The Truth About George Washington and Hemp

Food & Lifestyle

October 6, 2016
by John L. Smith, Jr. Also by this Author


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  • Did George Washington grow hemp? Yes. Hemp was a well-known, multi-purpose crop.
  • Did George Washington smoke hemp? There’s absolutely zero evidence that he grew it or used it for recreational purposes.

Now that we have the essentials out of the way, we can have a thoughtful look at this subject once and for all. In the first place, there are two types of hemp:

  1. Industrial hemp – the name of this hemp strain is Cannabis sativa. Washington grew this strain for both the bounty price paid by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and for “the production of rope, thread, canvas, and other industrial applications”[1] usage at Mount Vernon. Additionally, hemp was used “in repairing the large seine fishing nets that Washington used in his fishing operation along the Potomac.”[2]
  2. Marijuana hemp – the name of this hemp strain is Cannabis sativa indica. It’s that third last word, “indica,” added to the strain name that makes the big difference.

What separates them is the amount of the two chemicals THC (TetraHydroCannabinol) and CBD (CannaBiDiol) present in the leaves. Marijuana hemp has higher THC (the stuff that gets you high) and lower CBD (the stuff that counteracts any high effects). Likewise, industrial hemp has just the opposite balance. It’s said that if you tried to smoke industrial hemp, you’d probably just get sick. Most industrial hemp has less than 0.3 percent THC in it. This is the strain Washington cultivated on all five of his farms[3] at his Mount Vernon land holdings.

In The Gardeners Dictionary, the international encyclopedia of agriculture and plants that Washington had in his Mount Vernon library,[4] the hemp strain “Cannabis sativa[5] was also called “Manured Hemp.” Not a tantalizing-sounding name to smoke. But that was the industrial strain of hemp Washington grew. The book said it was “propagated for its Bark, which is useful for Cordage, Cloth, etc., and the Seeds afford an Oil, which is used in Medicine.”[6] It also mentioned two seasonal “Pulling” times which correspond with Washington’s diary notes. The column ends with a description of hemp-growing bounties paid to “British colonies in North America” and why hemp was important to the naval security of Great Britain.

Hemp through History and in Colonial America

Hemp has been used all through history, going back many thousands of years. There’s evidence that the Chinese made hemp clothing in the second century B.C. and the Vikings quite likely made canvas sails and rope from hemp fibers. In fact, even the word “canvas” can be traced back to the Latin word “cannapaceus,” meaning “made of hemp.” The word may have originated from the Greek word “κάνναβις” for “cannabis.” The ropes on the ships of Christopher Columbus were most likely hemp ropes.[7] Hemp fibers have always been known for their versatility and strength. Even in today’s world, the North American Industrial Hemp Council touts 25,000 products made from this very useful plant, including “rope, clothes, food, paper, textiles, plastics, insulation and biofuel.”[8]

But hemp in colonial North America was of economic and strategic importance to Great Britain, the mother country. Since the American colonies existed to support the needs of Britain, the Virginia House of Burgesses in August 1633 passed Act VIII stipulating “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.”[9] Growing hemp in America filled a security need to allow for the independence and functionality of the British Navy, the critical link to England’s survival.

Parliament “dwelt upon the precarious dependence of England on the Baltic countries for masts, deals, pitch, tar, flax, hemp, and cordage, all of which were essential to the navy and likely to be cut off by war, embargo, or blockade precisely when they were most needed.”[10] Hemp rope used on sailing ships of the day, although exceedingly strong, would break when they weakened from staying wet for long periods of time. So the hemp ropes had to be constantly coated with tar to keep them insulated from water. The British sailors whose job it was to continually tar-coat the ropes gained the nickname “Jack Tar.”[11]

Hemp was seen as such a crucial substance in colonial America that even John Adams mentions its priority ahead of a “Declaration of Independency.” While Adams was traveling back to Philadelphia in late January 1776, he wrote himself a “to do” list of things to handle in the Continental Congress. He wrote the list on two sheets of paper in his diary. The list started off with “The Confederation to be taken up …” followed by the second item “An Alliance to be formed with France and Spain.”[12] Only a few items down on that same first page he wrote “Hemp to be encouraged and the Manufacture of Duck.”[13] On the second page, the second-below-the-bottom item was “Declaration of Independency …”

