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
George Washington in 1772, just before the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. Photo by Washington and Lee University
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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 Burke” from the equally non-existent American Historical Reference Society, the story spun convincing descriptions for each president’s encounter with the drug.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