This Presidents’ Day, we’re bringing you Peter Gorman’s July, 1988 feature on hemp in colonial times.
Hemp was one of this country’s most important crops during the colonial era. Washington was a fanatic seed collector and grower of cannabis; Jefferson, another cannabis farmer, invented a machine to reduce the labor involved in farming the plants; Franklin begged the British Parliament to allow the colonists to keep their cannabis crop rather than turn it over to England.
When Harry J. Anslinger, then head of the fledgling Federal Bureau of Narcotics, finally ramrodded Congress into passing the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, he effectively halted the commercial use of one of the oldest and most versatile plants on the planet. Our founding fathers must have spun over in their graves. After all, they had gone to great lengths to establish a cannabis industry in this country.
It’s not hard to imagine how our founding fathers might have reacted to a screening of Anslinger’s bug-eyed propaganda film Reefer Madness. They would have seen it for what it was: a film bent on preaching the evils of smoking cannabis while completely ignoring the hundreds of other uses the plant has provided for thousands of years.
Cannabis in the New World
Cannabis was introduced to the New World in 1545 when Spain tried—and failed—to cultivate a commercial crop in Chile. By that time it had become indispensable to the Western European powers in the construction of their ships: “No other fibre… could be transformed into sails, ropes and hawsers which would be as long lasting when subjected to frequent contact with salt water.” Cannabis became essential to the English with the expansion of their navy late in the 16th century, and, while they were able to produce some of what they needed, the bulk of their supply came from the Baltic States. But access to those states was sometimes threatened and barred by enemy countries. Consequently, a source of fibre under English control was desirable and it seemed that the new colonies in America should contribute to the welfare of the mother country by producing hemp.
The colonists, however, didn’t feel the same way. While they grew hemp for a variety of household and farm uses—heating oil, cloth, rope—they didn’t have the manpower for the production of hemp at a commercial level.
During the early years of colonization, both the British and local assemblies tried to legislate the growth of a cannabis industry. In 1611 James II ordered Virginia colonists to plant cannabis. In 1619 the first Virginia general assembly did the same and other colonies followed suit. In 1635 the first rope-walk, a factory for the manufacture of hemp products, was opened in Salem, Mass., but the lack of hemp in the colonies forced the owners to import all of their raw materials. Through the remainder of the 17th and well into the 18th century, the industry was promoted with only moderate success. Bounties were offered, legislation passed and hemp was even made legal tender in several colonies but England still wasn’t provided with the hemp she desired.
According to cannabis historian Mike Aldrich, “England tried to promote a hemp industry—not a marijuana industry—in the colonies. They grew the hemp in the United States and then shipped it back to England where it was processed into ropes, sail cloth and so forth. The British wanted to make all the money, while the Americans did all the work.”
With the importation of slave labor, the industry began to grow. But so did America’s needs. We, after all, had to build our own shipping industry, along with clothing millions and running factories. All of which demanded greater and greater amounts of cannabis on the home front. In the mid-18th century, Britain, furious that the colonies had still not enabled her to become self-sufficient, sent for Ben Franklin to explain the situation.
In his speech before the British Parliament, Franklin asked: “Did ever any North American bring his hemp to England for these bounties? We have not yet enough for our own consumption.”
England never became self-sufficient in hemp imported from the colonies. By the time Washington and Jefferson were cultivating it, the colonies had become the United States.
Yeah, But Did They Get High?
The history of cannabis in nearly every country which cultivated it includes some awareness of its narcotic potential. Anyone who has ever farmed cannabis knows that just being around the plants can sometimes be intoxicating. From that point of view it’s difficult to imagine that the colonists didn’t know about getting high. Not necessarily from smoking—there is simply no literature at all to suggest that cannabis was in any way smoked by the colonists. On the other hand, Marcandier’s Treatise on Hemp, published in Boston in 1766, says that tea and wine made from cannabis were intoxicants, and that even when used externally as poultices, the odor was so strong it not only numbed but intoxicated.
The other side: 1) The cannabis was grown for fibre, not narcotic in this country; 2) Alcohol was the drug of the day, supplemented by legal, available opiates, as well as tobacco.
Among our founding fathers, Washington and Jefferson were both farmers who dabbled in cannabis, though neither grew it extensively. Franklin started the first printing press in the country and therefore worked with hemp-as-rags in the manufacture of his paper.
There’s a story about Franklin’s having gone to China and smuggled out the precious cannabis Indica seeds, though it is not actually written anywhere that dates to his time. It’s not impossible that the story is true, but neither is it verifiable. On the other hand, it’s known that he suffered from gout and in all likelihood used laudanum—an opiate—for pain. Mike Aldrich says that “the only reliable pain killer in the 18th century was opium. It was universally used. It was the most popular remedy for everything from gout to neuralgia to ticks in your face.” (Mike suggests reading Barge and Edwards: Opium and the People, published by Yale University Press, 1987, for a complete history of this drug.) Still, even Franklin’s use of opium is undocumented, though it makes sense that he would have used it.