Hemp even rated an appearance in Thomas Paine’s wildly popular Common Sense. Paine listed many of America’s “strength and our riches;” the first being, “In almost every article of defence we abound. Hemp flourishes even to rankness, so that we need not want cordage [rope].”[14]

Parliament Pays Hemp Bounties

In the early eighteenth century in an effort to keep the vital naval support supplies rolling across the Atlantic to England, the British government passed a series of economic “bounties, premiums, and subsidies”[15] programs. Since premiums and subsidies usually involved exceptional quality or payments to a specific person respectively, bounties for raw materials were the most common form of the Parliamentary incentive payment program. “After the 1720–22 sessions, the General Assembly offered a bounty of 4s. for every ‘gross hundred’ of hemp, water-rotted, bright, and clean, to encourage production.”[16] But showing the growing importance of hemp to British naval security, a law enacted in 1763 (which took effect June 24, 1764) was entitled “An Act for granting a Bounty upon the Importation of Hemp, and rough and undressed Flax, from his Majesty’s Colonies in America.”[17]

The bounties caught the eye of grower and businessman George Washington, who was considering dropping tobacco as his main cash crop.[18] He wrote to his sales agent in London, Robert Cary & Company, in September 1765 asking about hemp and if

… you woud do me a singular favour in advising of the general price one might expect for good Hemp in your Port watered & prepared according to Act of Parliament, with an estimate of the freight, & all other Incident charges pr Tonn that I may form some Idea of the profits resulting from the growth[19]

The very same day, Washington also wrote to his two other consignees in the London tobacco trade, James Gildart along with Capel & Osgood Hanbury, and expressed much the same curiosity about the details on Parliamentary bounty hemp:

The Parliament by the Bounty given for American Hemp & Flax seem desirous of encouraging the growth of them in the Plan[tatio]ns but as they are Articles altogether new to us & I believe not much of our Lands well adapted for them, and as the proper kind of Packages, Freight, & accustomd charges, are little known here I shoud be much obligd to you for advising me of the gene[ra]l prices one might expect in your Port for good Hemp, & flax (rough & undressd) Watered, & prepard as directed by the Act[20]

But eventually, problems developed with the bounty payment system either through mismanagement, transport complications, the poor quality of hemp being exported, or simply the oversupply by the colonies of hemp.[21] The system inadvertently gave rise to local usage and manufacturing within the colonies, processing the hemp into finished products as paper, rope or cloth. Hemp had become a cash crop within the thirteen colonies.

George Washington – Diversified Farmer

George Washington was constantly evaluating, revising and experimenting with agricultural techniques, some of them revolutionary for the time. He invented a new type of plow, designed a seven-year crop rotation system, made innovations to his Dogue Run grist mill, and designed an innovative sixteen-sided barn. He cut tobacco growing from his crop list because it depleted soil nutrients and because of the British system of marketing that he had to abide by, which left him powerless to sell in London at even a break-even point. He began the test growing of wheat, oats, barley, corn, rye, turnips, Indian corn, legumes, flax, “Chiccory, and Botany bay grass-seeds”[22] and “sixty different crops,”[23] with hemp being just one of them.[24] Washington did, however, recognize some unique advantages of farming hemp: it didn’t have to be replanted annually, it required little fertilizer and water, and hemp’s root system aerated the soil. But Washington analyzed all of his options by keeping up with agricultural experimentation, and he “copied out long passages from English agricultural journals.”[25] Finally Washington made a decision on what his chief tobacco-replacement cash crop would be: “Washington decided to turn his estate over to wheat.”[26] Although he still grew small amounts of tobacco on some Custis land, essentially by 1766 Washington was finished growing tobacco at Mount Vernon.

