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Tuesday, 13 September 2011
The Founding Stoners?

For years folks have argued over whether or not some of the Founding Fathers indulged in a little “recreational” smoke from time to time. Many of these wealthy Virginia planters (such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) grew Hemp on their farms, but the question remains as to what degree did their use of it go? Myths and misquotes abound. Proponents for the legalization of marijuana often reference these cloudy facts in support of their cause, while the anti-drug crowd vehemently disagrees with the notion. In his book Hemp: Lifeline to the Future (Chapter 16, A World of Cannabis Cultures) Chris Conrad outlines this mystery. He writes:

The extent of cannabis smoking during the Colonial era is still subject to debate. President George Washington wrote a letter that contained an oblique reference to what may have been hashish. “The artificial preparation of hemp, from Silesia, is really a curiosity.” Washington made specific written references to Indian hemp, or cannabis indica, and hoped to “have disseminated the seed to others.” His August 7, 1765 diary entry, “began to separate the male from the female (hemp) plants,” describes a harvesting technique favored to enhance the potency of smoking cannabis, among other reasons. Hemp farmer Thomas Jefferson and paper maker Ben Franklin were ambassadors to France during the initial surge of the hashish vogue. Their celebrity status and progressive revolutionary image afforded them ample opportunities to try new experiences. Jefferson smuggled Chinese hemp seeds to America and is credited with the phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Did the Founding Fathers of the United States of America smoke cannabis? Some researchers think so. Dr. Burke, president of the American Historical Reference Society and a consultant for the Smithsonian Institute, counted seven early presidents as cannabis smokers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce. “Early letters from our founding fathers refer to the pleasures of hemp smoking,” said Burke. Pierce, Taylor and Jackson, all military men, smoked it with their troops. Cannabis was twice as popular among American soldiers in the Mexican War as in Vietnam: Pierce wrote to his family that it was “about the only good thing” about that war.

So what do we know? Let’s start by dispelling some myths. Yes, both Washington and Jefferson grew and wrote about Hemp, but why? There is an entire Hemp page on the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s website that answers this question (Read Here). According to them, Hemp, along with flax and cotton, was primarily used for making clothing at Monticello. Slave garments for example, were often constructed from Hemp. Rope was also made from its extremely strong fibers. The TJ Foundation also addresses the often quoted and entirely unproven statement attributed to Jefferson, “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.” According to them:

This statement has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. It appears to be of extremely recent vintage, and does not appear in any secondary print sources available online. Thomas Jefferson did grow hemp, but there is no evidence to suggest that Jefferson was a habitual smoker of hemp, tobacco, or any other substance. Some have pointed to a supposed reference in Jefferson's Farm Book to separating male and female hemp plants as evidence that he was cultivating it for purposes of recreational smoking; no such reference exists in Jefferson's Farm Book or any other document, although George Washington did record such a thing in his own diary: “Began to seperate the Male from the Female hemp at Do.&—rather too late.” The editorial note accompanying this comment cites Bernard McMahon's American Gardener’s Calendar: “This may arise from their [the male] being coarser, and the stalks larger.

[I do applaud the stoner who came up with that quote and managed to propagate it to the point it had to be officially addressed.] Similarly, Jefferson’s friend George Washington is also frequently quoted by the weed crowd. According to Cecil Adams for The Straight Dope:

In his diary for August 7, 1765, Washington writes, “Began to separate the Male from the Female hemp … rather too late.” Female marijuana plants are the ones that contain enough THC to be worth smoking. Some take this to mean Washington was cultivating the plant not just for fiber. Of course, two days later Washington says he put the hemp in the river to soak and separate out the fibers, and later in September that he started to harvest the seed. That suggests he divided the plants because the males made stronger fiber while the female plants produced the seed needed for the next year's crop. Jefferson in his Farm Book wrote that a female plant would produce a quart of seed, and a bushel of seed was enough to plant an acre.

We can prove that Washington was indeed a farmer of cannabis-crops, as he enthusiastically grew Hemp and promoted its growth. In 1794 he wrote a note to his gardener at Mount Vernon stating, “Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!” (The Writings of George Washington, Volume 33, page 270). However, in the 1790s, the crop was grown mainly for its industrial value and for soil stabilization. It was many years later that the recreational and illegal use of marijuana became popular. Therefore, the Father of our Country probably did not partake.

So what can we prove? Yes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were growers, but they do not appear to have ever indulged in their crops. Most accounts and quotes that allegedly support this claim are either incorrect or completely fabricated. We do know for a fact that Ben Franklin used opiates as a pain killer, more specifically, a laudanum opium in alcohol extract-to alleviate the pain of kidney stones during the last few years of his life.

We also know that several American presidents have admitted to using drugs either recreationally in their youth, or medicinally in their final years. This includes Franklin Pierce (Hashish), Ulysses S. Grant (Cocaine), John F. Kennedy (Prescriptions), Bill Clinton (Marijuana), George Bush (Cocaine) and our current Commander and Chief Barak Obama (Marijuana). None of these men are said to have abused drugs while in office. Still, it is the Founding Fathers who seem to be the most desirable examples when arguing for the legalization of marijuana in America.

Too bad the history behind their drug use is bogus. This should not surprise us as the propagation of historical BS is nothing new. The Founders are constantly being hijacked in support of either Right or Left political ideology. More often than not, the reasons for doing so are fraught with false claims and misinformation. These brilliant men were by no means perfect people and I have spent plenty of words taking them to task for their faults and indiscretions. That said, their implied recreational drug use is founded on little or no evidence. So although we might like to envision a more mellow Mr. Jefferson, kicking back on the porch at Monticello and firing up a big fatty, there are absolutely no reliable sources to prove this.

I would point that out to the stoner crowd, but they would probably forget. :)

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 9:02 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 13 September 2011 1:51 PM EDT
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