No such thing as a free lunch

The evolution of vegetarianism in America


 

"Over-indulgence--a spoiled Thanksgiving." Alice Barber Stephens, 1896.

“Over-indulgence–a spoiled Thanksgiving.” Alice Barber Stephens, 1896.

Eleven years before the start of the Civil War, as the abolition movement was reaching new heights, a man named William Alcott gathered his supporters together for a discussion about slavery–but not the kind that you’re probably thinking about.

“There is no slavery in this world like the slavery of a man to his appetite. Let man but abstain from the use of the flesh and fish, and the slavery of one man to another cannot long exist.”

Alcott was founder of a group called the American Vegetarian Society (or AVS), and an ardent believer in the link between meat and slavery. Consuming meat, he argued, caused people to become savage and corrupt, and slavery could only happen in a savage, corrupt society.

And Alcott wasn’t the only one who believed that if Americans stopped eating meat, slavery would eventually die. The AVS’ members dedicated themselves to pursuing a meat-free and slavery-free America.

Kansas became a battleground between abolitionist and pro-slavery settlers. Credit: Library of Congress.

Kansas became a battleground between abolitionist and pro-slavery settlers. Credit: Library of Congress.

In 1864, the Kansas Nebraska Act gave these abolitionist vegetarians a chance to accelerate that process. The decision to make those territories slave or free states would be put to a vote by the settlers there, and so members of the American Vegetarian Society flocked west, eager to make the territories a model for the rest of the country. Under the leadership of an atheist member named Henry S. Clubb, they joined the flood of people rushing to colonize Kansas and set up their own settlement. But things didn’t exactly go according to plan. Historian Adam Shprintzen, who’s written about the history of vegetarianism, described for us some of the challenges this vegetarian colony faced on the plains:

“The first group of settlers arrived, they were very enthusiastic about their cause of course. But then when the next wave of settlers come from the Northeast, the settlement itself is rickety, there’s maybe some old sheds barely with roofing on it…There’s a significant disenchantment really quickly and within three to four months, especially as mosquito season really starts to hit and people suffer…A lot of the reformers end up kind of turning around and heading back east.”

The settlers that remained ended up furthering their cause in a different way: joining the Union army. This was quite a turnaround for a group whose goal in promoting both vegetarianism and abolitionism had been a less violent, more harmonious society. Henry S. Clubb, former leader of the vegetarian settlement, was one of many who had to wrestle with his abolitionist and pacifist principles while serving in the Union army. Though Clubb served as a quartermaster, arming and supporting northern troops, he himself refused to carry a weapon.

With the success of the abolitionist cause, the vegetarianism movement lost its focus and organization. The AVS dissolved, and the alliance of anti-slavery vegetarians fractured. But vegetarianism as a social force was far from dead. Instead, as Shprintzen explained, the cause took on an entirely new shape.

“Because there is no organization, this allows for a new vegetarianism to crop up that focuses on the diet for its health benefits for the individual, and that those health benefits will then also help the individual advance socially and economically. And this is a real difference from the previous vegetarians, who saw their diet as a way to help others rather than only themselves.”

This new vegetarianism promised a new and improved self rather than a transformed society. Vegetarianism was linked to social success, being a better businessman, and even to athleticism and bodybuilding, giving Americans a whole new set of reasons to, as the Beach Boys put it, “chow down on [their] vegetables.”

This story comes from our show on the history of nutritional advice. You can listen to the whole show here.

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