Five years after the Revolutionary War, Washington (once again a civilian, but not yet president) struck up a letter writing communication with Arthur Young, a British agriculturalist who published the Annals of Agriculture, an annual periodical “dedicated to raising standards of farming by presenting articles on innovative methods.”[27] In one letter, Washington sent his reply to Young who had asked if parts of Washington’s letters could be published in the Annals of Agriculture. Washington wrote,

As to what you suggest at the close of your letter, respecting the publication of extracts from my corrispondence in your Annals, I hardly know what to say … I am affraid it might be imputed to me as a piece of ostentation, if my name should appear in the work.[28]

But the most ironic line Washington wrote in that 1788 letter to Young read, “For I wish most devoutly to glide silently and unnoticed through the remainder of life.”[29] Ha. Coming up, Washington was still to be the president of the Constitutional Convention and the first American president for two full terms, lasting eight years.[30]

George Washington – Hemp Grower

            There seem to be three distinct time periods in Washington’s life when he was expressing an interest in hemp as a fiber crop. The first was in the mid-to-late 1760s when he was becoming established as a plantation farmer and was naturally curious about any cash crop that could substitute for tobacco. The second period when, as president (and you might say “absentee owner”), Washington exchanged extensive correspondence from Philadelphia with William Pearce, his estate overseer, including giving very specific, “micro-managing” instructions for planting and growing crops. The final third period was when he was finished with his public service and was back at Mount Vernon for the last two years of his life.

From diary entries, ledger notes, and letters, George Washington seemed to have started growing hemp in earnest from 1765 on, with the most active year by far being 1766. Of note during these years, and much quoted on the Internet, are two diary entries:

Aug 1766

29. Began to pull Hemp at the Mill and at Muddy hole—too late for the blossom Hemp by three Weeks or a Month[31] (So… Washington talks about blossom hemp … the stuff you smoke?)


Aug 1765

7. Began to seperate the Male from the Female hemp at Do.[32]—rather too late.[33] (Washington talks separating male from female hemp plants … aha! So that you can smoke the female flower.)

Armed with the solid “proof” that Washington talked about “blossom hemp” and separating male from female plants, marijuana advocates have made sweeping generalities ever since. It’s no fun to let the agricultural facts get in the way; specifically that 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. Another benefit stated of that time: “This may arise from their [the male] being coarser, and the stalks larger,”[34] the fact that separated male plants yielded stronger fiber. But just two days following the tantalizing August 7, 1765 “separation” diary entry above, reads the anti-climactic entry of August 9:

9. Abt. 6 Oclock put some Hemp in the Rivr. to Rot.[35]

The word “rot” doesn’t make hemp sound too appetizing when grouped with the word “smoking”. (Hemp was rotted in the fiber extraction process).

Hey, then the next day, on August 10, 1765, there’s the entry:

10. Seperated my Ewes & Rams …[36]

But by more “separation” going on, this wasn’t necessarily proof that he would be smoking his sheep. Like hemp plants, he was just separating them for reasons of controlled fertilization. But sometimes it’s more fun to think that Washington was a stoner, even though every expose story ends with a disclaimer phrase similar to “although solid evidence is still thin.” Ya’ think?

Washington was an excellent business manager. Once he made the decision to spend the time and resources actually growing a certain crop, his purpose was to realize an economic profit or offset a cost (i.e. the expense of buying finished cloth) following his initial seed investment.[37] The crop was either used at Mount Vernon for food (wheat, corn), agricultural use (clover, hay), human usefulness (flax or hemp to make cloth or rope); or it was sold to individuals,[38] or for the bounty price.[39] Washington’s records show that in November 1767, he received a bounty amount of nearly eleven pounds (£11) from hemp sold to the colonial Virginia General Assembly. In June 1770, he received another £4 19s. 6d for his hemp harvest.

Washington’s Presidential Years

From 1789 to 1797, George Washington was fulfilling his two terms as president and living far away from Mount Vernon. First George and Martha were living in New York City, the first national capital, and then in Philadelphia, the second capital. During that whole time he only returned home a few times, sometimes when Congress had adjourned for a session. Another Mount Vernon stay was from March 31 to April 7, 1791, while he was on his Southern tour visiting citizens and gauging the feel of the rest of the country for their newly found liberty.

