Our Founding Fathers’ History With Hemp

Yes, the Founding Fathers of this American republic really did embrace hemp as an early symbol of independence. There’s no doubt that the Virginia aristocrats among them, at least, cultivated the plant. A certain mythology about this has emerged among the contemporary “hempsters”—zealous advocates of industrial hemp, who also tend to enjoy the mood-altering effects of cannabis.

However, not all the legends that have grown up around these wigged and vaunted progenitors of liberty (for some) actually stand up to scrutiny. Let’s check the historical record and parse the facts.

George Washington and Hemp: Myth and Reality

Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic estate in Virginia’s Fairfax County, is maintained today by a private foundation as a tourist destination as well as a working farm. And in 2018, it began to produce hemp again—most likely for the first time in some two centuries. The estate partnered with the University of Virginia to sow and harvest a hemp crop that year. “To bring this crop back it just really helps complete our agricultural story,” Mount Vernon horticulture director Dean Norton told National Public Radio.

As NPR reported, the impetus to bring hemp back to Mount Vernon came from a campaign launched by a Charlottesville farmer and self-declared “hemp patriot,” Brian Walden. Walden said the return of hemp to the honored plantation could get “the message across that this is an innocuous plant that has real benefits and our Founding Fathers knew that and they planted it.” 

A page on the official Mount Vernon website coyly states: “Yes, George Washington did grow hemp… but not the kind you’re thinking of.” 

“Throughout his lifetime, George Washington cultivated hemp at Mount Vernon for industrial uses,” the page states. “The fibers from hemp held excellent properties for making rope and sail canvas. In addition, hemp fibers could be spun into thread for clothing or as indicated in Mount Vernon records, used in repairing the large seine nets Washington used in his fishing operation along the Potomac.”

In his letters and diaries, Washington mentioned hemp no fewer than 90 times. A section of the plantation dubbed Muddy Hole Farm was dedicated to hemp, as well as other crops as he experimented and rotated over the years. In addition to looking to hemp as a source of fiber for the plantation’s own use, he hoped to develop it as an alternative to his principal cash crop of tobacco—not, apparently, to any great success. But this did give him the impetus to research and import new varieties of seed, with his writing especially mentioning East Indian hemp. 

In a Jan. 16, 1793 letter to his estate manager Anthony Whitting, the father of our country wrote: “I intend putting the Spinners to Spining some hemp…soon… as it has been my intention of trying to Manefacture some Sein twine.” (Sic) 

Seine twine, as it’s rendered today, is a very tightly twisted yarn, then widely used in fishing nets. 

It should be noted that some of those spinners were almost certainly enslaved African Americans. The Mount Vernon website states: “Mount Vernon was the home of George Washington. It was also home to hundreds of enslaved men, women and children who lived here under Washington’s control.” This slave labor was supplemented by hundreds of indentured servants as well as “free labor” employees. The website page on the Spinning House states: “Enslaved and itinerant weavers worked in the Spinning House to produce basic textiles for use at Mount Vernon.” 

In that same letter to Anthony Whitting, Washington notes that he gave a “Whiping” (sic) to an “impudent” enslaved woman named Charlotte. 

Those are some facts. Now let’s take a skeptical look at some of the myths. 

“Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere,” Washington is widely claimed to have said. The apocryphal quote can be found on many hempster websites. 

Close—but not quite.  

The Mount Vernon site lists this on its page of Spurious Quotations—along with “I cannot tell a lie, Pa,” from the legend about the cherry tree. 

The page suggests that the apocryphal quote derives from an authentic one, in a letter  Washington wrote to one his hired farm managers, William Pearce, on Feb. 24, 1794: “I am very glad to hear that the Gardener has saved so much of the St. foin seed, and that of the India Hemp. Make the most you can of both, by sowing them again in drills… Let the ground be well prepared, and the Seed (St. loin) be sown in April. The Hemp may be sown any where.” 

St. Foin is a reference to sainfoin (Onobrychis, by its Latin name), a legume then widely grown the area. 

‘Separating the Males from Females’

Then there’s the inevitable question: Did George Washington toke? 

In defense of this unlikely thesis, hempsters point to Washington’s diary entry from Aug. 7, 1765, in which he wrote: “Began to separate the Male from the Female hemp… rather too late.” (Sic) 

As every marijuana cultivator knows, the male and female plants should be separated so that the females keep excreting THC-laden resin to catch pollen and become more potent. But there can be reasons to separate males and females in industrial hemp, too. A 2016 article on the controversy in the Journal of the American Revolution states that in the methods of the day, “the male plants (with the pollen) are distanced from female plants at a proper time in the cultivation cycle for the controlled breeding of seeds needed for the next year’s crop.”  

In his diary entry for Aug. 9, just two days later, Washington wrote: “Abt. 6 Oclock put some Hemp in the Rivr. to Rot.” (Sic) Then, in an entry from that September, without a specific date, he wrote: “Began to Pull the Seed Hemp but it was not sufficiently ripe.” 

What does this indicate? Again, by the methods of the day, the male plants, which produced stronger fiber, were soaked in the local river to start to separate the fiber from the hurds. George did this on Aug. 9, while harvesting seeds from the females that had remained planted the following month. Use of the term “Seed Hemp” indicates that the females had indeed been pollinated. 

In other words, this was about rope, not dope. Sorry, hempsters.

On to the next honored member of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson: ‘Hemp is Abundantly Productive’

On his estate at Monticello, outside Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson was also growing hemp. 