As to Washington, there are several mentions of hemp and hemp seeds in his writings. Like Jefferson he was “wild about anything that could improve agriculture in the Americas, anything that could make us independent of European products,” and he evidently placed hemp reasonably high on his list of those products. But his interest seemed more geared toward creating a seed bank than the actual production of hemp fibres. In Volume 33 of the Writings of George Washington (published by the U.S. Government in 1931) he speaks of both Indian hemp seeds and New Zealand hemp seeds as being of particular interest to him. In a letter to his caretaker William Pearce (1795) he writes: “Presuming you saved all the seed you could from the India hemp, let it be carefully sewn again for the purpose of getting it to a full stock of seed.” In 1796 he writes, also to his caretaker: “What was done with the seed saved from the India hemp last summer? It ought, all of it, to have been sewn again, then not only a stock of seed to be sufficient for my own purposes might have been raised, but to have disseminated the seed to others as it is more valuable than the common hemp.”
In the same year he writes to Sir John Sinclair, an agricultural specialist, that “certainly no good reason can be assigned why the hemp of New Zealand should not thrive with us as that country lies at about the same southern latitude that our middle states do in the north. The hemp of the East Indies grows well here from my own experience.”
Washington, unfortunately, wasn’t much of a farmer. His lands were said to contain the only unfertile land in all of Virginia—a condition which prompted him to experiment with crop rotation (too bad he never included hemp in the rotation as it’s now known to be the best soil enricher we’ve got!).
As to his habits, he makes no mention of smoking anything but tobacco. In Flexner’s Biography of Washington, he is said to have “gone through a period when he smoked the superfine tobacco he grew on his own plantations in long-stemmed clay pipes which he bought for himself and his friends by the gross.” Other than that he’s said to be reasonably indulgence free: “Washington could handle sex and liquor like a well-adjusted man. But gambling was another matter. It had been his favorite sport of his young manhood and, in later years he denounced gambling with a vehemence that seemed to reflect continual yearning for his old, exciting vice.”
For his troops he recommended a little liquor. Writing to Congress on the subject he says, “I beg you to remember… the benefits to be derived from the moderate use of strong liquor have been experienced by all armies and are not to be disputed.”
Jefferson, unlike Washington, would be the more likely candidate to try smoking cannabis if he knew of it. He was certainly more open-minded and free-wheeling than the dour first President. But in all his papers there’s not a single reference to dope smoking, though there are numerous mentions to hemp as a fibre plant. On page 95 of his Farm Books he mentions that “a cotton warp and hemp filling make the best linen for negroes.” Later, in a letter to Charles Wilson Peale from Monticello dated March 21, (18)15, he writes that he has modified a threshing machine to make hemp-braking less laborious “as we clothe ourselves chiefly and our laborers entirely in what we spin and weave in our family.”
Still, a few rumors about cannabis smoking persist. One is a supposed letter from Washington to Jefferson while he was with his troops during the war. In it, Washington apparently claims that he’s found some particularly good smoking hemp along the side of a road. If the letter exists, neither Mike Aldrich nor High Times can find it.
A second letter, this from Jefferson to Washington, claims that in a postscript Jefferson notes that he has included “a new breed of hemp in the diplomatic pouch for the examination of the first President. I trust it will prove a delight to your pipe and mind.” The letter is supposed to have been included in the Flexner biography of Washington, but isn’t. The letter could conceivably exist, but if it does it would be the only reference in either man’s collected papers which suggests smoking cannabis, an unlikely chance at best.
The most persistent rumor of the founding fathers interest in cannabis as an intoxicant appears in Washington’s diary:
“May 12-13, 1765: Sewed hemp at my hole by swamp.”
“Aug. 7, 1765: Began to separate the male from the female. Rather, too late.”
While on the surface this looks like sexing for sinsemilla, in fact it was the standard operation of the day. Male plants were commonly separated after shedding their pollen. Jefferson includes a note on this procedure in his farm books: “As soon as the male plants have shed their fauna, cut them up, that the whole nourishment may go to the female plants. Every plant thus tended will yield a quart of seed.” Similar comments appear in Quincy’s A Treatise on Hemp Husbandry and several other texts of the day. The males were used to make soft fibre, the females for seed and coarse fibre, and the ‘rather too late’ reference would more likely represent Washington’s having lost a good crop of male plants to toughening, as well as a good crop of seeds from female plants which didn’t get enough sunlight, than an interest in sinsemilla.
Mike Aldrich has found one other reference which he thinks might indicate at least an awareness of the intoxicating powers of cannabis among Washington’s papers. In George Washington’s Writings (Vol 33, page 433) he finds this quote in a letter to a doctor friend in Scotland: “I thank you as well for the seeds as for the pamphlet you had the goodness to send me. The artificial preparation of hemp from Silesia is really a curiosity.” According to Aldrich: “The key word there is ‘the artificial preparation.’ Silesia is part of present day Poland and for as far back as anthropologists can find out they’ve made these little hemp-seed cakes and all kinds of sweetmeats and candies from marijuana in Poland. They’re popular at weddings and ceremonial occasions when everybody wants to get a little giddy. And Washington’s talking about this ‘artificial preparation’ may mean he ate some of this. Although I fail to see how it could retain its potency very much after having been shipped from Scotland and from Silesia.”
Of course, the possibility exists that African slaves who’d come from regions where cannabis was smoked knew about the psychotropic properties of the plant they were farming, but it’s not certain that they would have turned on the plantation owners. In all likelihood, if cannabis were smoked in this country during the colonial days it was not done by those men whose lives we have records of. But it was important to the colonials for hundreds of other uses and every time I think of Anslinger and his Reefer Madness I can’t help but think of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin spinning in their graves.
Published: 2021-02-15 15:00:00
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