Once again we find that on the Internet (a very reliable source of information) that during these presidential years much is made of Washington’s hemp statements, at a time when Washington was almost never at Mount Vernon. Smoking hemp would be hard when you weren’t there.

Via long-distance mail, Washington had his estate manager start experimenting with “East India hemp” in these oft-quoted passages from Washington:

I also gave the Gardener a few Seed of East India hemp to raise from, enquire for the seed which has been saved, and make the most of it at the proper Season for Sowing.[40]


Presuming you saved all the seed you could from the India hemp, let it be carefully sown agin, for the purpose of getting into a full stock of seed.[41]

(This quote, a particular favorite on the Internet, appears at the very bottom of a very long letter sent to Pearce from President Washington while he was living in Philadelphia. In fact, this sentence is just above the “P.S.,” like another afterthought. The entire body of the letter uses the words “seed” or “seeds” thirteen times, and the phrase “… Turnips; the Chiccory; and Botany bay grass-seeds …” four times. Other than this bottom-most “by the way” sentence, there weren’t any references to hemp.)

But the quote is “far out” anyway, because anyone knows that East India hemp is some pretty potent weed, or so is said in website posts. This is aside from the agricultural fact that the East India hemp strain of that time (also called “jute”) had a superior quality of fiber and resin to that of the common industrial hemp that Washington had sown thirty years before. Washington notes that fact in another oft-quoted-by-stoners letter to William Pearce two years later 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.[42]

Did you read that? George Washington asks the estate manager to set aside India Hemp seed “for my own purposes”? Washington didn’t elaborate on what his purposes were. But regardless, any document describing the purposes seems to have gone missing or has gone up in smoke.


[1] Mount Vernon website, (accessed June 10, 2016).

[2] Mount Vernon website, (accessed June 10, 2016).

[3] Mansion Farm, Union Farm, Dogue Run Farm, Muddy Hole Farm, River Farm.

[4] Washington had in his library an abridged 5th edition from 1763 of the Philip Miller book with the long title: The abridgement of the Gardeners dictionary: containing the best and newest methods of cultivating and improving the kitchen, fruit, flower garden, and nursery; as also for performing the practical parts of husbandry: together with the management of vineyards, and the methods of making wine in England. In which likewise are included, directions for propagating and improving, from real practice and experience, pasture lands and all sorts of timber trees. (accessed August 8, 2016).

[5] For more information, see

[6] Philip Miller, F.R.S., The Gardeners Dictionary, Volume One (London, Published by author, 1759), 76; (accessed August 8, 2016). Busting a “fact”: There was no mention of smoking hemp or cannabis either in the book, or in any hemp reference source or correspondence of the period in Britain or America. There is a theory however, that (possibly) enslaved persons of the day, without access to liquor or intoxicants, had discovered the novelty of smoking hemp. However Cannabis sativa indica (high THC) wasn’t used in product production, therefore smoking the Cannabis sativa (low THC) strain that was grown would only make one sick.

[7] To answer another oft-quoted “fact”: Regarding the Declaration of Independence, the National Constitution Center states that “some working drafts … might have been” printed on hemp paper, very common at the time. The famous final, hand-engrossed (hand-lettered) Declaration of Independence was printed on parchment (animal skin), very common at the time.

[8] N. M. Keller, “The Legalization of Industrial Hemp and What it Could Mean for Indiana’s Biofuel Industry” (PDF), Indiana International & Comparative Law Review 23 (3), 2013: 555, (Accessed June 10, 2016). Hemp birdseed is also very popular and is widely used, which is why sometimes birds eat it and fly into your sliding glass door. Just kidding.

[9] William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (Charlottesville, Va., 1969), 218; Proceedings of the Virginia General Assembly (accessed June 10, 2016).

[10] Victor S. Clark, History of Manufactures in the United States: 1607-1860 (Washington, D.C., The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1916), 9.

