Ben Franklin Practiced Vegetarianism

For those who shy away from the prospect of going vegan or vegetarian because they think it's too new-fangled, you might find it interesting that in 1722, one of the smartest, most productive, versatile, and respected men in our nation's history adopted vegetarianism at a very early age.

I read a portion of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin while spinning at the gym this morning (what, is that weird?), and sure enough, I came to page 40, and read these words from the Founding Father:

"When about 16 years of age I happened to meet with a book, written by one Tryon, recommending a vegetable diet. I determined to go into it."
Franklin mentions he was drawn to the diet for ethical reasons, but as a man who valued frugality and strove for temperance in both his eating and drinking habits as part of an overall mission of constant self-improvement, he also enjoyed the expense spared by eating vegetables instead of meats:

"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 proposed to my brother, that if he would give me, weekly, half the money he paid for my 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."
Like many modern plant eaters, Franklin noted he experienced increased clarity as a result of his modest vegetarian diet. He learned math concepts he had never been able to grasp before and made progress in his studies of psychology:
"...despatching presently my light repast, which often was no more than a bisket 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... 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.

"And now it was that, being on some occasion made asham'd of my ignorance in figures, which I had twice failed in learning when at school, I took Cocker's book of Arithmetick, and went through the whole by myself with great ease. I also read Seller's and Shermy's books of Navigation, and became acquainted with the little geometry they contain... And I read about this time Locke On Human Understanding, and the Art of Thinking, by Messrs. du Port Royal."
It's difficult to tell exactly how long Franklin lasted on the "vegetable diet," but it was probably not more than two years. Later in his autobiography, he explains how his appetite for fish caused him to rationalize leaving the diet he had believed in so strongly:
"In my first voyage from Boston... our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion, I consider'd with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, "If you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." So I din'd upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."
That last comment, though clearly meant as a joke, is particularly telling. I think it indicates that Franklin knew he was fooling himself that it was ethically fine to eat animals, although I concede one could also argue that he meant it to explain both his conversion to vegetarianism and his giving it up.

For some interesting information about Thomas Tryon, the prolific author and early advocate of vegetarianism and pacifism who persuaded Franklin to vegetarianism, go here.

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Camille Lamb Guzman is a journalist who writes on wellness, travel, and culture. She is also finishing a book of creative nonfiction.