Free soil, free men, Fremont and vegetables!

Among the more surprising bits of research that I have come across (and admittedly one of my favorites) is the following political cartoon from the famed printing firm of Currier and Ives.

This remarkable cartoon (which was reprinted in Democratic newspapers throughout the country), offers insight into popular fears of the newly formed reform-minded Republican Party. The new party was an amalgam of social and political interest, the first true national coalition. While the Republicans failed in their first attempts on a national level (Fremont, running under the campaign of free soil and free labor, barely lost the electoral college), the group's combining of interests--ranging from Eastern business speculators to social reformers--caused quite the political stir almost immediately. At the same time the drawing also provides an accurate summary of the state of American vegetarianism in the mid-1850s.

The caricature discusses the first Republican Presidential candidate John C. Fremont (led by his famous slogan of "Free soil, free men, Fremont and victory!"), and features a series of reformers a attempting to have their particular reform principle noted and acted upon by the new party. Included within this group are representatives from well-known reform movements, including a women’s suffragist, a socialist, abolitionist, free lover and a Catholic (Fremont was accused by some Democrats as being a closet Catholic). Fremont responds by promising each of the representatives what they desire if elected. To the far left stands a frail and weakened vegetarian--a constant source of popular mockery in the antebellum age--asking for a law banning the consumption of flesh, tobacco and alcohol. It is important to note that vegetarians did not seek any actual legislation regarding meat production in the United States; in this sense the lithograph is misleading. However, the inclusion of this request reflects the irrational fear of vegetarians felt by many American meat eaters, as well as the radical political ideology of the era's dietary reformers.

The vegetarian’s inclusion in this image does, however, speak to the movement’s recognized role at the time in formulating a reform critique in the antebellum era, placed along side the more well known movements of the era. Why have vegetarians become lost in the time period's history? Particularly as reform movements ranging from abolitionism through even spiritualism have garnered significant study? Perhaps this can be explained by a certain tendency to frame history within starkly positivist ideas. In other words, movements such as abolitionism and women's rights are worthy of study because they ultimately were successful in achieving a practical, tangible goal.

Vegetarians, on the other hand, sought no singular goal of legislative success or social equity. Rather, the group hoped to gain converts while simultaneously criticizing social evils such as slavery and gender oppression, through a dietary lens. Given the active role of vegetarians in these other organizations, the group still fits within a positivist historical model--helping accomplish these other movements' goals. On the flip side, vegetarians also helped expand dietary and medical consciousness throughout the nineteenth century; by expanding our notion of historical "success" it is possible to understand just how much the group accomplished. A source of mockery in the public eye throughout history, vegetarians were successful in having their identity and ideology recognized by society at large in the antebellum age, threatening enough to be mocked and discounted. A similar recognition of the group's historical role by scholars is needed as well.

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