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Did The Founding Fathers Grow Cannabis?

July 4th – American Independence Day – conjures images of the flag, the founding fathers, national pride and rich political heritage. So, where does cannabis come in? A few former Presidents of the United States have admitted to smoking pot in the past, but the very first holders of the office are thought to have grown their own plants. Did the founding fathers grow cannabis? Maybe we should change their name to the founding farmers.

A Brief History Lesson

America has an intriguing track record when it comes to cannabis. From fierce prohibition in the early part of the 20th Century to Proposition 215, there’s a long and storied history of controversial decisions surrounding the plant in the USA. But at one time, things were altogether different.

In fact, America gave us the first cannabis law in the new world as far back as 1619.

In those early days, Jamestown was a permanent English settlement in what was then the colony of Virginia. Records show that settlers would plant hemp abundantly due to its versatility, and put it to good use in making ropes, sails, clothing and more. All sea vessels carried hemp seed to some degree. As such, the plant and its reputation spread throughout the original colonies.

Thanks to its multiple uses, the order to grow hemp was announced via Jamestown in 1619. The plant quickly became as good as currency. Taxes were paid in hemp for two centuries, and until the 1800s, hemp’s role in development was so vital that it was illegal not to grow it in some areas.

The Founding Fathers and Hemp

Was America was built on hemp? One could certainly make the case.

The use of the plant was pivotal to early industry in the new world and the revolutionary war. Historians tell us George Washington’s troops kept warm at the battle of Valley Forge in 1777-1778 thanks to clothing hand-made from hemp fibre by patriotic wives and mothers.

George Washington Hemp Farmer, by Aia Leu, 2013

Before his tenure as a military general, Washington had been a farmer and had himself grown hemp in abundance on his plots of land at Mount Vernon, Virginia. The man who would eventually become the first President of the United States saw the great potential of hemp as a cash crop but would ultimately use the fibre for other purposes around his five farms, including ropes, sacks, and canvas.

The Next Two Office Holders Also Grew Hemp

John Adams succeeded Washington, and the second POTUS had a similar affinity for hemp cultivation. Bear in mind, it was the law back then, and hemp was a multi-purpose crop.

Thomas Jefferson would serve as Vice President to Adams before becoming the United States’ third President in 1801. Jefferson proved a keen hemp farmer, growing the plant on land he owned at Monticello and in Poplar Forest. But as far as his personal use goes, this is where things get somewhat hazy.

Memes and quotes attributed to Jefferson failed to stand up to closer scrutiny over the years. It’s been said that the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. It’s also thought that Jefferson cultivated and smoked marijuana. But historians have since set the record straight. The Declaration of Independence was, in fact, drafted on parchment made from animal skin. Foiled.

Jefferson: A Skilled Cultivator

Jefferson’s relationship with hemp is interesting, as he was a skilled cultivator. He was able to diversify the phenotype of the plant via natural selection. Jefferson’s interest in hemp made him the first person to acquire a U.S. patent for a hemp threshing machine. In his farmer’s journal in 1765, he noted, “Hemp is abundantly productive, and will grow forever on the same spot”.

Unfortunately, his early observations of the plant’s dioecious nature were inexpedient. He noted, “I began to separate the male from the female plant….rather too late.”

If only the Seedsman blog had been around back then to help!

It’s undoubtedly true that Thomas Jefferson grew hemp. But did he, or any of the other founding fathers, smoke it?

Weeding Out the Fables

The internet is awash with a sea of memes and misinformation, and researching the topic is challenging. You only have to Google the term “Thomas Jefferson Cannabis” to find a plethora of falsehoods on the subject.

Perhaps the best-known of these is the attributed quote, “Some of my best hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye could see.” This has been debunked by Monticello.org, the official online encyclopaedia of all things Jefferson. The website states that, while Jefferson cultivated some fine hemp, no evidence exists of him smoking it, tobacco, or any other substance. Boooo.

George Washington definitely smoked it, though. In one of the most high-profile cases of medicinal use, the O.G. of Presidents used cannabis to relieve the pain he suffered from his notoriously rotting teeth. 

Nope. That’s apparently not true either. Sorry.

How the Confusion may have Started

It doesn’t help that quotes attributed to an alleged former President of the American Historical Research Society proliferate articles from enthusiastic stoner sites, either. In these articles, Dr Frank Burke claims a magnificent seven of the founding fathers were puffers. 

Dr Burke named names and cited letters in which these founding fathers referred to the pleasures of smoking hemp. Burke reckons Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Taylor and Pierce not only grew the plant but enjoyed a toke themselves. Hail to the choof, indeed.

It’s easy to find Burke’s quotes, where he claimed Jackson, Taylor, and Pierce were all military men who enjoyed a smoke with their troops and that Pierce said smoking cannabis was “about the only good thing” about the American-Mexican war (1846-1848). 

But there’s a problem with Dr Burke. He doesn’t exist – nor does the American Historical Research Society. The whole thing is, in fact, a work of well-crafted satire that sprouted wings and quickly got out of hand.

In the 1970s, an underground newspaper called Chicago Seed ran a brilliant satirical piece. The article claimed seven Presidents had smoked cannabis and crafted a series of convincing tales about each – including somewhat believable quotes. Both Dr Burke and the AHRS were works of fiction, and the whole thing was little more than The Babylon Bee wearing bell bottoms and a kaftan. However, truth is often stranger than fiction, and parody becomes a perceived reality in the most fantastic ways.

At the time, the U.S. Surgeon General was Jesse Steinfeld (not Jerry Seinfeld). Steinfeld unwittingly cited the remarks of the non-existent Dr Burke while addressing the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug abuse. Thanks to his position of authority, the public accepted his statements as fact in the time it takes to roll a Star-Spangled banger.

The Founding Fathers Smoking Hemp Looks Highly Unlikely

Hemp was an essential crop for manufacturing in the early days of the colonies, with many vital uses. It was a necessary tool for industrial and economic purposes alike. So yes, America’s founding fathers grew hemp and produced it for the fibre. This is no longer in any doubt.

But did they blaze it up after successfully seeing off the British at Yorktown? Unfortunately, it seems not.

Cultivation information, and media is given for those of our clients who live in countries where cannabis cultivation is decriminalised or legal, or to those that operate within a licensed model. We encourage all readers to be aware of their local laws and to ensure they do not break them.

This post is also available in: French

Duncan Mathers