In his Farm Book, where Jefferson recorded his agricultural activities for 50 years starting in 1774, he wrote in an undated entry: “Hemp. plough the ground for it early in the fall & very deep, if possible plough it again in Feb. before you sow it, which should be in March. a hand can tend 3. acres of hemp a year. tolerable ground yields 500. lb to the acre.” (Again, the “hands” were likely to have been enslaved.)  

The entry continues: “To make hemp seed, make hills of the form & size of cucumber hills, from 4. to 6. f. apart… when they come up thin them to two. as soon as the male plants have shed their farina, cut them up that the whole nourishment may go to the female plants. every plant thus ended will yield a quart of seed. a bushel of good brown seed is enough for an acre.”

“Farina” meant pollen in the argot the day. This again indicates separating the plants after pollination to maximize seed production—exactly the opposite of what is done to produce sinsemilla. The hemp was apparently used in the estate’s own internal economy, rather than being sold commercially.

In a Dec. 29, 1815 letter to a local miller, George Fleming, Jefferson noted both the advantages and disadvantages of hemp as compared to flax: “The shirting for our laborers has been an object of some difficulty. flax is so injurious to our lands, and of so scanty produce, that I have never attempted it. hemp, on the other hand, is abundantly productive and will grow for ever on the same spot. but the breaking and beating it, which has been always done by hand, is so slow, so laborious, and so much complained of by our laborers, that I had given it up, and purchased & manufactured cotton for their shirting.” (Sic)

And who were these laborers? The Monticello website states: “In addition to about 130 enslaved African Americans, many laborers from different ethnic groups with varying degrees of autonomy lived and worked at Monticello between the 1770s and the sale of Monticello in 1831.”

And, once more, let’s examine the myths.

A quote widely attributed to the USA’s third president states: “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.” But PolitiFact, which is in a fact-checking partnership with Facebook, couldn’t verify the quote with any original source.

PolitiFact similarly rated as “False” the oft-heard claim that Jefferson’s first draft of the Constitution was written on hemp paper.

The Monticello website has this to say on the matter: “Thomas Jefferson’s original ‘Rough Draft of the Declaration’ is now in the Jefferson Papers collection at the Library of Congress. According to sources at the Library of Congress, analysis by paper conservators has determined that the paper is mostly likely Dutch in origin. While hemp was commonly used to make paper in Southern Europe during this time, the Dutch were much more likely to use flax or linen rags.”

And does anything indicate Jefferson smoked the stuff? A quote widely attributed to him goes: “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.”

The Monticello website devotes a page to it, finding: “This statement hasn’t been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. It appears to be of extremely recent vintage (first noticed online in 2008), and only made its way into print sources as of 2013.”

It adds: “Thomas Jefferson did grow hemp, but there’s no evidence to suggest that Jefferson was a habitual smoker of hemp, tobacco or any other substance.”

Symbol of Patriotism  

Hemp was certainly an important crop in colonial America, and especially Virginia. The frequent claim that in 1619 the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp is true.

The text of the law read: “For hemp also, both English and Indian, and for English flax and aniseeds, we do require and enjoin all householders of this colony, that have any of those seeds, to make trial thereof the next season.”

An article entitled “Hemp & Flax in Colonial America” on the Colonial Williamsburg website again douses any notion of recreational imbibing: “Many 18th-century Americans enjoyed recreational intoxication now and again, but they consumed alcohol for that, not THC. Neither was hemp used all that much for medicine; the seeds (which contain no appreciable amounts of THC) were boiled in milk to treat coughs, but if ailing colonists needed a potent painkiller, heavier ammunition, notably opium, was available without much effort.”

But the article does note how widespread the crop was: “In Virginia’s Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley regions, where tobacco didn’t grow so well, hemp became a staple. By the middle of the 18th century, Virginians had 12,000 acres cultivated in hemp, more than a quarter of the 45,000 acres they had in tobacco.” 

Virginians were allowed to pay their taxes in hemp, as well as other cash crops. Both the Virginia Assembly and the British Parliament provided bounties for growing hemp throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in an effort to cut reliance on foreign imports, especially from Russia. The Virginia Gazette in April 1767 printed instructions for hemp cultivation on its front page. 

And the crop that was once ordered by colonial authorities would become a symbol of freedom and independence: “As the relationship between Britain and the American colonies soured, hemp gained favor to compensate for shortages caused by boycotts of British imports. Homespun clothing, including that made out of hemp, became a hallmark of the American cause.”

In 1774, various counties in Virginia and North Carolina passed a resolution stating “that the raising of Sheep, Hemp and Flax ought to be encouraged,” and “that to be clothed in Manufactures fabricated in the Colony ought to be considered as a Badge of Distinction and Respect, and true Patriotism.”

With the outbreak of fighting in 1775, the need for hemp became pressing. “While hemp products were useful for ground troops, naval forces were paralyzed without them. There were 11 state-sponsored fleets during the American Revolution, as well as the Continental Navy, and every single ship needed ropes and sails.”

The surge in demand caused hemp prices to soar, as did the amount of acreage under hemp cultivation. Wartime Virginia had at least 18 “rope walks,” where cordage was manufactured. Three of these were run by the rebel government, staffed by commissioners authorized to purchase hemp from farmers with public funds. 

This was an early harbinger of the famous USDA slogan from World War II: “Hemp for Victory.” 

Hempster embellishment of the real history aside, hemp really was critical to American independence and our Founding Fathers.