrate that in addition to the moral aspects, Franklin also saw a pragmatic side to vegetarianism. As a young printer's apprentice in the 1720's, he came upon a book by Thomas Tryon. This was probably Wisdom's Dictates (1691), a digest of Tryon's lengthy The Way to Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Franklin recalls:
When about 16 years of age, I happen'd to meet with a book written by one Tryon, recommending a vegetable diet. I determined to go into it. My brother being yet unmarried, did not keep house, but boarded himself and his apprentices in another family. My refusing to eat flesh occasioned an inconveniency, and I was frequently chid for my singularity. I made myself acquainted with Tryon's manner of preparing some of his dishes, such as boiling potatoes or rice, making hasty pudding, and a few others, and then propos'd to my brother, that if he would give me weekly half the money he paid for by board, I would board myself. He instantly agreed to it, and I presently found that I could save half what he paid me. This was an additional fund for buying books: but I had another advantage in it. My brother and the rest going from the printinghouse to their meals, I remain'd there alone, and dispatching presently my light repast (which often was no more than a biscuit or a slice of bread, a handful of raisins or a tart from the pastry cook's, and a glass of water) had the rest of the time till their return for study, in which I made the greater progress from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and drinking.1
So, along with the ethical dimension, a vegetarian diet meant savings in both money and time to the young apprentice. He had been desperate from a young age to acquire books and read them; now he had extra means of doing both. Franklin does not make any exaggerated claims for the health benefits of abstaining from meat, nor does he criticize meateating as unhealthy.
Exactly what did the young Franklin find in Tryon's work? Wisdom's Dictates is 150 pages of rules about health. These include commentary on diet, exercise, and cleanliness. The concluding pages consist of "A Bill of Fare" which supplies 75 recipes; most likely these were the ones tested and adopted by Franklin.
Tryon defends the vegetarian diet as superior, both physically and spiritually. He bases this on his interpretation of Christianity. The moral emphasis of Wisdom's Dictates can be seen on the title page, which refers to the bill of fare as "Seventyfive Noble dishes of Excellent Food, far exceeding those made of fish or flesh, which banquet I present to the sons of wisdom, on such as shall decline that depraved custom of eating flesh and blood."
Tryon goes on to say in the opening pages:
Refrain at all times such foods as cannot be procured without violence and oppression. For know, that all the inferior creatures when hurt do cry and fend forth their complaints to their maker...Be not insensible that every creature doth bear the image of the great creator according to the nature of each, and that he is the vital power in all things. Therefore, let none take pleasure to offer violence to that life, lest he awaken the fierce wrath, and bring danger to his own soul. But let mercy and compassion dwell plentifully in your hearts, that you may be comprehended in the friendly principle of God's love and holy light. Be a friend to everything that's good, and then everything will be a friend to thee, and cooperate for thy good and welfare.
The author also warns his readers against "Hunting, hawking, shooting, and all violent oppressive exercises" due to their immoral nature.
When describing the recipes at his book's end, Tryon again stresses the ethical reasons for adopting the vegetarian diet. These dishes, he informs the reader, are "prepared without flesh and blood, or the dying groans of God's innocent and harmless creatures." He asks the reader to "consider also that thy life is near and dear to thee, the like is understood of all other creatures."2
Even if he had never read Tryon or become a vegetarian himself, Franklin still would have been acutely aware of the moral arguments for vegetarianism. This is because, based in Philadelphia, he was well acquainted with Quakerism and those Quakers who espoused a vegetarian diet. Some of the best known Quaker proponents of the abolition of slavery were also vegetarian.
The first of these was Benjamin Lay. In 1731, he and his wife moved to Philadelphia from Barbados. There they had witnessed the horrors of the slave trade. This experience, along with his Quaker upbringing in England, deeply influenced his views. Lay was known among Philadelphians for his temperance and his refusal to harm animal life in order to obtain food or clothing. Lay fought against slavery in Pennsylvania and nearby colonies. This battle brought him into contact with Franklin, with whom he maintained a friendship until Lay died in 1759.
There is no doubt that Franklin knew of Lay's beliefs. Lay was far from reserved in expressing his views, whether it be about slavery or the abuse of animals. He once "kidnapped" his neighbors' sixyearold son, and when the worried parents came looking for him, Lay told them, "Your child is safe in my house and you may now conceive of the sorrow you afflict upon the parents of the Negro girl you hold in slavery, for she was torn from them by avarice." He once took a bladder filled with blood into the Yearly Meeting of the Quakers, and puncturing it with a sword, sprinkled blood on some of his companions, telling them, "Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellowcreatures."3 His efforts to promote abolition were rewarded, when shortly before his death, the Society of Friends called on all Quakers to release their slaves as a religious duty.
Another Quaker abolitionist and vegetarian known to Franklin was the itinerant preacher John Woolman. In his Journal, Woolman states that he was "early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life, wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learn to exercise true justice and goodness, not only toward all men, but also toward the brute creatures..."4 Woolman, over the course of 30 years, traveled throughout the colonies, speaking against slavery and promoting his views on respect for life. His twopart work, Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, was read in England as well as America and may have been more influential than any other document in turning the Society of Friends against the practice of slavery. Franklin printed the second part of Woolman's essay, as well as other antislavery publications.
Woolman also campaigned against the misuse of animals, particularly horses and oxen. He felt that the abuse of domestic animals for profit was a great evil, and urged relatives not to write when he was traveling due to the conditions endured by those horses used on the stage coaches which delivered the mail.
In Franklin's world, a vegetarian diet was primarily associated with moral choices, not claims of health benefits. Those who would dismiss vegetarianism as a passing fad must not be aware of this long history of ethical vegetarianism in America.
Franklin had his differences with Quakers, in particular over the refusal of some of them to participate in the defense of the colony. However, through his association with Quakers such as Lay and Woolman, he was exposed to arguments against flesheating and knew them to be based on ethical principles.
In Franklin's world, a vegetarian diet was primarily associated with moral choices, not claims of health benefits. Those who would dismiss vegetarianism as a passing fad must not be aware of this long history of ethical vegetarianism in America. This tradition continued into the nineteenth century and helped form the moral basis for the vegetarian movement of the 1830's. It was this later movement that first popularized the case for the health benefits of a vegetarian diet in America.
1 Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (1790), (New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 1986), p. 28.
2 Thomas Tryon, Wisdom's Dictates (London, 1691), pp. 1, 67, and 139.
3 John Thomas Scharf, History of Philadephia (Philadelphia, L. H. Everts, 1884), p. 1249. Also, American Reformers: H. W. Wilson Biograhical Dictionary (New York, H. W. Wilson Company, 1985), pp. 5145.
4 John Woolman, Journal, (1772) (New York, Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 28.
Larry Kaiser is a freelance writer living in Dexter, Michigan.
This article appears in Vegan Handbook, published by The Vegetarian Resource Group.