Detractors argued that Graham was antiscientific, a proud, vain, and demagogic speaker who offered exaggeration and blustery language rather than empirical proof. To his followers, Graham was a prophet who gave practical advice for improved health, spirit, and intellect.
January 1, 1835
A Defence of the Graham System of Living
In 1835 Graham furthered his development of a unified theory of diet, publishing A Defence of the Graham System of Living. Poor diet was endemic in America, a result of the malevolent effects of “Luxury, soft enervating Luxury,” which had “lulled her victims into a fatal security” that would ultimately lead to self-destruction. Graham warned that the effects of a pernicious diet went further than just the individual. The nation itself was at risk of becoming degraded by overindulgence and luxury that had “destroyed our health, perverted our morals, debased our intellects, and, in its prevalence[,] . . . may foresee the downfall of a people, once famed for their intelligence, their virtue, and their freedom.” American opulence created moral and social ills, Graham argued, including “our diseases, our deformities, our poverty, and our slavery.”
The city brought forth “the noxious effects of impure air, sedentary habits, and unwholesome employments,” all of which pulled individuals further from physical and mental health. The growing metropolises of antebellum America were fi lled with a variety of urban amusements that Graham viewed as threatening vices. Saloons, brothels, and dining establishments with their alcohol, sex for gratifi cation, and overly taxing foods all provided services that Graham warned against as causing moral and physical failure. These distractions not only led individuals to falter but also ensured that they would remain disconnected from their natural physical state.
Graham’s attacks resonated in the rapidly developing industrial capitalist society of the Northeast, which freed individuals from the rigors of farm life yet at the same time destabilized the very social structures that had previously provided stability and comfort. The ascendance of the self-made man was contrasted among concerned politicians with the foppish aristocrats who purportedly composed the European ruling class, described by John Adams in 1819 as “producing effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, vice and folly.” Free individuals had the opportunity and ability to create their own identities and build their own lives; however, with this freedom came the opportunity to fail as well as succeed. The same stark choice, according to proto-vegetarians, applied to dietary practices, which could influence and even dictate moral and physical well-being.
Animal foods were primarily to blame for personal vice, according to Graham, causing “a coarseness and ferocity of disposition” that rendered “the temper irritable and petulant; the passion of anger is either induced or strengthened by its use.” Meat consumption made humans no better than the violent members of the animal kingdom that fed on the flesh of other animals. This distinction helps explain Graham and his followers’ lack of interest in animal welfare. Meatless dietary reform was predicated on the notion that humans had the ability and responsibility to use logic and analysis to make the best possible choices. Instinct and desire dictated the actions of lower animals rather than rationale and self-control. Evils such as poverty and slavery could only exist in a society where humanity exhibited animalistic qualities of cruelty and aggression.
With the success of Graham’s lectures came a growing community of both devoted minions and frustrated critics. Detractors argued that Graham was antiscientific, a proud, vain, and demagogic speaker who offered exaggeration and blustery language rather than empirical proof. To his followers, Graham was a prophet who gave practical advice for improved health, spirit, and intellect.
By the mid-1830s a distinct community was created by adherents to Graham’s diet. Known as Grahamites, these individuals attempted to apply Graham’s dietetic principles to everyday life. Many followers simply applied Graham’s principles to their own kitchens, baking Graham bread, drinking cold water, and eating a vegetable diet, particularly in places like the South where few other Grahamites existed. Others—mainly urban and northeastern residents—crafted a Grahamite community through building and living in public institutions aimed at gaining converts and saving lost carnivores. The boardinghouse, with its promises of room, board, and kinship, became the center of urban Grahamite living.