Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice

Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice

by E. Melanie DuPuis


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Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice by E. Melanie DuPuis

Throughout American history, ingestion (eating) has functioned as a metaphor for interpreting and imagining this society and its political systems. Discussions of American freedom itself are pervaded with ingestive metaphors of choice (what to put in) and control (what to keep out). From the country’s founders to the abolitionists to the social activists of today, those seeking to form and reform American society have cast their social-change goals in ingestive terms of choice and control. But they have realized their metaphors in concrete terms as well, purveying specific advice to the public about what to eat or not. These conversations about “social change as eating” reflect American ideals of freedom, purity, and virtue.

Drawing on social and political history as well as the history of science and popular culture, Dangerous Digestion examines how American ideas about dietary reform mirror broader thinking about social reform.
Inspired by new scientific studies of the human body as a metabiome—a collaboration of species rather than an isolated, intact, protected, and bounded individual—E. Melanie DuPuis invokes a new metaphor—digestion—to reimagine the American body politic, opening social transformations to ideas of mixing, fermentation, and collaboration.
In doing so, the author explores how social activists can rethink politics as inclusive processes that involve the inherently risky mixing of cultures, standpoints, and ideas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520275478
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture Series , #58
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

E. Melanie DuPuis is Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental Studies and Science at Pace University. She is author of Natures Perfect Food: How Milk Became Americas Drink, among other books.

Read an Excerpt

Dangerous Digestion

The Politics of American Dietary Advice

By E. Melanie DuPuis


Copyright © 2015 E. Melanie DuPuis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96213-2


Free and Orderly Bodies



WHAT IS A FREE PERSON? In what way are people "created equal"? And how do a free and equal people create an orderly society? In the American revolutionary era, the Founders repeatedly struggled with these questions. In founding a new and "free" nation of equals, American revolutionaries were surer of what freedom did not mean — the tyranny of monarchy — than how to bring people together in a free society. Once the fight for freedom ended, the struggle turned to defining the outlines of a free and equal but orderly way of life.

"If they were to be a single people with a national character, Americans would have to invent themselves, and in some sense the whole of American history has been the story of that invention," argues historian Gordon Wood. The American idea of freedom and democracy, historian Lynn Hunt contends, required the invention of the American citizen that relied "on an increasing sense of the separation and sacredness of human bodies: your body is yours and my body is mine, and we should respect the boundaries between each other's bodies." Diet, therefore — the choice as to what Americans put in their bodies — has been a mirror of these ideas, reflecting, as John Coveney puts it in Food, Morals and Meaning, "concerns about the very moral fabric of our society." This chapter therefore explores the beginnings of American dietary advice as a way to examine embodied ideas about freedom and order in the new American democracy. The Founders struggled with the question of freedom and order, and they did not all answer that question in the same way. As we will see, different ways of thinking about freedom and order also reflect on how Americans have thought about their bodies and their food.


From its beginning, the United States, as a land free from aristocratic authority, seemed like "the new Adam of the West, a being unencumbered by the superstitions and fears of a moldering civilization." America was "the world's new hope," leading some to believe that the nation could become perfect, the heaven on earth that would call in the Millennium: Christ's Second Coming. America held a promise of liberty, order, and health, beckoning to the vision of a perfectible life.

American political ideas about freedom and equality developed in parallel with new ideas about the nature of personal life. As people began to practice democratic politics and live this new life of independence, they also began to think differently about their bodies and about the society around them. Human rights in a democracy, therefore, "go along with that bodily separation of a person's selfhood." For the democratic Founders, freedom meant the ability to, in Kant's words, "make use of one's own understanding without the guidance of another," that is, to control one's own body without coercion.

This Enlightenment idea of freedom, that each person was an autonomous body, thinking and acting without outside influence, became the foundation of democratic thought and action. The rational citizen was independent, capable of making his own decisions through empirical observation and analysis free from outside influence, whether spiritual, emotional, or economic. "The ideal of the autonomous individual involved a repudiation of both original sin and subservience to worldly authority, and thus required a reordering of social relations on some moral and voluntaristic basis." The paramount indication that one was "free" was the ability to use one's body as one pleased, controlled by no other person than oneself.

Yet, the dependence on virtue, independence, and character as necessary to a republic of free individuals created a tension between freedom and order. "At the risk of gross oversimplification," David Brion Davis states, "it can be said that the Enlightenment was torn between the idea of the autonomous individual and the ideal of a rational and efficient social order." In particular, the Founders asked: "How do we instill a sense of virtue, or self-control, into free American citizens?" They saw individual self-control, "virtue," as the discipline that would prevent a democracy from turning into a chaotic mob. However, how to instill this virtue into the new American citizenry was unclear.

