It’s the Fourth of July, our country’s proudest day! Naturally, while sipping a beer around a barbeque or hiking through a National Park this holiday the topic of whether or not our Founding Fathers enjoyed marijuana as much as we do today will most likely become a topic of discussion. As it should be. Understanding our country’s full history with the cannabis plant can be healing to the reputation of both the plant and those who enjoy it.
If you enter the title of this post into a search engine you will most likely see a list of articles claiming to prove or disprove the idea that the founding fathers of the United States smoked marijuana. What’s the truth? Were the Founding Fathers partaking in a little hashish way before it was cool? The answer is: probably.
The status of cannabis in the world of the American Revolution was generally hazy. Settlers to Jamestown were required to grow cannabis sativa as an agricultural crop to provide Britain with the materials it needed to maintain its enormous Navy, and to meet the needs of merchants that shipped colonial goods. Everything from the rigging to the hammocks were made of hemp. Meanwhile, the smoking of cannabis for its diverting and medicinal effects was widespread across Asia and the Middle East. Thus, in the 18th century it was generally known that cannabis could be used to alleviate multiple medical maladies as well as alter one’s state of mind. It is well documented that Napoleon’s troops brought the practice of ingesting hash with them from conquests in Egypt. This led to the formation of a subculture in France, and the formation of the famous Club des Hashischins, or “Club of the Hashish Eaters.” Though used globally, conservative culture tended to frown upon overindulgence in cannabis—as with opium.
While the Founding Fathers were stirring revolution and writing the Constitution, they visited France to engage in the discussion of Enlightenment philosophy and debate their ideas for a new kind of government. While in France, it is unlikely that they did not partake in the indulgences of their revolutionary peers. Additionally, Thomas Jefferson is recorded as having smuggled Chinese hemp seeds back to the United States from one of his trips to Europe. Jefferson experimented with cultivation, and the Chinese variety of cannabis was used for medicinal purposes at the time. So it is more than likely that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin partook in some herb on their travels, and may have brought the practice home with them. Social stigmas surrounding cannabis at the time, as the opinion varied widely, most likely prevented any open discourse on the subject. They were politicians, after all.
In light of the current legislation on marijuana in the United States, however, a different narrative about the Founding Fathers and cannabis is more interesting and more relevant. As influential and wealthy farmers, our Founding Fathers grew hemp–a major cash crop. They were often quoted on the durability and versatility of the crop. Used for making inexpensive paper in addition to textiles and marine supplies, hemp cultivation allowed for the spread of ideas and the financial support of a budding nation. John Quincey Adams compiled a detailed study of the cultivation of hemp in Russia, and the tradition of hemp as a sturdy source of military supplies extended into the Second World War. With the temperance movements of the 20th century, hemp was outlawed along with marijuana and has been illegal to grow in the United States since 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act.
As collateral damage in the prohibition of marijuana, hemp has become pushed to the shadows for decades despite it’s studied benefits across multiple industries, including the positive effects its reintegration as an agricultural crop could have on the environment (but that will have to wait for another blog post). If you choose to elevate your Independence Day celebrations with cannabis, perhaps pause and reflect on how this humble plant helped to form the backbone of our nation, and how it can continue to propel us into further innovation in thought and commerce. That is, if we continue to reclaim our independence to laugh and heal with this remarkable herb.
For Further Reading:
Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana by Martin A. Lee
Hemp: Lifeline to the Future by Chris Conrad