There’s no Independence Day Without Hemp

We all know the song. You hear it at every ball game, the tale of how “our flag was still there” despite all “the bombs bursting in air”. Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner was an instant classic, but that “star-spangled banner” that Mr. Key can still “oh say can you see”, would never have been made without hemp. Sure, that particular flag was wool, but the original flag to which it bears likeness is made of hemp!

The history of America’s development is essentially the history of hemp farming in America. From indigenous traditions before European settlers arrived, through building the foundation of America, to its recent resurgence in popularity as the walls crumble around the war on drugs, the fabric of life in the Americas is woven with hemp. Since we’re all settling back into the real world after our 4th of July celebrations, we wanted to take some time to reflect on how our favorite plant made the American project possible.

The oldest ship of any type still afloat the 44-gun USS Constitution, affectionately called “Old Ironsides,” in Boston Harbor, used more than 120,000 pounds of hemp fiber, that’s nearly 55 tons, for the lines and rigging. The canvas sails and caulking for the wooden hull required even more!

Indigenous/Native Americans and hemp

Hemp has been a part of America’s history since long before the arrival of European settlers and America herself. Lauded for its strength and durability, Native Americans used hemp to make thread, cordage, clothing, paper, and food. It played a vital role for both the Native Americans and the colonists of the New World, who arrived and took their lands from the indigenous people.

The Six Nations of the Iroquois confederacy covered New York, north into Canada, south into northwestern Pennsylvania and was made up of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples. The Six Nations used hemp for food, fuel and fiber and the Tuscarora, whose name translates to “the ‘people of the hemp,’ ‘hemp gatherers,’ last to join the Six Nations, were renowned for wearing long shirts of woven of hemp.

Hemp and first therapeutic uses

Famous early American Settler, Minnie Susan Decker, in her (now not-so-politically correctly named) book Indian Doctor, describes hemp as,

good for things other than merely making rope. Soaked and softened, the seeds are very good against wind in the stomach; they open the blockage of the gall, they are good against the flow, and they are very good for killing worms in men and beats. The juice, when dripped into the ear, kills the worms in there and dispels the earwigs. A decoction of the root is good inflammation in the head or other areas, gout, joint, or hip pain, and muscular atrophy.

Compelled To Grow Hemp by Law

Colonial America, like the original inhabitants of the land they settled, grew to love hemp.   The Puritans brought seeds for planting hemp to use as fiber in the lines, sails and caulking of the Mayflower. British sailing vessels were never without a store of hemp seed, and Britain’s colonies were compelled by law to grow hemp.  Each warship and merchant vessel required miles of hempen line and tons of hempen canvas, which meant the Crown’s hunger for the commodity was great. Ship captains were ordered to disseminate hemp seed widely to provide fiber wherever repairs might be needed in distant lands. From America’s 1st Colony, Jamestown up to Plymouth Rock, hemp cultivation was mandatory

Hemp in Colonial America

Well over a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, America’s first law surrounding cannabis was enacted in 1619 by the Virginia Assembly in Jamestown—America’s first colony. The law     mandated “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” Failure to do so could result in a fine or even (ironically, given the legal status of hemp cultivation since then) a jail sentence! Shortly thereafter, similar hemp mandates were passed in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Local jurisdictions encouraged farmers to grow hemp in the 17th century for export to England, where it was used for clothing, shoes, maps, books, ship’s rigging, parachute webbing, baggage, sails, and tents. For over 200 years, hemp was even considered a legal tender that could be used to pay taxes. If citizens did not have paper money, hemp could be used to pay off a debt in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland.

The Key to American Economic Independence was Hemp

America’s founding fathers recognized that a thriving hemp industry was necessary for building an economically independent nation. In fact, as recently as 1900, hemp appeared on the ten-dollar bill.

 Hemp proved to be indispensable as the relationship between the American Colonies and their colonial rulers in England grew tense. With calls for independence from the British Crown, American revolutionaries required their own military. This new American military made liberal use of hemp in its supplies. The navy in particular, with its unending need for sails and cordage, would have been (literally) dead in the water without hemp. Hemp was the fiber of choice for maritime uses because of its natural      resistance to decay and its adaptability to cultivation in nearly any climate. Hemp was the key to gaining economic independence from Britain. Hemp’s versatility, the fact that it can be used for everything from textiles to food, served as the foundation from which America grew.

