Sorry, but George Washington and the Founding Fathers never actually got high
Early American presidents may have been enthusiastic growers of low-THC hemp, but there is no evidence whatsoever that any of them ever consumed it
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Across the various cannabis-related corners of the internet, it is now taken as common knowledge that for the first 100 years of U.S. history, its presidents were all occasionally tripping on weed.
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“Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see,” reads a quote widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
George Washington smoked it to soothe the pain of his false teeth, James Madison is said to have conceived the U.S. constitution in a haze of hemp smoke. James Monroe picked up the habit while in Paris and was reportedly puffing away on a hash pipe well into old age.
Thomas Jefferson, who admittedly looks like a cannabis enthusiast. Photo by White House Historical Association
Even 13th president Franklin Pierce allegedly puffed a few tokes while serving in the Mexican-American War, proclaiming it as “about the only good thing” to come out of the conflict.
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Unfortunately, it’s all very, very untrue. Early American presidents may have been enthusiastic growers of low-THC hemp, but there is no evidence whatsoever that any of them ever consumed it.
In fact, the whole thing is largely thanks to a wildly successful 1970s hoax.
The Seed, an underground Chicago newspaper, ran a satirical story claiming that seven early U.S. presidents had smoked hemp. Citing a non-existent “Dr. Burke” from the equally non-existent American Historical Reference Society, the story spun convincing descriptions for each president’s encounter with the drug.
“James Madison once remarked that had it not been for hemp, he would not have had the insights he had in the work of creating a new and democratic nation,” read one claim.
The hoax took off after it was unwittingly repeated by Jesse Steinfeld, the then-U.S. surgeon general. Speaking before the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, Stenfeld cited “Dr. Burke” in claiming that “no less than seven U.S. presidents smoked marijuana.”
Ever since, the alleged cannabis usage of early U.S. leaders has been an oft-repeated argument by pro-legalization activists.
The National Constitution Centre now has a dedicated webpage to refute the notion that the likes of Washington and Madison were lighting up 18th century joints.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that many early U.S. presidents were indeed massive hemp enthusiasts, and indicated as much in letters and editorials. But they grew the crop as a way to make rope and paper, not as a hallucinogen.
Second president John Adams even left behind this particularly cryptic quote from 1763: “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.”
While it seems like Adams is calling for Colonial America to treat its violence problem with a few more bong hits, he is in fact calling for more hemp rope by which to hang criminals.
John Adams, who actually wanted to kill people with hemp, rather than get them high. Photo by Naval Historical Centre
As for the quote about Thomas Jefferson smoking pot on his back veranda, that dates back only about 10 years. The non-profit that runs Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home, notes that the quote does not appear in any of Jefferson’s official writings, and only started appearing online in 2008.
The widespread belief that Washington, Jefferson and Adams all smoked hemp is actually just a very successful 1970s instance of fake news
Did George Washington Grow Hemp?
Yes, George Washington did grow hemp.
. but not the kind you’re thinking of.
George Washington Hemp Farmer, by Aia Leu, 2013
Throughout his lifetime, George Washington cultivated hemp at Mount Vernon for industrial uses. 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.
At one point in the 1760’s Washington considered whether hemp would be a more lucrative cash crop than tobacco but determined wheat was a better alternative.
Growing Hemp Today
Dean Norton, Director of Horticulture at Mount Vernon, planting industrial hemp. MVLA.
Since the spring of 2018, Mount Vernon has planted an industrial cultivar of hemp on the four-acre Pioneer Farm site. Under the 2015 Industrial Hemp Law enacted by the Virginia General Assembly and working with the industrial hemp research program of the University of Virginia, Mount Vernon planted hemp to expand its interpretation of George Washington’s role as an enterprising farmer. As the first historic home of the founding fathers to plant hemp, Mount Vernon will use the plant as an interpretative tool to help better tell the story of Washington’s role as a farmer.
Harvesting of the industrial hemp takes place each summer. After the industrial hemp is dried it is used in fiber-making demonstrations onsite.
George Washington grew hemp but not he kind you are thinking of.