[11] Sailors of the Royal Navy would also sometimes tar their outer clothes to make them water-resistant. Covers for onboard ship objects painted with tar were eventually called a “tar-paulin” or “tarp.” The slang word for “Jack Tar” as a sailor was well-known during colonial days. In John Adams’ famous “Facts are stubborn things” defense brief, he characterized the civilian attackers during the Boston Massacre as “probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.” Adams’ Argument for the Defense: 3–4 December 1770, Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed June 16, 2016; Original source: The Adams Papers, Legal Papers of John Adams, vol. 3, Cases 63 and 64: The Boston Massacre Trials, ed. L. Kinvin Wroth and Hiller B. Zobel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).

[12] David McCullough, John Adams (New York, NY, Simon & Schuster), photo illustration 7 – cited on page 701 as “Massachusetts Historical Society: back end paper.”

[13] Duck is a hemp-derived heavy canvas used for making sails and tents. Its name comes from the Dutch word “doek” because of the similar look to a duck’s skin.

[14] Thomas Paine, Common Sense (New York, Fall River Press, 2013), 56-57.

[15] Victor S. Clark, History of Manufactures in the United States: 1607-1860 (Washington, D.C., The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1916), 33.

[16] This quote is found in the editorial footnotes of: Diary entry: 7 August 1765, Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed June 20, 2016; Original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 1, 11 March 1748 – 13 November 1765, ed. Donald Jackson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976), no pagination. Information sourced from Hening, The Statutes at Large, 4:96–97.

[17] Owen Ruffhead, ed., The Statutes at Large from Magna Charta down to the Acts of 25 Geo. (London: Charles Eyre and the Executors of William Strahan, 1786), 9:185–87.

[18] As late as 1770, Washington was reportedly still paying some of his taxes in tobacco that he grew on rented properties.

[19] Washington to Robert Cary & Company, September 20, 1765, Founders Online, National Archives (accessed June 11, 2016; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), 398–402).

[20] Washington to Capel & Osgood Hanbury, September 20, 1765, Founders Online, National Archives (accessed June 14, 2016; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 393–394).

[21] In an ironic twist, in October 1791, President Washington wrote a private letter to Alexander Hamilton wondering if the new United States had the constitutional power to offer bounties for the growing of “Cotton, & Hemp” – to encourage those products to be “manufactured at home.” He wondered if the public would even balk at their tax dollars being spent like that, but added that without the bounties paid, he knew of no way the cultivation could be “effectually encouraged.” Washington to Alexander Hamilton, October 14, 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed June 29, 2016; Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 9, 23 September 1791 – 29 February 1792, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000)).

[22] Washington to William Pearce, March 15, 1795, Founders Online, National Archives (accessed June 28, 2016; Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 17, 1 October 1794–31 March 1795, ed. David R. Hoth and Carol S. Ebel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013)).

[23] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York, The Penguin Press, 2010), 141.

[24] Regarding “hemp and flax … he experimented with both crops for a time after 1765.” Edward G. Lengel, First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His – and the Nation’s – Prosperity (Boston, MA. Da Capo Press, 2016), 60.

[25] James Thomas Flexner, Washington, The Indispensable Man (New York, Sterling Publishing, 2012), 210.

[26] Lengel, First Entrepreneur, 60.

[27] Footnote in Washington to Arthur Young, December 4, 1788, Founders Online, National Archives (accessed June 16, 2016; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1, 24 September 1788 – 31 March 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 159–163).

[28] Washington to Arthur Young, December 4, 1788, ibid. The two also “exchanged seeds, plans for farm equipment, and books on agriculture.” So it appears like there were no hard feelings on that war thing.

[29] Ibid.

[30] In one of the funniest contemporary statements written to Washington, Young uses the modern macroeconomic principle of “specialization” alarmingly well in wondering why the heck Washington was still growing flax: “What in the name of wonder can you do with flax? Not make linnen I hope; buy from England, from France, from Russia, anywhere rather than employ a soul in fabrics while wastes surround you by millions.” Young to Washington, May 19, 1789, Founders Online, National Archives (accessed August 27, 2016; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2, 1 April 1789 – 15 June 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 341–344).

[31] Diary entry: August 29, 1766, Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed June 17, 2016; Original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 2, 14 January 1766 – 31 December 1770, ed. Donald Jackson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976)).

[32] “Doeg Run” farm.

