June 1, 1832
Sylvester Graham uses the cholera epidemic as a way to gain religious believers, arguing that overstimulation through meat and alcohol caused the epidemic. He also arged that the physiology of humans matched herbivores, that it wasn't about animal rights and that the goal of a meatless diet was a “more healthy, vigorous and long-lived” life, allowing for a “more active and powerful” intellect able to develop the most “moral faculties . . . rendered by suitable cultivation.”
A Lecture on Epidemic Diseases Generally, and Particularly the Spasmodic Cholera by Sylvester Graham - 1838
Graham’s lectures emphasized the naturalness of a vegetable diet based on the study of physiology, arguing that the human dental and alimentary systems were constructed to chew and digest only vegetable-based products. Carnivorous members of the animal kingdom had sharp, elongated teeth, perfect for chewing through flesh and sinew. Humans, in contrast, were blessed with flat teeth, perfect for the grinding necessary to break down fruits, vegetables, and grains. The goal of a meatless diet was a “more healthy, vigorous and long-lived” life, allowing for a “more active and powerful” intellect able to develop the most “moral faculties . . . rendered by suitable cultivation.” A moral and intellectually driven individual would not debase him-or-herself with the evils of stimulants such as meat. History, Graham argued, pointed toward the benefits of a vegetable diet. Ancient Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, and Jews all expounded on the virtues of the “natural diet.” A vegetable diet worked for Plutarch, Ovid, Hesiod, and Pythagoras; it was only logical that Americans, the torchbearers of modern republicanism, should follow this lead.
Graham, however, was not arguing for animal rights. In fact, he referred to nonhumans as “the lower animals,” driven strictly by instinct, a quality to be managed and sublimated by humanity. Meat abstainers feared humanity’s inclination to act like the rest of the animal world. Exposure to all kinds of sensory experiences—whether culinary, alcoholic, or sexual—worried dietary reformers, who believed that Americans had relinquished themselves to the most primal, animalistic urges. Proto-vegetarianism put little emphasis on the effects of meat production on the animals themselves, focusing instead on human ethics and their eff ect on physical functions.
The concept of overstimulation was at the center of Graham’s antimeat doctrine, an idea derived from the traditional view of the balanced humoral body. Humanity’s natural state—which included a meatless diet—kept the body in a mode of regulated stasis. Substances such as meat, alcohol, and spices served to throw off this natural balance, overstimulating and overheating the human body, mind, and soul. Once the body was out of balance it would become susceptible to any number of serious physical and moral maladies.
Graham’s claims about the dangers of meat and other stimulants gained more traction with the outbreak of a mass cholera epidemic. The simultaneous growth of American cities and waves of new immigrants entering urban areas contributed to overcrowding. A lack of available municipal services ensured that impoverished urban areas remained dirty and disease-ridden. By June 1832 cholera appeared in North America in Quebec and quickly spread to the United States before the month was over. In just two months nearly 3,500 New Yorkers—primarily working-class inhabitants of the crowded slums— died from the epidemic. Diarrhea, vomiting, and intense stomach cramping culminated in the eventual collapse of the circulation system. Cities large and small along the East Coast were gripped by fear and hysteria. Wealthy citizens fl ed to the countryside fearing the spread of the disease, leading one New York reporter to refl ect that “the roads, in all directions, were lined with wellfilled stagecoaches, livery coaches, private vehicles and equestrians, all panicstruck, fleeing the city, as . . . the inhabitants of Pompeii fled when the red lava showered down upon their houses.”
The medical response to the epidemic was slow and usually ineffective. In a pre–germ theory generation, cholera was not perceived as being communicable via interpersonal contact; rather, it was seen as an airborne illness, apt to attack the physically and morally weakest in the cities. Mercury chloride was given out to those afflicted as a strong purgative to induce purification, while laudanum—a powerful opiate that includes opium and morphine— was administered in a glass of hot brandy to treat intense stomach pains. On a federal level, all that Congress could offer was Senator Henry Clay’s call for a national day of fasting and prayer for a providential cure.
As these treatments proved to be ineffective and Americans struggled to understand the reasons for the epidemic, Sylvester Graham offered strikingly different advice on how to best treat and avoid cholera. Graham argued that a combination of factors contributed to the epidemic, especially diet and overstimulation. Americans, Graham preached, were detached from and ignorant of the natural laws that regulated the human body, and drunk from a diet heavy in stimulants. Animal flesh was essentially rotting and inorganic, leading to impure blood and the draining of vital power in order to digest unnatural substances.
Laying the blame squarely on meat-eating and alcohol consumption, Graham pointed toward “dietetic intemperance and lewdness” as the primary causes of the spread of cholera. Only by adhering to natural laws—a flesh- and alcohol-free diet; cold, pure water; frequent bathing; exercise; and fresh air—could one avoid contracting the disease. Graham pointed further toward emotional strength as a weapon in the fi ght against choleric agents. Fear of the disease weakened the body’s constitution, making it more apt to overtax itself. Only through strength of mind, body, and soul could individuals avoid the importation of impurities. Through a vegetable diet and mastery over the laws of nature, Graham argued, individuals could avoid the perils of illness.