Founding Fathers: Setting the Record Straight
Updated: Sep 4, 2020
As cannabis use is becoming more mainstream, and people are loosening the grip on their once taboo thoughts, so too are "journalists" and authors loosening their grips on investigative standards. In an age of clickbait, catchy headlines, and ghostwritting, science and media is driven more by views, numbers, and popularity, than they are driven by the Truth. From the national media channels like Fox and CNN, to the stay-at-home blogger, the internet is rife with half truths and disinformation. While sometimes a result of honest mistakes, oftentimes this disinformation is created or marketed to push an agenda. At The Cannidote, we believe that knowledge (KNOW-ledge), when applied is power. Apply that knowledge throughout life, and you gain wisdom (WISE-dom).
When it comes to our founding father's relationship with the cannabis plant, a great deal of speculation exists. Many of the "pro-pot" organizations, blogs, and websites, leap at the chance to associate any of these figure heads with smoking ganja. Numerous men who were instrumental in the creation of the United States were indeed familiar with the cannabis plant. They even farmed it. Our authors set out to separate the facts from the hyperbole, allowing the reader to come to a sound conclusion themselves.
Cannabis' Introduction to the Americas
As mentioned in our entry "Hemp's Ancient History: The One You Won't Get From a Text Book", we shed light on the common use of cannabis across Europe for thousands of years. Grecian historical texts prove its use even into B.C. times. When the Spanish conquistadors ventured to the New World in the 1500's, they brought with them cannabis. They proceeded to introduce its textile and medicinal uses to the natives that resided there. The English naval fleet that was responsible for defeating the Spanish Armada a few short decades later in 1588, was powered by hemp sails!
Native American shamans quickly learned of cannabis' psychoactive properties and demanded it as trade from the Spanish. This should come as no surprise, as we know many native cultures were using and smoking a variety of herbs, each depending on their geographic location. Mugwort, mullein, peyote, sage, salvia, mint, and cannabis too, are just a few examples of their peace pipe ingredients. Tobacco, while thought to be their most common recreational drug, was rarely used, and when it was, it was hardly ever smoked.
Among the archaeological discoveries of the North American Hopewell mound builders (in the
Ohio area), exist pipes made of clay. Within these clay pipes, cannabis residue has been found. Evidence of the use of hemp cloth has also been discovered within their culture. This is an important finding because the Hopewell natives existed prior to the arrival of European adventurers. After about 400 A.D., the more spectacular features of Hopewell culture gradually disappeared. The quantity and quality of mounds declined, and it's argued that the people became less sedentary and more loosely organized. Explorer Jacques Cartier sailed along the St. Lawrence River and writes in 1535 that he observed wild hemp growing along it's shores. The jury is out as to whether he witnessed dogbane, nettle, or cannabis growing there; but it is interesting to note that the Hopewell peoples resided along riverbanks near that very region, a millennia or more prior to his arrival.
In 1607, English Anglicans (Official Church of England) had landed at Jamestown (think Pocahontas and John Smith) in what would become Virginia. Life was not easy for these trailblazers. Historian Alan Taylor explains, that of the 104 settlers that landed in April, only 38 had survived the first winter. John Smith returned to England as quickly as 1609, and two time governor, George Percy was gone by 1612. According to the National Park Service, "inexperience, unwillingness to work, and the lack of wilderness survival skills led to bickering, disagreements, and inaction at Jamestown. Poor Indian relations, disease, and the initial absence of the family unit compounded the problems." More than 10,000 individuals embarked for the New World by the year 1622, at which point, only 20% had survived.
A Nation Founded on Cannabis
By 1619, Jamestown, in a region of fertile soil and warm weather, implemented a colony law requiring all settlers to grow hemp. This marks the first legislation regarding cannabis in North American history. Coincidentally, one year after the hemp legislation, settlers finally found success with the establishment of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, in 1620. Compared to Jamestown, which was motivated economically, and built by adventurers, soldiers, and courtiers; Plymouth was inhabited by skilled tradesmen and families, Puritans seeking religious freedoms (dissenters of the Church of England, think Thanksgiving). The presence of hospitable native Americans certainly assisted in their cause. By 1631, Massachusetts also enacted a hemp cultivation law; followed by Connecticut in 1632.
