At the age of sixteen, Benjamin Franklin, the first dreamer of the American Dream, turned vegetarian after he had read one of Thomas Tyron’s books, probably his masterwork The Way to Health that was first published in 1683. Tyron, an English vegetarian, moralist, and author of many self-help books and pamphlets, had convinced Franklin of the many benefits of a “vegetable diet,” and so the latter, according to his autobiography, made himself familiar with the preparation of vegetarian dishes.

In going vegetarian, Franklin was not primarily motivated by health issues. Rather, he found that doing without meat would help him save half of the wages he earned as an apprentice in his brother’s print shop. “This was an additional fund for buying books,” Franklin commented in his autobiography, fashioning himself as an avid reader of books who used every spare minute for study and exercise to improve his language, knowledge, and intellectual skills.

Moreover, becoming vegetarian was a way to save time. When, during lunchtime, his brother and colleagues left the print shop to have their opulent meals, Franklin stayed behind, ate his “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),” and had the rest of the lunchbreak “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.”

Franklin, who probably skipped lunch or dinner in order to read, in London, 1767. Painting by David Martin, displayed in the White House.

Franklin’s vegetarianism was an integral part of the much larger project of autodidactic self-improvement that forms the core theme of his autobiography. The second part of the book gives a detailed account of the “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” Drawing on the thirteen moral virtues of Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility, Franklin meticulously described how he systematically went about acquiring the “habitude” of all of them.

Much has been written on Franklin’s list of virtues, and one can, of course, see his autobiography as a manual for conditioning an “economic man” who worked himself up from rags to riches in a free-market democracy. In this reading, the “economic man” is a vegetarian for reasons of efficiency. Yet, Franklin’s life project did not exhaust itself in getting rich. In his autobiography, material wealth does not appear as an end in itself but rather as the basis for a life dedicated to public improvement. Franklin’s self-made-manhood does not so much target the “economic man” as it does the “civic man,” i.e. a free and self-determined individual, whose passions are put to the service of a civil society. In Franklin’s ideal of the “civic man,” self-interest and the public interest are inseparably intertwined. Franklin envisioned a society of free, self-determined, and moral citizens who, in pursuing their private and material interests, were voluntarily also contributing to the public good. While the “economic man” and the “civic man” thus overlap in certain respects, they are not the same, insofar as public service begins to become an end in itself at a certain point, transcending the banal quest for riches.

As such, Franklin’s project of self-improvement is deeply anchored in the frictions of America’s revolutionary project. While the American Revolution in the eyes of many a contemporary appeared as a chance to make the world over and create an order based on individual freedom, self-determination, and self-government, hardly anyone at the end of the eighteenth century believed that such a political order would actually work, and – more importantly – that it would last long.

One major source of this anxiety was human nature, as Franklin and his fellow-revolutionaries perceived it. Accordingly, humans were driven by the “passions” of pride, ambition, and avarice, and these “passions” had the potential for a destructive egotism that was prone to destroy a political order based on individual liberty and self-government.

Against this backdrop, Franklin’s exercise in moral self-improvement was to first and foremost channel the potentially destructive human passions and turn them into forces supporting and stabilizing a republic built on individual freedom and self-government.

In all, therefore, Franklin’s autobiography is the attempt to reform society with autobiographical means. His own project of moral self-perfection is but the starting point for a thorough reform of society as such, in which all individuals should act like Franklin did. A society of free and self-determined individuals acting voluntarily on the principles of sincerity and justice, moderation and humility, industry and frugality would be a society of essentially stable social relationships, a society without fraud, broken promises, and other disruptive forms of social conduct.

This anticipated society would move on a plane of civility that is a far cry from the predatory society that Franklin describes especially in the first part of his narrative, covering his life in Boston and Philadelphia to the years 1730/31. The world represented here is a world of drifters and drunkards unwilling to work and constantly borrowing money from Franklin without ever paying it back. A world, in which even governors trick Franklin into going on a business trip to England without ever delivering the promised funds to buy all the materials needed for the new print shop to be set up in Philadelphia. It is a world, in which Franklin himself breaks contracts, deceives shipmasters and fellow printers, and leads a life of drink, song, and women during his first stay in London that lasted from 1724 to 1726.

Against this backdrop, Franklin’s autobiography can be read as the attempt to educate “useful citizens” that would stabilize and perpetuate a political order based on self-government. These “useful citizens” were not necessarily vegetarian. Franklin himself admits that he changed his mind on vegetarianism after he had seen smaller fish taken out of the stomachs of larger fish. While he had stuck to his resolution of not eating animal food before, holding “the taking every fish as a kind of unprovok’d murder,” he now thought: “[I]f you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.”

In the society of “civic men” and “useful citizens” that Franklin envisioned in his autobiography, free and self-determined individuals would not be eating each other. They would have tempered their bodily and mental passions – and this tempering of destructive egotistical inclinations started with food regimes. When Franklin explicated the virtue of Temperance, which he listed as number one in his chart of virtues, he noted: “Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation.” “Useful citizens,” therefore, would, as Franklin had already suggested in Poor Richard’s Almanack of 1733, “eat to live, and not live to eat.” Eating behavior and food regimes, thus, stood at the beginning of a bold and arduous project of self-improvement, in the course of which egotistical and predatory human inclinations were put to the service of the common good. One did not have to be a vegetarian to overcome a predatory social conduct; it sufficed to moderate one’s eating and drinking habits.

About the Author

Volker Depkat

Volker Depkat is a trained historian and Professor of American Studies at the University of Regensburg. He has published widely on U.S. history in a continental perspective, the history of European-American relations, Auto/Biography Studies, Visual Culture Studies, and the history of federalism. In 2016 he published Geschichte der USA. Currently he is working on a book on the conceptual history of American Exceptionalism.

» More articles by Volker Depkat

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