What is an Archimedian Lever Anyway?

It seems only logical that I should start from the top...the very literal top, in fact. Specifically, why did I choose to title this site "The Archimedian Lever" and what does it tell us about American Vegetarian history?

The phrase is one of my favorite descriptors utilized by the founders of the American Vegetarian Society (AVS), the country's first national vegetarian organization. The society was established at a meeting in May of 1850 in New York City's Clinton Hall (at Astor Place and 8th Street). Members of the AVS celebrated a vegetarian diet as the reform movement, from which all other reforms (abolitionism, women's suffrage, economic equity and general temperance) could derive success. Only through a vegetable diet could individuals make morally clear decisions. For example...vegetarians believed that only in a violent society supported by a violence-based diet could a system such as slavery exist. A turn towards vegetarianism, it was argued, would morally and physically cleanse a corrupted society that relied upon a morally compromised system of labor (vegetarians assailed both Northerners and Southerners alike for benefiting from the system). Vegetarianism was a route for total social reinvention, what the group labeled an "Archimedian Lever, by which to move the world."1 A source for total, complete and necessary social reform and change.

Nineteenth Century Vegetarians on the Attack, Looking to Place a Beet Down

Vegetarians during this time period had the luxury of literally defining what the term (first popularized with this very group in 1850) would mean. Operating in a social structure filled with opportunities to expand notions of liberty and freedoms, vegetarians took a distinctly radical approach to their dietary theory...the notion that dietary choice could lead to political empowerment. By choosing to abstain from flesh foods, vegetarians felt as if they could change a variety of social injustices. Given vegetarians' involvement in the other, successful and more well-known reform movements, it is difficult to ultimately question the accuracy of their self-analysis.

What do you think, dear reader(s?)...are there any lessons for the modern vegetarian movement to be learned from this dynamic?

I leave you with this for consideration, and perhaps insight into the style of these vegetarians. This is "A Vegetarian Song" popularized in vegetarian publications at the time:

How many both feast and grow fat to excess
On the flesh and the blood of brutes:
Nay! Stain not your lips with such food, but come feed.
Alone as man ought, upon fruits

We’ve tasted your flesh-meats of yore, it is true,
But ne’er mean to taste them again.
Because now resolved, and determined for us
No creature shall ever be slain.2

1. “Anniversary of the American Vegetarian Society,” T.L. Nichols’ Water-Cure Journal
20, no. 1 (Jul 1855): 1.

A Vegetarian Song,” American Vegetarian and Health Journal 2, no. 4 (April 1852): 64.


Tamara said...

Very interesting. I love learning the historical roots of things and this one is quite fascinating. I don't think these early veggies were so far off in their thinking; they simply understood the hipocracy of killing an animal and then preaching peace and justice. It's also interesting to me because my initial reasons for my stopping eating meat changed and developed as I learned more. First it was "the poor animals", then I learned about the environment, what's IN the meats, the institution that is the meat production business, etc. I can now add the original veggies in America idea of why a vegetarian diet is important. Thanks!

Adam Shprintzen said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comments (the first comments on the site!) and for stopping by. One of the truly remarkable things that I have found while researching this topic is just how many commonalities exist between the 19th century vegetarians and the current movement. There are also, of course, stark differences (the most glaring being that animal rights doesn't really come onto the scene until after the Civil War, and even then doesn't have the effect that one might think). Keep your eyes peeled on the site as I start to flush it out, some historical recipes and other insights into this movement's place in history are still to come.

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