Historical Hemp
December 15, 2005 5:11 PM   Subscribe

Is it true that the original US Constitution is written on hemp paper? Cite?

Bonus, Were American flags made of hemp material at any point?

Just trying to weed out stoner myths vs. reality. Wow, horrible pun.
posted by furiousxgeorge to Law & Government (15 answers total)
Hemp American Flag
posted by sanko at 5:17 PM on December 15, 2005

Interesting... google turns up lots of references that the U.S.S. Constitution had hemp sails and rigging. Not nearly so much about the US Constitution's paper.
posted by I Love Tacos at 5:17 PM on December 15, 2005

Well, hemp sails and rigging were quite common, so that is no surprise. Not so sure about hemp paper, forgetting the constitution itself , was hemp paper actually in use at the time?
posted by furiousxgeorge at 5:21 PM on December 15, 2005

Hemp Facts (first result for hemp paper america, fyi)

"Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper."

No idea if it's true, but the internet seems to think so.
posted by misterbrandt at 5:26 PM on December 15, 2005

Oh yeah, and google returns 35,300 (!!) results for hemp paper "declaration of independence" which seems to suggest that it is probably not just the hemp-lovers saying this.
posted by misterbrandt at 5:28 PM on December 15, 2005

As I recall, only a draft or two was written on hemp. The final product was written on something a little more substantial.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 5:35 PM on December 15, 2005

the national archives website says that the constitution, declaration of independence were both written on parchment.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:36 PM on December 15, 2005

"Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper."

Note that there is a big difference between "Jefferson's drafts of the Declaration were written on hemp paper" and "the Declaration was written on hemp paper." The official Declaration of Independence that you can see at the rotunda at the National Archives is not written on any kind of paper: "The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were handwritten by a clerk or scribe on parchment, an animal skin specially treated with lime and stretched to create a strong, long-lasting writing support." [cite]
posted by IshmaelGraves at 5:39 PM on December 15, 2005

Although outside the scope of your question, there was actually a law in the colony of Virginia requiring residents to grow hemp for use in sails and rigging. Jefferson probably grew it himself, though it's not clear if he ever smoked it.

Check out Refer Madness for essays on interesting historical and current facts about the production of the ancient weed.
posted by istewart at 6:07 PM on December 15, 2005

Lazy googling today. Sorry, all.

As an aside, Ishmaeil, there is also a difference between "Jefferson's drafts of the Declaration..." and "Jefferson drafted the declaration...". (Meaning that I wouldn't have pasted the link that I did--even in lazy mode--had it been phrased as you re-phrased it)
posted by misterbrandt at 6:35 PM on December 15, 2005

It's not strange that hemp was used in sails and rigging. The word "canvas," in fact, comes from the same root as "cannabis." Hemp fiber was the universal standard until DuPont introduced its synthetics in the 1930s. Hemp is still the preferred fiber for rigging traditional watercraft. Hemp is remarkably stable -- it doesn't shrink much when wetted, making it ideal for use as standing rigging (that which stays fixed in place). However, it has a propensity to rot easily, so it must be sealed, usually with pine tar.

Today, cheaper manila fiber is often used for running rigging (lines that are meant to move, such as sail-handling lines). Manila stretches and shrinks a lot, but that's OK since running rigging is constantly adjusted.

Because hemp has been the preferred rigging fiber throughout most of history, it's not at all shocking that there was tremendous trade in raw hemp fiber in this country up until the 20th century. Ropewalks, or ropemaking factories, were a staple of the economy in most East coast ports. The fibers came from inland, but hemp grows easily throughout the U.S.

You'll often hear people assert that sailors used to smoke rope to get high. They didn't -- or if they did, they didn't get high, since the cultivars that produce the best fibers produce very little THC, the intoxicant in hemp.

It is probably not coincidental that DuPont's introduction of 'superior' synthetics coincided with efforts to associate hemp with lowlifes, jazz, black people, and pot-smoking. There are many investment connections between the media companies of the time and the private producers that sought to build lumber and plastics fortunes.

I'm not a pothead, I'm a maritime history person. The information here was gleaned from a number of resources that I can't find online, largely because goodgling "hemp + anything" results in a lot of axe-grinding, "legalize-it" type sites. This site does a fairly responsible job of describing the factors that led to its criminalization. I just wanted to chime in with the historical note that hemp was common as dirt until the 20th century. It was everywhere.
posted by Miko at 6:46 PM on December 15, 2005

The final draft MS of the Declaration of Independence isn't extant, because it was cut up and used to typeset the Dunlap broadsides, which were circulated before the engrossed copy was made. They used fine laid paper of Dutch origin, imported from England, which would imply linen and cotton rag as their base, rather than hemp. There's a contentious newsgroup thread on the subject which provides lots of handy links on the topic.
posted by holgate at 8:06 PM on December 15, 2005

it was cut up and used to typeset the Dunlap broadsides

Wow. It's amazing how little regard they had for the historical significance of the documents.
posted by languagehat at 8:48 AM on December 16, 2005

this particular current of advocacy has always baffled me. Just because a plant is good for creating strong textiles, how does that translate into, therefore it's good to smoke? I mean, I'm pro-legalization, but this argument has always seemed particularly weak to me.

interesting page on various fibers used in papers & cloths.
posted by mdn at 12:49 PM on December 16, 2005

this argument has always seemed particularly weak to me.

Yeah, me too. I just find it interesting to look at why it was ever criminalized in the first place, historically. it had more to do with comepetitive industries trying to gain economic advantage than with intoxication.
posted by Miko at 2:23 PM on December 16, 2005

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