According to Richard Hofstadter, "The men who drew up the Constitution in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 had a vivid Calvinistic sense of human evil and damnation and believed with Hobbes that men are selfish and contentious." Yet, their views were not quite as homogenous as Hofstadter states. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton viewed human nature as necessarily self-interested and competitive. "If men were angels, no government would be necessary," wrote Madison. From this point of view, individual freedom became the right to pursue one's own individual interest, and belief in human nature as intrinsically selfish meant that society was built up through the interaction of private interests. In the Federalist Papers, Madison and Hamilton therefore advocated for a government of "checks and balances" in which "ambition must be made to check ambition," according a strong role to government structures that would enable people to act on individual self-interest while maintaining social order.

But some Founders, particularly Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, thought differently: that a democratic society, to be orderly, required the creation of a virtuous citizenry. These Founders held a more Lockean view of human nature, believing that people were born capable of selfishness and self-interest but also of virtue, and that the development of a virtuous character required cultivation and the inculcation of self-discipline. These Founders agreed with Rush that, "Without virtue there can be no liberty." "Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence than the body can live and move without a soul," Adams stated in 1774. "Only virtuous people are capable of freedom," Franklin concurred.

Thomas Jefferson held a third view: he saw property ownership as the prime motivation for social order, as opposed to the development of a virtuous citizenry or a strong central government. For Jefferson, small property-holding created responsible, orderly citizens. Historian Edmund Morgan's work shows that these ideas were typical of the slaveholding areas of the South, merging the relationship between plantation owners and small landholders into the agrarian yeoman farmer ideology. The South had created order by making it possible for former indentured servants to become yeoman farmers, to create the agrarian society that Jefferson so strongly believed would create social order. According to Morgan, landowners feared the disorder of white, landless people, set free after indenture, competing for land. Moving from indentured servitude to permanent slavery reduced the number of free landless laborers. Less competition for land helped freed servants to become smallholder property owners, "small men" who shared interests with larger landholders even if they themselves owned few or no slaves. Racism developed around this political fix, Morgan argues, by demarcating some people as deserving of freedom and other people as fit only to function as the property of others. By the time of the American Revolution, one-fifth of the nation's human bodies were property.

Northerners like Rush, Adams, and Franklin defined freedom less in terms of property and more in terms of character. An orderly democratic society was built, they believed, on Calvinist ideas of individual self-control, hard work, and restraint — what became known as Yankee virtue. Rather than controlling the bodies of others, Northerners defined freedom as the control of one's own body. Yet, the idea of slavery as control of other bodies meant that the metaphor of autonomy in the North was also defined by slavery: Yankee virtue meant an orderly body, free from enslavement to another but also free from one's own bodily temptations. In the Northern states, these ideas about health as the control over temptation became analogs for a healthy political society as "temperate": moderate in personal practice. A good citizen did not overindulge in pleasure, violence, or luxury, nor was he overly swayed by outside influence. Those who were under that influence — whether at the mercy of their own lack of willpower or confined by their captivity — were not fit to be citizens.

The presence of slavery, in other words, was not yet a contradiction in American society. Slavery helped define the American idea of freedom and citizenship, just as the American idea of freedom as self-control affected the conversation about whether slaves could be citizens if they became "free." Black freedmen became the representative proof of the ability of freed slaves to live in American society, yet the nation did not grant them American citizenship — the right to be considered as able to control their own bodies and therefore full citizens of the American nation — until after the Civil War.

These three ideas of freedom led to very different ideas about how to deal with the nation's problems, in particular, how to make the country both free and orderly. The Jeffersonians advocated for greater access to land and the Hamiltonians trusted in a well-structured government. Civic republicans, however, saw the nation's problems as based in the individual lack of self-control. These differences in perspective led to very different relationships with the popular press of the day and with American print culture in general. While Jefferson and the Hamiltonians certainly represented their views in writing, Notes on the State of Virginia and The Federalist Papers being two major examples, civic republicans depended on a didactic politics of social change, viewing the fledgling popular press as a platform upon which to exhort the public to practice a more virtuous life. Benjamin Rush's writings represented this kind of didactic politics. His writings on slavery, asylums, medicine, the penal system, and diet represent the beginnings of what would become a constant barrage of exhortations from Yankee moralist reformers on the right way to live.

Rush painted a picture of the virtuous Yankee civic republican that was both physical and political, two goals that he considered intertwined. As a physician, he equated his medical ideas about health as the self-control of individual bodies to Northern ideas about freedom as virtuous self-control. In his essay "An Inquiry into the Cause of Animal Life," he states: "There is an indissoluble union between moral, political and physical happiness." His quest for this tripartite goal led him not only to join in the American Revolution (he was a doctor to the troops) but also, later, to involvement in the birth of many American reform movements. He helped initiate the first American temperance and abolitionist societies in Philadelphia and is pictured on the logo of the American Psychiatric Association because of his work on reforming insane asylums.

