The substance of The Declaration of Independence can get you into trouble if Kai Degner, a Democratic congressional candidate, has it right.
"The Declaration of Independence was written on paper made out of hemp," he said during an Oct. 17 debate with Republican Bob Goodlatte, the longtime incumbent in Virginia’s 6th congressional district.
Holy smokes! We wondered if Degner was right.
Hemp comes cannabis plants like marijuana, but it doesn’t contain the same level of tetrahydrocannabinol - THC, for short - that gets people high. Degner said keeping cannabis on a federal list of prohibited drugs is stifling an opportunity for farmers wanting to grow hemp that can be used to make clothes, rope, twine and other stuff.
Thirty-one states, including Virginia, have passed laws to allow hemp cultivation for commercial or research purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But federal regulations limit who can cultivate it. In Virginia, farmers may only grow it to sell to universities for research examining issues like how it fares in the state’s climate and hemp’s economic viability, said Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
This brings us back to The Declaration of Independence, one of Virginia’s most acclaimed products. Rampant rumors that the actual document - the one on display at the National Archives - was written on hemp paper are untrue. Officials at Monticello - the home of Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration - say the document was penned on parchment, which is made from animal skin.
Degner told us he misspoke; what he’d heard was that the founding document was drafted on hemp paper. He sent us a couple of sources from pro-hemp organizations making that qualified claim.
Degner referred us to Chase Milner, the Shenandoah Valley regional director of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition. Milner sent us a copy of a 2010 book by Jack Herer, whom he said was "kind of the godfather of the hemp reform movement." Herer, now deceased, wrote this passage in his book:
"The first draft of the Declaration of Independence (June 28, 1776) was written on Dutch (hemp) paper, as was the second draft completed on July 2, 1776. This was the document actually agreed to on that day and announced and released on July 4, 1776. On July 19, 1776, Congress ordered the Declaration be copied and engrossed on parchment (a prepared animal skin) and this was the document actually signed by the delegates on August 2, 1776."
There are no footnotes in Herer’s book or any other indication about where the information for that passage came from.
But there’s reason to be skeptical of the qualified claim the Declaration was drafted on hemp. Monticello says that analysis of Jefferson’s original draft, kept at the Library of Congress, was most likely written on Dutch paper.
"While hemp was commonly used to make paper in Southern Europe during this time, the Dutch were much more likely to use flax or linen rags," Monticello says.
For more insight, we reached out to The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, a Princeton University initiative that has been been compiling and publishing volumes of Jefferson’s writings for decades.
"We concur with the information on the Monticello website, that the paper for the drafts of the Declaration would have most likely derived from linen rags, with the primary component being flax, not hemp," W. Bland Whitley, the associate editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, wrote us in an email.
Whitley added that Julian Boyd, the founding editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, found that watermarks on the paper used for various drafts indicated they came from Holland.
Whitley also pointed us to a 2012 University of Iowa article about early European papermaking technology. Whitley said the takeaway from the article is that centuries ago, coarse rags and roping made from hemp mostly would have been used to make wrapping paper, rather than writing paper.
The article notes early European paper-making methods from the 14th to 19th centuries included mixing hemp and flax together to make paper. So Whitley added he couldn’t completely dismiss the possibility that some hemp was used to make the paper bearing the draft Declaration.
"In short, we can’t totally rule out that some small amount of hemp went into the manufacture of the rags that produced the paper Jefferson used for the Declaration but would argue against a definitive statement that it was hemp paper," Whitley wrote.
A final note. During the debate, Goodlatte says he opposes legalizing marijuana because he feels it’s a dangerous drug. But he says he’s intrigued by hemp’s value as economic commodity and has supported hemp research.
Degner said, "The Declaration of Independence was written on paper made out of hemp."
He’s wrong; the actual, signed version of the Declaration was written on parchment made of animal skin.
Degner told us he meant to say that the early drafts of the Declaration were on hemp paper. But even on this, experts are highly skeptical.
We rate Degner’s statement False.