[33] Diary entry: August 7, 1765, Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed June 17, 2016; Original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 1, 11 March 1748 – 13 November 1765, ed. Donald Jackson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976)).

[34] Bernard M’Mahon, The American Gardener’s Calendar; Adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States. Containing a Complete Account of All the Work Necessary to be Done . . . for Every Month in the Year; with Ample Practical Directions for Performing the Same (Philadelphia, 1806), 457.

[35] Diary entry: August 9, 1765, Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed June 30, 2016; original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 1).

[36] Diary entry: August 10, 1765, Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed June 30, 2016; Original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 1).

[37] In Washington’s account books May 1765: “May 1—By Mr Chs Yates for 35 Bls of Hemp seed5       35. 0.0”

[38] In Washington’s account books February 1766: “Feb 1766: Feby 6—To Cash of Jno. Snowden          £ 0.15.0

(Washington records on February 6, 1766 the sale of 86 pounds of hemp to John Snowden for £2.3. In a later undated entry Washington credits Snowden £7 for “netting me a Sein & Rigging D[itt]o—Hemp &ca found him—he spun it” [Ledger A, 94])”. After his experiences with tobacco, even when Washington later sold very small amounts of wheat and hemp to be exported to England, he almost always dealt with individuals in America, such as in Alexandria, Virginia, rather than dealing with British buyers.

[39] In Washington’s account books November 1767: “Nov. 1767: 6. Bounty on Hemp                10. 8. 0 (GW was paid)”.

[40] Washington to Howell Lewis or William Pearce, January 6, 1794, Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed June 30, 2016; Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 15, 1 January–30 April 1794, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009).

[41] Washington to William Pearce, March 15, 1795, Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed July 1, 2016; Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 17, 1 October 1794–31 March 1795, ed. David R. Hoth and Carol S. Ebel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013)).

[42] Washington to William Pearce, May 29, 1796, Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed July 1, 2016).


  • Septiva? I thought it was sativa. (so does spell-check, BTW).

    I can find no reference to cannabis septiva on Google.

    Please explain.

      1. John, After reading your article a while back I remembered that Tomas Paine mentioned hemp in Commom Sense. He included it when talking about America’s abundant resources that would help make the country independent. He mentioned hemp in the context of cordage. There is “zero evidence” suggesting Paine smoked any while writing his pamphlet, but there is some evidence that his writing was often informed by a glass of brandy, or such.

        1. Jett – you have a good memory on Thomas Paine.
          In my article along with John Adams noting how important hemp was to the country and war effort… “Hemp even rated an appearance in Thomas Paine’s wildly popular Common Sense. Paine listed many of America’s “strength and our riches;” the first being, “In almost every article of defence we abound. Hemp flourishes even to rankness, so that we need not want cordage [rope].”

          1. Thanks, John. Maybe I need a glass of brandy when reading! Just missed that quote in your interesting article.

  • John,

    Great article and since I just completed my next book describing Vermont’s first opium epidemic taking place in the 19th century (History Press, release date Spring 2017), your observations concerning Washington’s saving hemp seed drew my attention.

    I sought to track the use of opium throughout the 19th century, but began in the Revolution years, finding in the post-war time period that there was a great push on to increase domestic manufactures as they related to drugs. The earliest comment I could find on this here in Vermont was a 1788 article (eight years before your Washington reference) in which there is a front page, three-column description telling residents to grow opium (the effects of which were well known) as it was considered a great cash crop. New York entrepreneurs and the Shakers around Albany also grew great amounts of opium, so it looks like Washington’s comments, while they may not necessarily be related to the medicinal, or “recreational” aspects of hemp, are consistent with the new country’s overall drive to increase its particular worth.

    Incidentally, this was also the time when a marked increase in the production of ardent spirits occurred because of a push by Hamilton to decrease the country’s reliance on European and Caribbean alcohol products by using domestic grains through the increasingly popular distillation process. This caused such problems here in Vermont that prohibition was instituted in 1852 and forced many of the population to then transition over to opium and, unfortunately, much addiction.

    Also of interest is your reference to East India hemp. Throughout this time, extending well into the 19th century, virtually all of America’s opium came from Turkey and East India; the latter being the source of the drug leading up to the Opium Wars.

    1. Gary – your book on Vermont’s first opium epidemic sounds very interesting and highlights the fact that opium and alcohol (and later, cocaine and other drugs) were unregulated as intoxicants in the early days of the Republic. (Henry Knox sold dog bite pills also in his Boston-based “London Book-store”. No telling what was in those). The urging of farmers to grow opium, various grains for distilling, and hemp as cash crops, even though to be used for different purposes, seems strange today. But in an infant economy, self-reliance was very important. Until, like you point out, a serious drug addiction grows out of the efforts.

    2. Gary, you’ve probably read the book Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream, by Thomas Dormandy (Yale Press; 2012.) There’s quite a bit of material in there on the opium trade and opium consumption in the U.S.A., particularly in the 19th century. It sounds as if you’ve accessed primary sources from an even earlier era.

      It’s also noteworthy that opium comprised an important part of the medical pharmacoepia of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as noted in Stephen Ambrose’s book Undaunted Courage. The opium evidently outlasted the supply of distilled alcoholic spirits, which was exhausted before the expedition first crossed the Continental Divide.

      This comment is not intended as an advertisement for opium or opioids! These powerful substances are hazardous and potentially lethal. They need to be respected, reserved for medical purposes, and used responsibly. In point of fact, opium may have played a role in the tragic decline of Meriwether Lewis, who apparently paid a heavy price for his invaluable exploration of the uncharted territory of the American West. But opium has been part of human history for a long time, to both good and ill result.

  • Great article on a question I have had to answer countless times. Given the attitudes toward intoxicating consumables at the time, if Washington had known there was a strain of marijuana that could be marketed for that purpose he might have grown it for sale. He was after all a farmer for profit. However as your article rightly points out, he didn’t. His grain would become whiskey later but that is as close as it gets.
    Thank you for the great documentation and clear progression of reasoned conclusions.

    1. Thank you, Daniel, for your comments. You’re right that Washington was a great entrepreneur and examined many, many items to produce for income. I don’t know if there IS an answer to your question. Was smoking hemp in his lifetime even known to be an intoxicant? Maybe it was vaguely known, but as my endnote 6 states, “There was no mention of smoking hemp or cannabis either in the book, or in any hemp reference source or correspondence of the period in Britain or America. There is a theory however, that (possibly) enslaved persons of the day, without access to liquor or intoxicants, had discovered the novelty of smoking hemp.” But that’s all supposition.

      One can wonder if smoking hemp then, assuming it didn’t make you sick, seemed too base a pastime to cultured colonials when compared to drinking glasses of Madeira? I know alcohol of the time really had a powerful kick to it. Maybe that was all that was needed? Good question!

      1. I think it’s entirely possible that George Washington used cannabis for medicinal purposes. (See my comment below.) But I doubt that he smoked it- if the practice of smoking cannabis was known of in 18th century colonial America, I think some specific reference to it would have survived.

        It’s much more likely that Washington added the flowering tops of female cannabis plants to distilled alcohol, to make an elixir or tincture. A common herbalist and apothecary practice of the day. Cannabis indica seems to have been thought of as just another variety of medicinal herbal substance, in those days.

  • The first line says that, yes, GW did grow hemp, and than the second line says “There’s absolutely zero evidence that he grew it or used it for recreational purposes.” Seems a bit contradictory. Also, “zero evidence” is also a way of saying, you have no idea. You don’t have evidence for or against, so you don’t know. The man was the biggest whiskey produce in the northeast, so we have already established that he got high. The only question is with what. He also cheated extensively on his wife (his dance card was always full) and so it is no stretch to think he may have smoked as well. He drank, he committed adultery, and probably smoked. And most pot (hemp) smokers, don’t leave diaries discussing it. GW was a man. He wasn’t made of marble, he had all the character flaws the rest of the world possessed. “Great man” were men of their times. If GW had lived from 1910-1990, no one would have ever heard of him. That goes for Franklin, Lincoln and many others. They lived during extraordinary times. Ben Franklin would have been labeled a pedophile and a adulterer today. He had sex with several of the neighborhood servants who weren’t even 16 (there is even a drawing made by another servant, of him fondling a 15 yr old girl in the parlor). He cheated on his wife regularly and sired 2 dozen children. These were men who did historic things, but didn’t have any higher morals than the man in the street. Franklin also didn’t attend church, as was his upbringing, and therefore would be viewed as having a low moral character in his day. To me, if GW smoked pot everyday, it wouldn’t have changed my view of the man. He doesn’t have an higher moral ground to stand on anyway.

    1. Thanks Gerry. “Zero evidence” was my way of saying I could find no documented primary source facts supporting the theory that Washington smoked hemp with or without getting sick from it. For other thoughts on the subject, the reply above to Daniel covers other ground on this very popular subject!

  • A couple things that don’t make sense in this. No one has any evidence of the hemp grown by Washington what so ever to claim the THC levels, so when they do, its merely the intentional fabrication of a falsehood.

    Among experienced hemp farmers its known that female hemp fibers have a higher tensile strength per cross-section area than males, and that tensile strength increases by as much as 40% during seed production stages.

    There is only 1 reason to separate males from females; to increase THC content. And when this is done processing the fiber is complicated with the resins that bind and gum up the processing equipment as well as make the fiber a bit gummy, the last thing you want to make rope from. Sure they could have used some of the hootch they made to dissolve away the THC residue, at the expense of weakening fibers even further.

    Its been proven that Jefferson imported high thc/low tensile hemp seeds from China.

    Our forefathers had many secrets. No one knows one way or another if they were potsmokers. But they sure did take the actions that would say they wanted the THC more than the strength of the rope.

    1. Solid points, John.

      This claim made in the article has no basis: “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.”

      There is no requirement for Cannabis plants cultivated for hemp to undergo separation of the male and female plants. Cannabis grown for hemp fiber is sewn thickly, so that the stalks grow upward with a minimum of branching or flowering.–medical-marijuana-cannabis.jpg

      There’s no “controlled breeding” required to produce a seed crop of hemp, either. And unless the plants are grown in pots, there’s no way to “distance” the male plants from the females, for any purpose. Cannabis plants don’t reveal their sex until they’re nearing maturity, with the appearance of the first small flowers at the nodes- for outdoor-grown cannabis plants that haven’t been selectively bred with modern techniques for fast maturity, that usually requires the plants to be around three months old, by which time they’re well-rooted and typically several feet tall. Cannabis hemp can be grown for seed (and oil pressed from the seed) as well as fiber, but when growing hemp for seed, there’s no advantage in delaying pollination. When mature, the flowering tops of hemp grown for seed typically produce than flower bract, by both weight and volume. They hardly resemble “blossoms.” Female cannabis flowers that are unpollinated don’t produce seeds, and do resemble blossoms. They produce an increased concentration of cannabis resin- also known as hashish or charas- which is where the highest level of THC and other cannabinoids are found. Anyone who is making an effort to cull male plants from females is doing it to increase the resin concentration of the flowering tops, and to produce seedless buds. The premium variety of marijuana known as sinsemilla (Spanish for “without seeds.”)
      Photo comparison of seed hemp bud (l) and sinsemilla bud (r)

      Thus, from reading Washington’s diary entries, it sounds as if he was growing part of his cannabis crop for “medicinal purposes.”

      As cannabis is an annual crop, when cultivated outdoors through traditional means, a portion of the sinsemilla crop is usually pollinated so that its seeds will be naturally sewn. This can be easily done simply by selectively exposing some of the female plants to pollen supplied from the dried nascent flowers of the pulled male plants, which are supposed to be culled in the brief window of time when the male flowers begin to develop, but the stamens have not yet opened As pointed out previously, there’s no need whatsoever to separate males from females for “selective breeding”, or any other reason, if the purpose is to produce hemp fiber, seed, or oil.

      1. sentence edited for clarity, from above: “the flowering tops of hemp grown for seed typically produce more seeds than flower bracts, by both weight and volume”

  • Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica are two separate species. There is no such thing as “Cannabis Sativa Indica”.

    You can get “marijuana hemp” as you put it, from either species.

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