Custom makes killing, handling, and feeding upon flesh and blood, without distinction, so easy and familiar unto mankind. And the same is to be understood of men killing and oppressing those of their own kind. [...] If men have but Power and Custom on their side, they think all is well.
Thomas Tryon (1634-1703)
My refusing to eat Flesh occasioned an Inconveniency, and I was frequently chid for my Singularity.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
Although Benjamin Franklin tried his hand at virtually every intellectual pursuit the eighteenth century had to offer--from scientific invention and music to politics and philosophy--he always referred to himself as the "printer of Philadelphia." And although he died a rich and internationally renowned man, he paints a vivid picture of himself in the early pages of The Autobiography as a half-starved runaway stuffing bread into his mouth as he wanders through Philadelphia looking for somewhere to sleep. Having just escaped his violent brother, to whom he had been indentured as a printer's apprentice, Franklin sets into motion what he came to stand for in and beyond the revolutionary era: the promise of a self-made man, free from tyranny and caste. Keeping a sense of this promise or potential at the surface of his recollections, he skilfully crafts his autobiography according to a philosophy of character as something made, broken down, and reassembled, like a composed form of moveable type in a printing press. Unfinished and open to revision--he repeatedly describes his mistakes and infidelities, for instance, as errata, a printer's idiom--Franklin also comes to us in a famously incomplete manuscript, broken off at key points in the narrative and posthumously published. All of these ruptures notwithstanding, a progression of overdetermined analogies connecting meat and violence moves across Franklin's self-presentation. In addition, the powerfully articulated, influential vegetarian philosophies of the eighteenth century align these analogies with the main currents of Enlightenment thought: not only its theories of rational self-creation and governance (versus aristocratic inheritance) but also its repudiation of tyranny over other beings, human and animal.
From Locke, Rousseau, and Buffon to Adam Smith and Voltaire, the foremost thinkers of Franklin's time grappled with or at least addressed the use of animals for food in one way or another, raising questions about human cruelty, economic efficiency, and social hierarchy. (1) In Tristram Stuart's words:
Vegetarianism circled the full gamut of eighteenth-century society.[...] People connected their food with morality and they had mechanisms for dealing with the theological context of sympathy and the health impacts of meat. In the era before the French Revolution, the landscape was already dotted with wild men seeking for a union with nature, which the Romantics would take to new extremes. From the anatomical observations of the scientists to the social anthropology of the Rousseauists, man's nature herbivore or carnivore had become a central preoccupation of European culture. (255)
These intellectual movements also contributed to the period's revival of interest in Pythagoras, the mythical Greek founder of ascetic vegetarianism and exponent of the doctrine of animal souls. (2) It is Pythagoreanism, as I will ultimately argue, that underlies the rituals of self-improvement and abstinence from meat that are mapped out in The Autobiography, and it is Enlightenment philosophy, with its anti-aristocratic foundations, that in turn links those rituals to Franklin's representation of the American War of Independence. Franklin conceptually pairs the British domination of colonial America with the hierarchical authority of humans over other animals, powerfully leveling both at one point when he reckons with the idea that meat is the murder of a fellow being.
Like the Enlightenment thinkers who contemplated Pythagorean principles--and took them seriously enough to either borrow or reject them (3)--Franklin incorporates them into political and personal re-compositions of his character and country. In other words, he takes the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis into a secular way of understanding or rationalizing the kind of metamorphoses needed to reinvent himself as an American and a revolutionary. This idea falls in line with those of other Franklin scholars, concurring that his composite self-portrayal is one of the most interesting facets of The Autobiography; as Michael Warner puts it, "Franklin thought of his own life with the detachment with which one arranges objects, thus bringing his career under the structure of rationality [...] and public involvement" (Warner 89). My main intention, however, is to ask why this career comes into being through the precepts of radical vegetarianism (persistently overlooked in Franklin scholarship) and why Franklin's famous rationality falters before the lure of meat.
The radical vegetarians of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries--Thomas Tryon and John Oswald, for instance--were sometimes similarly inconsistent, Oswald's compassion for animals and his revolutionary zeal particularly "scary and puzzling" according to Tristram Stuart (299). Yet, as Stuart further demonstrates, the belief in egalitarian societies, both for humans and between humans and other animals, accompanied calls to revolution at the same time that a "bloodless revolution" of vegetarianism developed as a way of articulating positions against violent governance. Franklin's Autobiography illuminates these complicated undertows: his characterization of America's founding or independence pairs the "bloodless diet" of the early eighteenth-century anti-aristocratic vegetarianism with justifications for the bloodshed of the war. Such analogies form part of the text's political unconscious, for, as Edward Cahill asserts in "Benjamin Franklin's …