American Hemp: The Original “America First” Campaign Revolved Around Hemp

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The American Revolution took place during what can be described as the “Golden Heyday of Hemp.” Those were the days when America was bursting at the seams with abundant stands of rank hemp growing 10 to 16 feet tall in the fresh fertile soil of every farm in the 13 colonies.

It is ironic because the Revolution helped achieve a longtime goal of the British. For more than 100 years prior to the Revolution, England had tried with varying degrees of success to induce American colonists to grow hemp.

England needed a tremendous amount of hemp for their Navy and merchant vessels. They had the largest maritime fleet in the world and each ship needed 60–100 tons of hemp. England’s goal was to obtain their hemp from American colonists.

Americans grew hemp in every early settlement but so much hemp was needed for home consumption that very little was actually exported. In fact, even though a lot of hemp was grown in the colonies, many tons of hemp were being imported from Russia to meet the home demand.

England, too, was dependent on Russian hemp. Although hemp was grown worldwide, Russia grew hemp on a vast scale using serf labor. This allowed them to grow hemp, ship it all the way to the ports of America, and sell their product more cheaply than inland farmers 100 miles away.

The population of America was growing by leaps and bounds. Every decade there were tens of thousands more people. Farmers struggled to keep up with demand, and yet still we had to import hemp from Russia.

In 1765 England made a deal with the colonists that was intended to last for the next 20 years. They offered a tremendous bounty on hemp, promising to pay the colonists handsomely for any hemp they could grow that was fit to be used in merchant and naval vessels.

A deliberate campaign began to spread and increase the knowledge and culture of hemp in America. Benjamin Franklin asked James Wright of Columbia, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to write a treatise on hemp farming. The treatise appeared in Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1765 under the title The Method of Raising Hemp in Pennsylvania. His excellent report on the cultivation of hemp was just one of many that appeared during the same time period—encouraging farmers to grow hemp throughout the colonies.

The culture of hemp was indeed spreading everywhere, but not to the benefit of England. America’s relationship with Great Britain was beginning to become bitter. The Stamp Tax first, and then the Quarters Act alienated the Americans. As the tension between the two countries increased, so did the realization that America could stand on her own, without the manufactured goods and trade of England, the supposed protection from the mother country, and the humiliating oppression suffered at the hands of England—including taxation without representation and a whole list of other evils that threatened our natural rights and liberties.

Although England had hoped to be enriched by American hemp, the Americans decided to use this opportunity to increase hemp production for their own benefit. Everywhere the making of homespun clothing was considered a patriotic duty of great importance. British manufacturers were disdained, while homespun hemp clothing was worn with great pride.

America’s goal during the pre-Revolutionary time period of 1765–1775 and the Revolution of 1775–1783 was complete self-sufficiency. Hemp was a key component in this drive for home manufacturers. During this 18-year period of time, hemp was grown on every farm. Anyone who did not grow hemp, flax, or wool was considered not to be a patriot.

Even though a tremendous amount of hemp was grown during the pre-war years and during the Revolution, a good deal of hemp was still imported from Russia. In the years after the war, American farmers realized the threat that Russian hemp posed to the home hemp industry. They were not willing to relinquish this profitable crop so easily.

One of the biggest hemp-producing regions of the new nation was Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the land of Hempfield. Hemp had been one of the chief cash crops of Lancaster County since 1720, when John Gardner erected the first hemp mill there by the banks of the Susquehanna River. Over the next 60 years, the fame of the Lancaster County hemp industry spread far and wide.

In 1789, when the first Federal Congress met, representatives from Lancaster County and other hemp-growing regions argued for a tariff on Russian hemp to protect the home hemp industry. They were persuasive in their arguments and on July 4, 1789, the hemp tariff was passed and signed into law by President George Washington.

Over the next 25 years, the hemp industry exploded in Lancaster County and other regions. To some extent, the tariffs seemed to be working, but hemp still had to be imported from Russia and other countries—not because so little was grown in America but because of the enormous demand for hemp at home.

Tariffs were not popular with everybody, though. A ropemaker in Philadelphia or Boston could get all the hemp he wanted from Russia at a lower price than from the inland farmers of Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. In fact, so much hemp was needed that farmers couldn’t grow enough of it to meet the demand and it still had to be imported from Russia. 

The War of 1812 between America and England is complicated, but part of the reason we fought was for the right to import hemp from Russia. Sometime after the War of 1812, tariffs on Russian hemp were drastically lowered and American farmers again felt jeopardized.

The market for American hemp ultimately started to decline. Besides tariffs, hemp had other troubles. The cotton gin was invented in 1793 and suddenly the mass production of cotton fiber became feasible. Over the next 30 years, cotton became increasingly more popular than hemp. By the 1820s, the first cotton manufacturing plants began to be erected in the northern states and the age of homespun hemp started its decline. By 1840 the great age of homespun would be dead.