The Virginia Assembly in 1632 ordered “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” In fact, many farmers were allowed to pay their taxes using cannabis as currency! This practice lasted for 200 odd years, into the 1900s. Interestingly enough, in Virginia, from 1763-1769, a farmer could be jailed for refusing to grow hemp.
As Old World countries jostled for control over New World territories, many skirmishes unfolded. One such "skirmish" was the French and Indian War. This war, which officially lasted 9 years (1754-1763), was fought between the colonies of Great Britain and France, with natives aiding both sides. Among those to command troops during this trying time in American history? None other than the famous author, scientist, inventor, diplomat, statesman, and Freemason; Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin dominated American history throughout the 1700's. Having only been formally educated up to the age of 10, he is well renowned for the founding of the Philadelphia Gazette newspaper and the University of Pennsylvania, for his discovery of electricity and famed kite experiment, and to be the only founding father to have signed all four of the key documents establishing the U.S. as a nation: Declaration of Independence (1776), the Treaty of Alliance with France (1778), the Treaty of Paris establishing peace with Great Britain (1783) and the U.S. Constitution (1787). For six years, beginning in 1779, Ben even spent time as the Minister to France.
Why spend all this time talking about the man? Because the details are important. Hemp had already been growing in the New World for at least 1-200 years by the time Franklin was an adult. The kite string from his experiment was crafted of hemp fiber. Having taught himself to read, he developed a love for the written word. He owned many paper mills, including at least one that fashioned parchment out of hemp. Here is an article, printed in his Gazette in 1729, touting the numerous textile uses of hemp. Is it possible that the books and newspapers found in Franklin's properties were printed on hemp? A resounding yes.
Ben Franklin drafted and signed a great deal of significant documents. Having owned a hemp paper mill, many of his letters to other politicians and statesmen, personal notes, and rough drafts were printed on hemp paper; including content regarding The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, among others. Many cannabis enthusiasts inflate this Truth into something more by claiming that the Final Drafts of these documents were printed on hemp paper. Ben passed away in 1790, much to the dismay of his dear friend, and fellow hemphead; George Washington.
The first president of the United States is perhaps the one with the strongest connections with the cannabis plant. In the public collection of his diaries, he mentions hemp no less than 90 times. Based on these entries, we know that he grew it at all 5 locations of his Mount Vernon (Virginia) estate. When he was needed in Philadelphia for his presidential duties, he hired farm manager William Pearce, whom, he commands in a 1794 letter "...of the India Hemp. Make the most you can of both, by sowing them again...the hemp can be sown anywhere." Positioned along the Potomac River, repairing fishing nets was one of the most common uses for hemp on his property. Other uses included rope, thread for sewing, canvas, and more.
Numerous entries exist displaying George's interest in hemp as a major textile crop - valued more highly, or equal to cotton and flax. He writes to Secretary Alexander Hamilton in 1791, suggesting that political policies be enacted in order to encourage the growth of hemp, saying: "...would there be propriety do you conceive in suggesting the policy of encouraging the growth of Cotton, and Hemp in such parts of the United States as are adapted to the culture of these articles? The advantages which would result to this Country from the produce of articles, which ought to be manufactured at home is apparent."
Due to the presence of so many references to hemp in his diaries, there are almost just as many opportunities for cannabis' crazed fans to "prove" a point. One of the most popular and debatable statements come from 1765-66. On August 7th of 1765, Washington mentions that he "began separating the male from the female hemp...rather too late." He later mentions separating "ewes from rams". Two days after, on the 9th of August, he documents "rotting" some hemp in the river. One year later George admits again that he harvested his hemp too late: "began to pull hemp at the Mill and at Muddy hole—too late for the blossom hemp by three weeks or a month."
Lastly, while president, he sends a handful of letters to his farm manager Pearce mentioning "East Indian Hemp". He states giving "a few seed of East India hemp to raise" to his gardener to grow more seeds for the next season. That next year he writes to his manager, assuming he saved all the Indian Hemp seed, and asks that it carefully be sown again so that they may obtain a "full stock" of seed. And again, in 1796: "What was done with the seed saved from the India Hemp last summer? It ought, all of it, to have been sown again; that not only a stock of seed sufficient for my own purposes might have been raised, but to have dissiminated the seed to others; as it is more valuable than the common Hemp."