American Constitution and hemp

Contrary to cannabis culture rumors, the signed Declaration of Independence was not printed on hemp paper but rather, as was common for important documents in the era, animal skin parchment. Nonetheless, the rumor bears some resemblance to the truth: the first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper. The first draft was written on Dutch hemp paper on June 28, 1776. The second draft was written on hemp paper on July 2, 1776.

The Founding Fathers and Hemp

George Washington grew hemp and encouraged all citizens to sow hemp widely.

George Washington saw hemp as a huge financial asset, allowing for much greater profit margins than tobacco and other crops. “Make the most you can of hemp,” urged Washington in letters to fellow government officials, before carefully laying out his cultivation methods. Washington’s diaries indicate that hemp was cultivated at each of his five farms.

John Adams, the 2nd president of the United States, believed that hemp was vital to the creation of resources, tools, and the health of the people of the newly founded nation.

Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the United States and co-author of the Declaration of Independence, was the first person to acquire a U.S. patent; it was for a hemp threshing machine! Jefferson was well-known for his ability diversify the phenotype of the hemp plant through artificial selection. He wrote, “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.” So passionate was he about hemp’s importance to the success of the United States that he even risked Chinese imprisonment by illegally smuggling seeds from China to the colonies.

Jefferson was amazed with hemp’s efficiency. He once claimed of hemp that it is “abundantly productive and will grow forever on the same spot,” unlike other crops that deplete the soil.

Benjamin Franklin, inventor, politician, diplomat, and co-author of the Declaration of Independence founded the first commercial cannabis operation in America. He started one of America’s first paper mills with hemp, and this paper was used to create literature that would soon incite colonists to rebel against the British forces. Franklin used his printing presses to do some of the earliest translations of the Iroquois language, most importantly what is considered their constitution, the Great Law of Peace. It was not a written document, but an oral tradition, that the Six Nations, often characterized as one of the world’s oldest participatory democracies, used to govern. Some sources maintain that the U.S. Constitution was modeled after the Great Law.

James Madison, 4th president of the United States and author of the Constitution, was also a hemp farmer. Correspondence has been recovered from 1784, in which Madison and Jefferson discuss current hemp prices.

The American Flag and Hemp

The first American flags were made from hemp cloth. In fact, on July 4, 2013, 237 years and 2 days after the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper, an American flag made from hemp was flown over the Capitol for the first time in more than 80 years.

Hemp’s Western expansion

Hemp crops quickly spread as hemp fiber canvas covered Conestoga wagons,  protecting the westward-bound pioneers that began settling Kentucky just before the Revolutionary War began. Indeed, sturdy hemp cloth made carrying out the new American ideal of Manifest Destiny possible. These settlers literally and figuratively planted the seeds that would grow into one of the most long-standing and important industries in America: hemp.

Hemp and America Today

With a wave of cannabis reform that includes the legalization of industrial hemp in 2018, as well as the decriminalization of medical and recreational cannabis, activists have helped change the paradigm and reintroduced our nation to the seemingly limitless potential of this plant. With climate change, oceans filled with plastic, water polluted by agricultural runoff, and population growth exploding, America, nay, the world is at critical juncture as we struggle to fairly allocate finite resources.  It will require an extraordinary effort but as with the birth of our Nation, hemp may very well be the catalyst for a new revolution.

Hemp, because of its adaptability to nearly any climate and soil condition, comparatively light watering requirements, and resistance to pesticides, is the answer to many of the toughest challenges facing the world today. As water tables dwindle, and growing climates prove less predictable every year, American agribusiness continues to bet all its chips on thirsty, fickle, soil-degrading crops like cotton and corn. The odds on that bet get worse every year.

Hemp can produce more nutrient dense food than corn, and its fiber yield is double that of cotton. Unlike cotton and corn, hemp makes a great cover crop because it doesn’t deplete soil and out-competes most crop-choking weeds. Even better, nearly the entire hemp plant is usable, unlike corn or cotton which require massive amounts of energy to separate the usable parts from the unusable parts.

We here at active milligrams continue the push the envelope with hemp products that are a testament to the yet-fully-realized therapeutic and practical value hemp offers for all animals (humans especially!).

While we’re still a long way from saving the world with hemp, we’re certainly ready to improve your world with hemp products. And the next time you’re rubbing the troubles away with active milligrams, consider that you, as so many people have done on this land for centuries before you, are using hemp to improve your life. How isn’t that the American Dream?

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