J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 05, 2012

Washington, Jefferson, and Gingrich on Hemp: One of These Things Doesn’t Belong

Here’s a specialized dispatch from the campaign trail off Buzzfeed yesterday:
[Newt] Gingrich fielded a number of questions about drug policy, including one from a man who said that many in the Live Free or Die state don't like the federal government's involvement in stopping weed growing operations. "Would Thomas Jefferson or George Washington be arrested for growing marijuana?" the man asked.

Gingrich responded, "I think Jefferson and George Washington would strongly discourage you from growing marijuana, and their tactics to stop you would be more violent than they would be today."

Gingrich, a historian, did not mention that both Washington and Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations.
And would therefore be subject to arrest today because of U.S. anti-marijuana laws—which was the questioner’s point.

One comment on this story noted that Gingrich is now on record as saying that the first and third Presidents “would be more violent” against illicit farmers than today’s. That won’t endear him to the folks who want to believe the Obama administration is oppressive in order to explain why he makes them nervous. All in all, this remark looks like yet another example of how Gingrich’s hunger to claim intellectual authority trumps the value of thinking through what he’s about to say.

Hemp was a vital crop in the eighteenth-century British Empire mostly because its fibers were used in making the ropes that the Royal Navy and merchant fleet needed. Britain imported a lot of raw hemp from Russia, so the imperial and colonial governments encouraged planters to grow it domestically. Washington and Jefferson were among the many planters who responded and encouraged others to do the same.

Hemp was also a local government concern. John Gray served as Boston’s Surveyor of Hemp—a quality inspector—for many years before the Revolution. He was the owner of a large ropewalk in the South End as well as brother of the province’s royal treasurer.

When the Boston Whigs started their non-importation boycott of British goods to protest the Townshend duties in 1769, they specified that people could import as much hemp as they wanted because it was important for local ship-builders and mariners. The ship caught up in the second Boston Tea Party of March 1774 had brought in hemp as well as East India Company tea; locals welcomed the former, tossed out the latter.

But I heartily doubt that the New Hampshire man who asked Gingrich about marijuana had the domestic manufacture of rope in mind. And some of the folks who commented on that item at Buzzfeed repeated myths about Washington’s hemp-farming.

TOMORROW: Washington and his hemp crop.


John L. Smith said...

J.L. - I'm glad you're commenting on the facts of this subject. Along with Washington's "wooden teeth", its the second-most question I get about GW, as if he smoked it. Come on, people!

J. L. Bell said...

Such a sense of priorities!

Waldo4me said...

I'd think Newt would be more concerned about their thoughts on adultery. Of course, Jefferson may have been able to supply expert testimony.

Maybe that's what Clinton was getting at when he told us he had smoked marijuana, but never inhaled!

Politics certainly provides lots of entertainment and occasionally some government.