The Long Marriage of Vegetarianism and Social Activism

As early as 1850, vegetables were identified with virtue and meat was considered “the keystone to a wide-spread arch of superfluous wants”

A food distribution line at the Occupy Wall Street protests in Manhattan
A food distribution line at the Occupy Wall Street protests in Manhattan Image courtesy of Flickr user Mat McDermott

Donation appeals from the Occupy Wall Street protests suggest ordering food to be sent to Zucotti Park, requesting that “vegan and vegetarian options” be emphasized. There’s been no official count of how many of the protesters shun meat, but there is a long history of association between vegetarianism and social activism in the United States.

The first vegetarian organization in the country, the American Vegetarian Society (AVS), was founded in 1850 by William A. Alcott, a physician and relative of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, along with Sylvester Graham, of Graham cracker fame, and Rev. William Metcalfe of the Philadelphia Bible Christian Church. William Alcott’s disdain of meat was ostensibly for health reasons. His 1838 book, Vegetable Diet: As Sanctioned by Medical Men and by Experience in All Ages, included dozens of letters testifying to the superiority of a vegetarian diet for maintaining health and recovering from disease.

But by the time of the first American Vegetarian Convention, held in New York in May 1850, the justifications for avoiding meat had broadened to include moral considerations. Among the resolutions adopted at that first meeting were, “That flesh-eating is the key-stone to a wide-spread arch of superfluous wants, to meet which, life is filled with stern and rugged encounters, while the adoption of a vegetarian diet is calculated to destroy the strife of antagonism, and to sustain life in serenity and strength,” and, “That cruelty, in any form, for the mere purpose of procuring unnecesary food, or to gratify depraved appetites, is obnoxious to the pure human soul, and repugnant to the noblest attributes of our being.”

According to The Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism, edited by Margaret Puskar-Pasewicz, the AVS published a journal that connected vegetarianism to a number of other reform movements, including women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. The suffragist Susan B. Anthony and the abolitionist and New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley were among the famous reformers who attended AVS events.

Greeley spoke at a vegetarian banquet sponsored by the New York Vegetarian Society, a spinoff from the national group. Press coverage of the event was lukewarm. A New York Times writer sniffed, “The display of vegetables was not tempting. The viands were poorly dressed, and the meat-eating public gained no especial knowledge of the delights of a Graham life; but, after all the evening cannot be called a failure. The speakers, and there were plenty of them, did their best to entertain, and really succeeded very well.”

The menu, included in the article, gives some idea of why the writer was unimpressed: “moulded farina,” “moulded wheaten grits” and “stewed cream squashes” were among the bland-sounding dishes on offer, with only “pure cold water” listed as a beverage. (Many society members were also proponents of temperance).

Within a few years, the AVS had lost steam, and by 1865—coincidentally, the year slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment—had disbanded. But in 1886, former AVS member Henry S. Clubb founded the Vegetarian Society of America. Clubb was a savvy publicist; his new group published a vegetarian magazine with recipes and personality profiles of famous meat abstainers, invited celebrities as keynote speakers at its conventions and exposed millions of visitors to vegetarian ideas at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

But after Clubb died, in 1921, so did the Vegetarian Society of America. It took four decades for another national organization, the American Vegan Society, to form. Like its predecessors, the vegan society connects a meat-free diet to a number of other causes, including moral and environmental considerations. Among the reasons for veganism the group’s website lists are: health; “an equitable, ethical relationship between human and other living creatures”; “spiritual development”; and “practical solutions to the population explosion.”

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