How many times have you been reminded that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper? Interestingly, colonial America’s history with hemp is far deeper than that little anecdote.
So important was the hemp plant – and all the products that could be derived from it – that in 1533, King Henry VII issued an edict demanding that all English farmers grow hemp or they would face a stiff fine. Queen Elizabeth doubled down on this command 30 years later, and similar measures were enacted in the North American colonies.
England’s authoritarian dictates probably weren’t necessary, though, as hemp was one of the first crops planted by the Puritan settlers, and many pioneers secured their transit to “the new world” by contracting themselves to grow hemp upon their arrival. Even wilder, hemp was so valuable that it even served as a substitute for legal tender in colonial America of the 17th & 18th centuries.
Many of the “great men” of that era were infatuated with the crop. Robert “King” Carter, an ancestor to President Jimmy Carter, was one of the biggest hemp producers in America & provided the hemp fiber necessary to weave the uniforms of George Washington’s revolutionary army. Edmund Quincy, a cousin to John Adams, wrote a how-to pamphlet on how to effectively cultivate the plant. George Washington himself, in his diary from 1765, wrote about how he, “began to separate the Male from the Female hemp.”
Prior to the much-celebrated Boston Tea Party, hemp had already become a source of tension between England and the colonies. Hemp was one of the first crop that the colonists started refusing to send back to Britain. Hemp entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin, who owned a mill that converted hemp pulp into paper, while serving in a diplomatic function, told the British that America needed all of their hemp and had no extra that they’d be willing to sell to the Crown.
In Thomas Paine‘s famous “Common Sense” pamphlet, he emphasized that “hemp flourishes” in America and made it possible for the Americans to have a homegrown source of paper, clothing, rope, linen, oil, and other essentials. This, he argued, was why colonists should be convinced that they could be successful in seceding from England.
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