Hemp farming and processing played an important role in American history. Its legacy is evident in the names of numerous towns and hamlets from the Atlantic coast to the Midwest—Hempstead, Hempfield, Hemp Hill, and variations thereof. Early American farmers and their entire families wore garments made from hemp, wiped their hands with hemp towels and hemp handkerchiefs, inscribed words on hemp paper, and sewed with hemp yarn. Hemp was considered so valuable that it served as a substitute for legal tender in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century America.
Several of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, grew hemp—or tried to—and they urged other colonial farmers to do likewise. Among those heeding the call was Robert “King” Carter, an ancestor of President Jimmy Carter and a big-time hemp grower from Virginia who provided much of the fiber needed to make uniforms for Washington’s soldiers.
Washington learned from firsthand experience that the sturdy stalk wasn’t the easiest crop to process, and supplies of retted hemp never kept up with a voracious demand. One problem was the lack of a cultivation manual to assist colonial farmers. The author of this how-to pamphlet, “A Treatise of Hemp-Husbandry,” was Edmund Quincy, a cousin of John Adams, the first vice president and second president of the United States. George Washington was a close friend of the Quincy-Adams clan and he surely knew of the grow guide.
Quincy’s treatise was published in 1765, the same year that Washington wrote in his diary about planting and harvesting hemp at Mount Vernon. The entry for May 12–13 states, “Sowed Hemp at Muddy hole by Swamp,” and the notation on August 7 reads, “Began to separate the Male from the Female hemp . . . rather too late.” Pot partisans have seized upon this statement as proof that Washington was trying to grow high-quality cannabis, the psychoactive kind, which entails separating the sexes to prevent pollination, thereby increasing the potency of unrequited, resin-oozing females. Ipso facto, Washington must have smoked pot. Otherwise why would he be so concerned with separating male and female plants?.
“Sexing the plants” would become standard practice among growers of high-potency sinsemilla—seedless marijuana—in California two centuries after the American Revolution. But seedless hemp was likely the last thing George Washington wanted. He was obsessed with increasing the yield of hempseeds and saving them for next year’s crop. Washington made several references to hemp in his diaries, including comments to his gardener, urging him to save the seeds. “Make the most of Indian hempseed. Sow it everywhere,” Washington implored.
Washington was growing hemp for seed and fiber, not for smoke. There are no references in his diary to smoking any of that good shuzzit. Washington and other American revolutionaries were notorious boozers, not puffers. “Washington not only didn’t smoke pot, he didn’t know pot could be smoked,” concluded Michael Aldrich, who, as a doctoral student at the State University of New York in Buffalo in the 1960s, researched Washington’s hemp-growing efforts. “Why was Washington so keen on maximizing hempseed production? To develop a home supply,” Aldrich explained, “so the colonies would not have to rely on another country, particularly England, for such a critical substance. This was a national-security issue.
Thomas Jefferson penned the original draft of the Declaration of Independence on Dutch hemp paper. Jefferson’s second draft, also inscribed on hemp paper, was ratified on July 4, 1776, and then copied onto animal parchment. Jefferson not only raised and praised hemp (which he strongly favored over “pernicious” tobacco as a cash crop), he went to great lengths, unbeknownst to the British, to procure different varieties of hempseed from abroad. “The greatest service which can be rendered by any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” wrote Jefferson the hempseed smuggler.
In 1803, President Jefferson presided over the Louisiana Purchase, one of the largest land deals in history, whereby the United States paid France approximately $15 million (two and a half cents per acre) for more than 800,000 square miles of North American territory. At the time, Napoleon, the French emperor, desperately needed money to finance a military thrust to cripple the British navy by cutting off hemp supplies from Russia, then the world’s leading exporter of this hardy fiber. British designs on securing access to hemp were also a factor in the War of 1812. Long before oil wars, nations fought over hemp, the plant that “fueled” international maritime trade and imperial expeditions by providing the best raw material for sails to harness wind power.
Hemp was well established as a fiber crop in North America long before European settlers and their descendents discovered the psychoactive properties of cannabis. As new technologies, most notably the cotton gin and the steamship, eclipsed the urgency for hemp fiber, the resilient plant appeared in another guise—as a medicine for a wide range of infirmities. When the American Civil War began in 1861, fiber hemp had already begun to decline in commercial value, while the plant’s reputation as a curative was surging.
Excerpt From: Lee, Martin A. “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific.”