Rush derived his ideas about health from his training in Scotland under William Cullen, a physician of the "vitalist" school, who saw the body as discrete and bounded, containing within it two distinct systems: the regulatory system run by the digestive organs and the relational system ruled by the brain. The earlier, Galenic humoralists understood the body as susceptible to outside influences, meaning that "all responses to the environment required a re-adjustment of the humours and of the body's secretions." Instead, in Cullen's view of the body, the brain's role was to make sure that the digestive system did not receive too much stimulation through external inputs such as food or drink. The brain managed the boundary between the body and the world. Overstimulation, in vitalist medical theory, was the cause of much disease, as it led to inflammation of the digestive system. The role of the brain, therefore, was to keep these stimulating inputs under control to avoid overtaxing the digestive system. Health still required balancing, but that balance was a matter of an individual ruled by his own reason to practice "temperance" or "moderation."

Rush extended Cullen's idea of a healthy body to a prescription for a healthy democracy, by linking the rise of a rational citizenship to the idea of the brain controlling the inputs into the body. For Rush, the Constitution — as a product of human rational government — was the perfect mechanism for creating a healthy political body, and the new practices of free citizenship were tied closely both to divinity and to personal bodily health. Celebrating the signing of the Constitution, he described it as "descended from heaven to dwell in our land." This new national document would make "ample restitution" to human nature "for all the injuries she has sustained in the old world from arbitrary government, false religions and unlawful commerce." Instead, "elective and representative governments are most favorable to individual as well as national prosperity," Rush argued, "ordained by God to make men both happy and healthy." Soon after the Constitution was signed, he wrote giddily that this document would bring forth the good American citizen, making it "possible to produce such a change in his moral character, as shall raise him to a resemblance of angels — nay, more, to the likeness of God himself."

Rush argued strongly for republican virtue in his essay "The Influence of Physical Causes on the Moral Faculty." Here he enumerates various threats to the civic virtues of a free life, particularly the overindulgence in pleasure. In particular, he focuses on overeating, which he refers to as "luxury" and to which he ascribes the moral failings of "pride, cruelty and sensuality." Yet, he adds that "the quality as well as the quantity of aliment has an influence upon morals; hence we find that the moral diseases that have been mentioned are most frequently the offspring of animal food." Rush was one of the first Americans, but not the last, to consider both liquor and meat as pleasures that enslaved the individual and prevented a life of civic virtue. Because, for Rush, freedom entailed self-control, self-indulgence was a kind of slavery. Order, therefore, came not just from laws, but from inner virtue as well. In accordance with the idea that self-control instilled virtue, Rush was one of the earliest American advocates of the straightjacket, which he saw as a necessary constraint for those controlled by vice and mental disease.

The Northern Founders like Rush saw aristocratic Europe as the antithesis of virtue, degenerate and about to cave in under the weight of vice and "debilitating luxury." "Many concluded that Britain and France and other highly developed nations were steeped in corruption, dependency, luxury and self-indulgence and therefore had to be on the verge of dissolution." When dissolution did occur in France, the Founders shared optimism about the creation of a virtuous citizenry, although the Terror then became an example of what the masses could do if not instilled with virtuous self-control. Rush corresponded regularly with John Adams later in life, and they often communicated their worry about what had become of the nation they had founded. Both saw the country as becoming enslaved to both physical and moral luxury: "not only our streets but our parlors are constantly vocal with the language of a broker's office," complained Rush, "and even at our convivial dinners 'Dollars' are a standing dish upon which all feed with rapacity and gluttony." Gluttony for Rush was the opposite of virtue, both at the table and in the economic world.

Rush formulated the definition of what would become the orthocratic ideal of a pure and orderly society based on personal virtue. He remained throughout his life concerned with how to foster virtuous citizens. Many of his later short popular essays feature particular people who lived long, virtuous, and healthy lives — the subjects of I met a man who lived to ... stories. The people he praised in these articles were not illustrious, just simple yet virtuous folk who had led long lives free of debased cravings for sensuous pleasures. In particular, he focused on these individuals' health statuses as a sign of their virtue. He also narrated the situations of the less virtuous who, by contrast, led short and sickly lives controlled by pleasure. Letting their vices control their bodies meant that they were not bearing the responsibility of liberty and citizenship.

The virtuous were capable, by healthy habits, of providing their own constraints, particularly in terms of what they did with their bodies. A free populace was therefore one that was temperate — and political rights were to go to those who followed such virtuous lives of moderation. Dietary advice therefore arose with the advent of democratic politics as a way to determine those who were most deserving of rights and privilege, particularly the authority to determine correct ways of living. Like many American dietary advisers after him, Rush saw moderation in food as resistance to gustatory cravings, which he also linked to cravings of masturbation, another bodily activity to which one could become enslaved. Yet, while resisting masturbation generally just meant not doing it, eating as a necessary human activity meant that fostering self-control required categorizing virtuous vs. luxurious foods.


Excerpted from Dangerous Digestion by E. Melanie DuPuis. Copyright © 2015 E. Melanie DuPuis. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1 • Free and Orderly Bodies,
2 • Diet and the Romance of Reform,
3 • Gut Wars: Gilded Age Struggles against Purity,
4 • Pure Food and the Progressive Body,
5 • Good Food, Bad Romance,
6 • The Trouble with Purity,
7 • Ferment: An Ecology of the Body,
8 • Toward a Fermentive Politics,
Complete Series List,

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