Henry Salt and Animal Rights

Henry Salt and Animal Rights

Newly released book tells of crusader and crusade

AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY, many of Henry Stephen Salt’s friends had won renown on several continents — Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Clarence Darrow, Havelock Ellis, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, William Morris, and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald among them. Yet aside from those concerned about animal welfare and other social reforms, few people knew of Salt.

The author of some 40 books, Salt died in obscurity three years after the publication of his last work. Today almost all are out of print and inaccessible to the public.

The Society for Animal Rights (SAR) is to be highly commended for re-issuing Salt’s Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress, and helping to rectify this situation. Centuries ahead of its time, the book is valuable for its content and for what it reveals about an important animal liberationist.

Salt was born in 1851, and grew up in Shrewsbury, England. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he became an Eton master, but gave up the position because: “Vegetarianism was now beginning to be heard of in Eton; and this was in one respect a worse heresy than Socialism, because it had to be practised as well as preached....”

Even as a child, Salt was revolted by the realization that people ate the dead flesh of animals “slaughtered in vast numbers under conditions so horrible that even to mention the subject at our dinner-tables would have been an unpardonable offence.”

In 1879, Salt married Catherine Leigh Joynes. Catherine and her brother, James, were close friends of the then-unknown George Bernard Shaw. Years later, James’ premature death caused by dubious medical treatment started Shaw’s lifelong battle against doctors, dramatized in Doctor’s Dilemma.

Shaw and Salt remained friends throughout their lives, and this affected their literary works. The antivivisection preface of Doctor’s Dilemma may well have been influenced by Salt’s play, A Lover of Animals, and Salt’s wife was said to have been the model for characters in two of Shaw’s plays (Candida and You Never Can Tell).

In 1883, Salt and several friends formed the Fellowship of the New Life, which attempted to bring about “life based on unselfishness, love, and wisdom.” When some members later decided that their program wasn’t practical enough, they formed a separate group which Salt also joined: the Fabian Society.

At one Fabian Society meeting Salt read a paper on “Humanitarianism,” and this formed a starting point for the Humanitarian League. Other founding members were Shaw, Annie Besant, Edward Carpenter, W.H. Hudson, and Lord Olivier. For 30 years, with Salt as its guiding spirit, the league opposed vivisection, hunting, and blood sports, and promoted vegetarianism.

By the time he died in Brighton, England, in 1939, Henry Salt had written scores of books on many subjects. One of these had a profound influence on at least one person: Mahatma Gandhi attributed his decision to become a vegetarian by choice directly to Salt’s book, A Plea for Vegetarianism. Also, he was inspired to read Salt’s Life of Henry David Thoreau, and to incorporate Thoreau’s theory of passive resistance into his teachings.

It is to be hoped that Animals’ Rights will have a similarly far-reaching effects, now that SAR has made it available once again.

The new edition contains a comprehensive animal rights bibliography, partly by Salt from the original edition and with an updated appendix by Charles Magel, Professor of Philosophy at Moorhead State University, Moorhead, Minn. There also is an excellent introduction by Peter Singer (author of Animal Liberation), which points out how thoroughly Salt examined the subject of animal rights. Many of his observations are still relevant today.

“It is full time that this question were examined in the light of some rational and guiding principle, and that we ceased to drift helplessly between the extremes of total indifference on the one hand, and spasmodic partially-applied compassion on the other,” Salt wrote in 1892.

One example of Salt’s foresight is his recognition of the importance which language plays in shaping ideas.

Today, meat producers try to convince consumers that animals are “grown” just like rows of corn, and that the animals themselves are “crops” to be “harvested” — how much more palatable than saying that billions of factory-farmed animals are slaughtered each year. Although million dollar ad campaigns were unknown at the time Salt wrote, he did protest against the use of such words as “dumb brute” and “live-stock,” as conveying the false ideas that animals are either organically inferior or nothing more than animated possessions.

Animals’ Rights also contains pages of fascinating quotations from historical personages who believed that animals do merit moral consideration. These include Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, James Thomson, Schopenhauer, Lord Erskine, Lady Florence Dixie, Montaigne, Tolstoy, John Bright, and Plutarch — and it is heartening to know that today’s animal liberationists are following in such illustrious footsteps.

Quaker Member of Parliament John Bright is quoted as saying, “If I were a teacher in a school, I would make it a very important part of my business to impress every boy and girl with the duty of his or her being kind to all animals. It is impossible to say how much suffering there is in the world from the barbarity or unkindness which people show to what we call the inferior creatures.”

And according to philosopher J.S. Mill, “The reasons for legal intervention in favour of children apply not less strongly to the case of those unfortunate slaves and victims of the most brutal part of mankind, the lower animals.”

Mention also is made of those who opposed rights for all but the status quo, such as the anonymous writer of the ironical A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. After G.K. Chesterton attempted to ridicule ethical reform by expressing solicitude for the rights of minerals, Salt responded as follows: “When Mary Wollstonecraft published her Vindication of the Rights of Women, there appeared from the pen of some anonymous satirist a pamphlet entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, written with the express purpose of parodying and burlesquing the idea that women have rights. That satire looks rather foolish now; and I surmise that Mr. Chesterton’s will not seem very amusing to a future age.”

Salt deflated other arguments with humor, as when meat eaters maintained that animals bred for food are grateful to be alive and would mourn the spread of vegetarianism. He labeled this fallacy “the disinterested ‘what-would-become-of-the-animals?’, which foresees the grievous wanderings of homeless herds who can find no kind protector to eat them.”

No matter how insensitive or barbarous the critic, Salt always displayed intelligence, tolerance, compassion, a gentle wit that belied his moral passion, and a basic faith that humanity can and shall rise above its savagery.

He devoted more than half a century to observing, recording, and fighting against the cruelties that affect humans as well as animals, working on behalf of criminal law and prison reform, pacifism, humane diet and dress, education of children, and free thought. (According to Salt, all social reformers are indebted to freethinkers Charles Bradlaugh and G.W. Foote because they “made free speech possible where it was hardly possible before.”)

Although there were occasional victories such as abolishing the Royal stag hunt, it is hardly surprising that Salt knew despair.

“Humanitarians then, must expect little, but claim much; must know that they will see no present fruits of their labours, but that their labours are nevertheless of far-reaching importance,” he stated.

And yet, Salt’s optimism prevailed: “Much that is impossible in our own time may be realized by those who come after us, as the natural and inevitable outcome of reforms which it now lies with us to inaugurate,” he wrote almost 100 years ago.

Whether Salt’s optimism was justified or not remains to be seen. But those who are struggling to bring about a better world for all living creatures are indebted to Henry Salt for helping to blaze the trail - and to Society for Animal Rights, for ensuring that his and our moral crusades will be passed along to “those who come after us.”

Mary Ann Violin

PAWS Animal Welfare News, Summer 1981