These last statements create many more questions than they answer. For every "pothead" article insisting a link to altered states of mind, there seems to be an equally biased rebuttal from the opposing side. Why was Washington separating males from females? Only two plausible reasons exist. Either he was separating seeded plants (pollinated females) as stock for the next years crop, from the tough and lanky (male) which were to be used for textiles; or, he knew the properties of the seedless female (sensimilla) plant.
What does George mean when he refers to the "blossom hemp"? And why is it pertinent enough, in his eyes, to mention when he harvests it too late? How is this hemp different from the "common hemp"? Could this be another reference to a failed attempt to grow sensimilla? Is the "East Indian Hemp" referred to, a potent form of THC rich cannabis as the Hindus of India had known it since pre-historic times? Or could it just as easily have been jute? Washington specifies that the seeds are of East Indian origin, suggesting the plant is not the North American native (Indian) dogbane, used around the same time. What ever does father George mean when he says "for his own purposes"? He is rumored to have used hemp for toothaches caused by dentures. If these reports are true, it is not unreasonable to question his knowledge and interest in striving for THC rich strains, as industrial hemp has very little therapeutic effect. Whatever the reason, George Washington most certainly grew industrial hemp (cannabis sativa), and lots of it; along with cotton and wheat. And he was not the only president to do so. In fact, he was the first of many.
John Adams served as vice president for both of Washington's terms and later became the second president of the U.S. He also served as an ambassador to European countries. A lover of peace and truth, Adams too, not surprisingly, was a farmer of hemp. His farm in Massachusetts was dubbed "Peace Field", and he referred to his notes from his time abroad as his "Peace Journal". Like George, Adams petitioned to congress in 1771 to enact policy encouraging the growing of hemp.
There is no doubting that John favored cannabis for textile uses, as he is quoted: "it furnishes a great Variety of Threads, Cloths, and Cordage”. He also knew a great deal botanically about the plant. He discusses propagation techniques, treating the seeds before planting, as well as details describing how to harvest a mature specimen. We even have record of the man explaining how vigorous the work was separating the fibers after harvest.
Two quotes by John Adams, however; echo in the THC lover's ear. The first, "Hemp is of great importance in the arts". And the second, "Seems to me if grate Men dont leeve off writing Pollyticks, breaking Heads, boxing Ears, ringing Noses and kicking Breeches, we shall by and by want a world of Hemp more for our own consumshon."
By the time of John Adams, hemp had already had a long and credible reputation as a multi-use textile crop. Never had it been referred to as being beneficial to the arts, social issues, or political enlightenment. So why say it? An annotated version of his writings have been released, leaving some scholars to suggest that the second quote is in reference to hemp grown for making rope used in hangings. Harvard University, however; takes this phrase as a reference to the plant's mind altering potential. If he was referring to the use of a textile rope, why use the word consumption? Did he mean "using up" or "to consume"? Why would such a "peaceful" guy find hangings entertaining?
Continuing down the line of presidents, the third leader of our nation had an intimate connection with cannabis, and might just have been one of our countries first drug smugglers! Historians at Monticello confirm that hemp was mentioned in Thomas Jefferson's diaries more than 30 times. Many of these writings also mention other staple crops of the time, such as tobacco, cotton, and flax. It seems as if Jefferson eventually favored cotton clothing over the coarser hemp fibers, but he was a huge fan of the hemp's productivity and use for numerous other textiles. Jefferson is credited as having the nation's first patent for a "hemp beater" machine.
Like his predecessors, he not only knew about cannabis sativa, but farmed it in multiple locales. Per usual, there exists a grey area surrounding a few of Jefferson's statements and life. Where Benjamin Franklin served as Minister to France years earlier, so too did Thomas Jefferson serve as a minster to the French from 1785-1789. During his time in Paris, Jefferson learned of an Italian cultivar of rice that was outselling the American variety at market. Risking punishment of death, he admittedly smuggled pockets full of Italian rice back to France, and then home to America; thus reviving a struggling economy. For years, he searched for an upland form of rice that would outperform the wetland species currently being grown.
