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USA: 19th Century
Bronson Alcott 1799-1888

Wikipedia: Amos Bronson Alcott (November 29, 1799 - March 4, 1888) was an American teacher and writer. He is remembered for founding a short-lived and unconventional school as well as a utopian community known as "Fruitlands", and for his association with Transcendentalism.


AlcottBronson Alcott: A glimpse at our vegetarian heritage
[note - all references below to Bronson's vegetarianism should be read as what we today would call vegan, in ethics as well as diet. However Sylvester Graham, in common with others at that time was not excluding eggs/dairy from his dietary proposals, merely excluding flesh. In this respect Bronson appears to have been a unique American, though there may have been others that we know nothing about A few further comments have been added in [] - ed.]

By Karen Iacobbo
[this article first appeared in the VivaVine, from vivavegie.org, May/June 1999]

He was a vegetarian [vegan] because he believed that animals should not be oppressed, and that killing them for any purpose is an act of violence. Like his friend, health crusader Sylvester Graham--after whom the cracker is named--he knew that the flesh of dead animals is not fit food for human beings. Vegan foods, especially fruits, were human beings' first food, as established in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, he believed.

Almost 150 years before the appearance of E. coli, he believed that manure was "filth" that spoiled the soil and should not be used in the garden. And as an advocate of women's rights, he believed that simple, often uncooked vegetarian meals were one way to free women from the drudgery involved in the preparation and cooking of meat. Not least among his reasons was his belief that for human beings to be perfected, as he thought they could be, they had to cease eating meat.

His name was Bronson Alcott, and this year [1999] is the bicentennial of his birth. His life is one that vegetarians should know about because he dedicated it to values many modern vegetarians hold sacred, including "ahimsa," which means nonviolence and harmlessness.

Bronson Alcott was born on a Connecticut farm. His parents, and especially his mother, encouraged his intellectual curiosity and permitted him to explore religions.

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Explore he did. Alcott read the works of numerous philosophers, such as Plato and Plotinus, and of religious leaders like his friend Reverend William Ellery Channing, the great Unitarian opponent of slavery. Most influential to Alcott was the life of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher who founded a [lacto-]vegetarian spiritual community in Sicily.

The answers Alcott sought about life, about nature and about God he found within himself. Wisdom, unlike knowledge, cannot be learned from a book or a teacher, Alcott thought. It comes from God, who lives in every human being. That wisdom comes in the form of intuition, or what would today also be called a flash of insight and the conscience. This belief was known as Transcendentalism and was shared in varying degrees by others, including Alcott's two closest friends, writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Obeying the wisdom that he felt was innate, since all people existed as souls before they entered a body, was Alcott's lifelong journey--one that he traveled in many remarkable ways.

One was in the schools he started in Connecticut and Boston for young children. His objective was to teach children that they, too, possessed this inner wisdom. Alcott believed that it was probably too late for most adults hardened by society and unable to change, but he thought that if taught early enough, children would remain innocent or pure human beings, as was God's intent. Perfected human beings would not accept slavery, women's inequality or violence of any type, including against animals, he believed.

But people in Connecticut and later Boston strongly objected to Alcott's radical notion that children were born pure and not in sin. The doorway to Alcott's Boston school was bolted shut for good after he enrolled a black child. This was in 1837, and the city was not sympathetic to abolitionism. Many people might have disagreed with slavery, but few at that time wanted the slaves freed to live alongside white people in equality.

In 1843, Alcott met Englishman Charles Lane during a visit to the United Kingdom, where he was invited by the founders of Alcott House, a school and community named for him. Together they would found a vegan community in Harvard, Massachusetts.

England's Alcott House was a vegetarian [vegan] community and boarding school [1838-1848]. At Alcott House, Bronson Alcott lectured on the topic of nonviolence, specifically noting the link between violence against people and violence against animals.

Charles Lane and Alcott founded Fruitlands in Massachusetts to prove that it was possible for people to live harmoniously with each other, with animals and the earth, and as vegans. Alcott and his wife and daughters, including little Louisa May--later the author of Little Women, moved into a farmhouse with Lane and his young son and a handful of like-minded individuals.

In the same year that he cofounded Fruitlands, Alcott was arrested for refusing to pay the poll tax that supported war and a nation that accepted slavery. God's laws, particularly as taught by Jesus, including nonviolence, were higher than man's laws, and Alcott set out to demonstrate his point of view.

He didn't go to prison. A neighbor, against Alcott's preference, paid the tax. But the impact of Alcott's action in Concord, Massachusetts, in the first half of the 19th century has been felt around the world and to this day. For this happened three years before Thoreau, who was 18 years Alcott's junior, went to jail for his civil disobedience. The essay Thoreau wrote on that topic influenced Gandhi, and later Dr. Martin Luther King. No doubt that Alcott, the vegetarian, was an influence on Thoreau, who, while not a vegetarian, espoused a meat-free diet eloquently in the pages of his masterpiece Walden, a book in which he also praised Mr. Alcott, though not by name.

Books by and about Bronson Alcott: