On the day I arrived in Interior Alaska in 1990, in my first purchase at an Alaska business, I was handed several dollars in change. Included was a $1 bill upon which someone had drawn a word balloon from George Washington’s mouth and written the words, “I grew hemp.”
The fact that this dollar bill was handed to me in a town called Tok didn’t escape my notice. I took it as a providential sign from what was then the only state in America where marijuana was decriminalized and tucked it away for safe keeping.
Nearly 30 years later, as the nation celebrates its 243rd birthday, it’s time once again to ask that perennial question: Did America’s Founding Fathers indulge in some marijuana use? It’s a popular theory among some cannabis consumers that the authors of our country’s core documents came up with their ideas about freedom while sitting in a haze of smoke, philosophizing about the meaning of life, and that today’s consumers are carrying on a proud patriotic tradition, knowledge of which has been squelched by subsequent generations of historians beholden to anti-drug hysteria. It’s a nice story, but it is extraordinarily unlikely when one considers the evidence.
The theory springs from at least one well-documented truth. Several of America’s Founders were hemp farmers, including, yes, the Father of our Country, George Washington, as well as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, the chief architect of our Constitution, James Madison, and early America’s most popular philosopher, Benjamin Franklin.
The more important question is, did they smoke their crop? On this point there’s precious little evidence. To begin with, they were raising hemp for industrial purposes. The plant’s versatility was already well known during the colonial period and it was used to manufacture cloth, rope, paper, and other necessities. It did not, however, have a particularly high THC level, and the amount of it anyone would have needed to consume to get high would have likely resulted in smoke inhalation problems long before any other effect kicked in.
Among believers in the theory that the Founders were potheads, two quotes from Thomas Jefferson are widely circulated. The first has never been proved as factual, while the other is taken out of context.
The false quote claims our third president wrote that “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.” It sounds more like something a hippie would have said around 1976 than the words of a revolutionary circa 1776. According to records from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, keeper of many of Jefferson’s papers and a primary storehouse on his legacy, there is no written source for this one.
Jefferson did write that “hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country,” a statement that surfaces frequently in social media posts as evidence that he smoked weed, but the full quote is couched in broader language that makes it clear it is about the economic and military importance of industrial hemp.
Similar quotes from other Founders have been teased out of lengthier passages, but consistently when placed in context they refer to the industrial product, not getting high. There is simply no smoking gun (or smoking joint, as the case may be) showing that the Founders were potheads.
Other myths about the plant’s role in early America persist. It’s widely believed that the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, but in fact, according to the Constitution Center, it was scribed on parchment.
Meanwhile, another claim widely shared is that James Monroe, while ambassador to France, openly smoked hashish. It would certainly have been available to him, and it wasn’t particularly frowned on at the time, but the claim itself seems to replicate through various marijuana-friendly websites like High Times without any root source. Call that one unproven.
Perhaps rather than ask if the Founders smoked hemp, a better question is, “Would they have opposed marijuana consumption if they knew it as a possibility at the time?” On this we can only speculate, but the likely answer is no.
Intoxication in early America was far more widespread than it is today. Put simply, while we have no written evidence that the Founders consumed cannabis, we do know they guzzled alcohol from morning to night.
Part of this was out of necessity. It was often safer at the time to down a fifth of whiskey than to drink a cup of water. Cholera was widespread, as were plenty of less deadly but still dangerous waterborne bacteria (although bacteria and viruses were scientifically unknown at the time). One could quite literally be taking their life in their hands by sipping from the well.
Distilled and brewed beverages, meanwhile, were free of such contaminants (again, the reasons for this were a mystery at the time, but not the effects). Thus to stay hydrated, ciders, beers, wines, and spirits were the beverages of choice. And taverns were where men gathered at night.
The amount of drinking that went on during the Constitutional Convention would be scandalous by today’s standards. But at the time it was perfectly normal. And many Founders brewed and distilled their own. Washington’s guests were famously supplied with ample whiskey of his own making. Being wasted, or at least comfortably numb, was a familiar state of mind.
Meanwhile, tobacco was one of America’s leading cash crops at the time, and many of the Founders grew it. So smoking was another act they saw little harm in.
Additionally, most of the nation’s early leaders were somewhat skeptical on religious matters. They weren’t atheists, as some on the left would have it. But neither, with a couple of exceptions, were they devoutly observant Christians as many on the right falsely believe. They were men of the Enlightenment, and experimentation and openness to new ideas ran stronger in them than conservative social constraints (put bluntly, there wouldn’t have been a revolution if they had been careful followers of rules).
So while it can never be more than a guess, it seems safe to presume that a pack of hemp-growing, whiskey-swilling, tobacco-smoking, rule-breaking political radicals would have been aghast at the thought of outlawing cannabis consumption.
And if the opportunity had arisen, at least some probably would have given it a go. But considering how prolifically they put pen to paper, they also would have written about it. They didn’t. So while it’s fun to claim that marijuana was influential on America’s founding, it seems highly unlikely.
But just in case I’m wrong, I still have that dollar bill.
David James is a freelance writer in Fairbanks. Comments about this story? Email editor@AlaskaCannabist.com.