So Jefferson spent a great deal of time overseas, not only in the Mediterranean; but also interacting with Asian trade markets as far East as Vietnam. It would have been extremely unlikely for him not to have learned about the intoxicating effects of the plant he was already growing back home, if he hadn't already known prior to ever leaving. Remember, there is evidence to suggest, that his friends George Washington, Ben Franklin, and John Adams, were, at the very least, aware of the existence and effects of THC rich plants.
Due to his time engaging in Asian markets, rumors claim that Jefferson also used Turkish smugglers to obtain Chinese cannabis seeds, the intoxicating kind, and shared them with close friends. While no evidence exists proving this to be true, given his admittance to risking death to smuggle rice (a common crop to America), why not smuggle cannabis seeds (an even more common crop in America) as well? Just think, who would have the more impressive record, Marc Emery or Thomas Jefferson?
Speaking of records, the presidents keep a perfect track record going, as the fourth and fifth POTUS were fans of cannabis. James Madison, "Father of the Constitution", is said to have stated that hemp inspired him "to create a nation based on democratic principles." Hard to say exactly what he could have meant. Was he referring to the many textile uses, and thus economic value; or was he talking about an uplifted state of mind similar to that mentioned by great minds like Oliver Sacks, Sir Francis Crick, and Carl Sagan? As many musicians, artists, authors, and so on will quickly tell you, the cannabis high enables one easier access to faculties of creativity, revolutionary thought, and arguably, an altered state of consciousness (alpha brain wave state).
James Monroe becomes the first president we can definitively say smoked cannabis. Another representative to the country of France, it is there, according to his biographers, that he openly smokes hashish. He is further said to have brought it back home and enjoyed it until his death at age 73. It is possible that both he, and Andrew Jackson, the 7th president; smoked herb alongside their soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
War and battle was all too common in the early years of the States' founding. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, future presidents Zachary Taylor (12) and Franklin Pierce (14) found themselves fighting in the Mexican-American War 1846-48. Alleged letters exist written by Taylor, the Major General, mentioning his smoking of cannabis along with fellow soldiers. Pierce is quoted, claiming that cannabis was "the only good thing to come of it" [the War].
Finally, Mr. Abraham Lincoln. The 16th president is the perfect place to end our discussion on the founding fathers. President from 1861-1865, Lincoln led the country through the Civil War, penned the Emancipation Proclamation, and abolished slavery. A very popular fake story exists claiming Abe wrote a letter stating he enjoyed smoking hemp on the porch, while playing his harmonica. This claim is easily debunked.
It is however important to mention that president Lincoln's private secretary and personal assistant, John Hay, inspired by the 1857 The Hasheesh Eater, was known to consume hash in college to enjoy the dreams it produced. A former classmate of Hay's recalled, "The night when Johnny Hay took hasheesh’ marked an epoch for the dwellers in Hope College." It is possible that Abe and John shared a smoke session or two.
Dr. Burke, who is a president of the American Historical Reference Society, has noted seven of the earliest presidents as hemp smokers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce. According to Dr. Burke, “early letters from our founding fathers refer to the pleasures of hemp smoking."
Given Irish physician, William O'Shaughnessey's (who studied cannabis use in India) 1842 publications in English medical journals; Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, and Abraham Lincoln would all have been quite familiar with cannabis' benefits, as well as the various methods of administration. As noted by Dr. Lester Grinspoon in “Marihuana Reconsidered (1971)”, "Between 1839 and 1900 more than one hundred articles appeared in scientific journals describing the medicinal properties of the plant." From 1842 to 1900, more than half of all medicine sold, contained cannabis.
As with most heavily debated topics, there is no absolute consensus. We are left to responsible deduce for ourselves the most likely answers (Occam's Razor). As always...
The sources cited are primarily intended for the casual reader. Each source however, has been carefully chosen to include scientific sources linked within. Living with today's industry funded, pseudo-scientific journals, we encourage you to "research the research".