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North America: 18th Century
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)


1777 Jean-Baptiste Greuze portrait of Franklin.

American statesman, scientist and author. He helped draw up the Declaration of Independence (1776) and, as ambassador to France (1776-85), he negotiated an alliance wth France and a peace settlement with Britain. As a scientist he is noted particularly for his researches in electricity, esp his invention of the lightning conductor.

In Part One of his autobiography Benjamin Franklin writes:

" 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 & his Apprentices in another family. My refusing to eat Flesh occasioned an Inconveniency, and I was frequently chid for my singularity. I made my self acquainted with Tryon's Manner of preparing some of his Dishes, such as Boiling Potatoes, or Rice, making Hasty Pudding, & a few others, and then propos'd to my Brother, that if he would give me Weekly half the Money he paid for my Board, I would board my self. 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 Printing House to their Meals, I remain'd there alone, and dispatching 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 till their Return, for Study, in which I made the greater Progress from that greater Clearness of Head & quicker Apprehension which usually attend Temperance in Eating & Drinking. And now it was that being on some Occasion made asham'd of my Ignorance in Figures, which I had twice fail'd in learning when at School, I took Cocker's Book of Arithmetick, & went thro' the whole of my self with great Ease.--I also read Seller's & Sturmy's Books of Navigation, & became acquainted with the little Geometry they contain, but never proceeded far in that Science. -- And I read about this Time Locke On Human Understanding and the Art of Thinking by Messrs du Port Royal."

Some 17 pages later Franklin discuss why he gave up vegetarianism:

" I believe I have omitted mentioning that in my first Voyage from Boston, being becalm'd off Block Island, our People set about catching Cod & hawl'd 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 seem'd very reasonable.--But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between Principle & 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 continu'd to eat with other People, returning only now & 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 every thing one has a mind to do.--"
--Franklin Writings, Library of America (1987)

Of course we could add that the same argument couldn't be applied to eating cows, pigs, and chickens. Also, when Franklin lived, there weren't refrigerators or supermarkets and the large variety of vegetarian food contained therein, including off season fruits and vegetables imported from various parts of the world...
- contributed by David Hurwitz

  • Franklin - from The Ethics of Diet by Howard Williams, 1883
  • Voice of the Great - Today - from the 1957 IVU Congress souvenir book
  • Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (link to Google Books) edited by John Bigelow, 1868 edition
  • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (link to Google Books) By Benjamin Franklin, 1903 edition
  • The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (link to Google Books) By Benjamin Franklin - 1979 reprint by Forgotten Books
    - in the book below Tryon refers to an earlier book, on p.87, which appears to have been the one Franklin read, but we do not have a copy of that one online:
  • Tryon's Letters, Domestick and Foreign, to Several Persons of Quality, Occasionally Distributed in Subjects, Viz. Philosophical, Theological, and Moral. (link to Google Books) by Thomas Tryon (1634-1703), pub.1700 (see eg Letter XIX 'Of Flesh Broths', p.87)