Hemp was well known to Colonial Americans, but not for the same reason the plant would make headlines more than two centuries later.
Today’s debate, which centers on the legalization of marijuana is not the first time that cannabis has captured the attention of the nation. For thousands of 18th century Americans, from humble middling farmers to large planters like Byrd, Beverly and Jefferson, the ability of cannabis to intoxicate was incidental. They were instead interested in a trait they considered far more valuable. Hemp fibers are exceptionally strong and durable and in an era before science could do better, that made this commodity worth growing.
Colonial planters gushed of the crops promise. Col. William Byrd called its cultivation “the darling of all my products”. Robert Beverly predicted the plant “will be the greatest consequence of us”. Thomas Jefferson directed that an acre of the best ground at his Poplar Forest Estate be kept for a permanent patch. The object of their affection was not tobacco, the ubiquitous “Indian weed” responsible for the fortunes & failings of so many 18th Century Americans. The weed was of a different sort, one that would likewise collect healthy stares and scorn.
Hemp was one of the first plants human cultivated. Ancient Chinese Pottery bearing impressions from hemp rope suggest it’s use 5,000 years ago and probably more than twice that long. Credit for this long term relationship belongs to hemp’s many applications, ie. thread, cordage, cloth, paper, food and yes intoxication.
When humans took to the seas, every sizable vessel required line and sailcloth capable of withstanding all that open water could muster. Hemp provided the best fit. Historian Martin Booth estimated the English Fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 had used line and sailcloth made of hemp that had been grown and cultivated on some 10,000 acres of land. The emerging prominence of the English Navy was the chief reason English farmers and later their American cousins were required to devote a share of their acreage to hemp. The Virginia Assembly in 1632 ordered that every planter as soon as he may provide seed of flax and hemp and sow the same.
Many 18th Century Americans enjoyed recreational intoxication now and again, but they consumed alcohol for that, not THC from the cannabis plant. Neither was hemp used all that much for medicine. The seeds that contained no amounts of THC were boiled in milk to treat coughs but if ailing colonists needed a potent pain killer, they chose opium, which was available without much effort.
Even if early Americans were aware of hemp’s psychoactive and medicinal qualities, those features were hardly a priority. Clothes, ropes and sacks were of a more immediate concern. In the pre-industrialized world, it was good to have hemp around for these everyday needed items, but cash crops, particularly tobacco, remained the mainstay of the economy.