Was George Washington really a drug addict?

A multitude of myths and legends surround first US president George Washington. Some of these turn out to be true – but surely the first American president wasn’t a drug addict? Simone Flynn assesses how George Washington used drugs and drank alcohol to determine the myth and the reality…

My name is George Washington and I’m a laudanum addict – maybe.

In a spoken word section of The Fugs song “Wide, Wide River” (from the 1968 album “It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest), the singer/speaker bemoans, a “supposedly democratic system, where you end up always voting for the lesser of two evils? I mean, was George Washington the lesser of two evils? Sometimes I wonder…”

By modern standards we’ve long known that Washington, the father of the US, was not perfect. For one thing, he was a slave owner. He may have been an adulterer. And, according to some sources, he may have been a drug addict or an alcoholic. The tricky aspect of assessing these claims are that, like much of his life, it’s sometimes hard to separate the reality from the myth – although the well-known cherry tree myth seems unequivocally to be the latter!

The evidence pointing to Washington as being a possible addict is:

  1. Washington grew hemp, which like marijuana contains THC (but much less)
  2. After his two terms as president, he opened a whiskey distillery at his plantation home at Mount Vernon
  3. Washington seemed fond of Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine, and complained that he thought his servants were drinking it up
  4. Washington was known to consume laudanum, an addictive substance

Scant evidence?

While Washington was upset about how much Madeira his servants might be drinking, it was the outrage of a rich person upset over being taken advantage of by the help, not an alcoholic worried about his stash. The distillery, too, wasn’t for personal consumption (at least not primarily) but as a moneymaking enterprise.

And while he drank a lot, at alcoholic levels to modern sensibilities, so did the other Founding Fathers. At the last meeting of the Continental Congress, enough alcohol was consumed for each delegate to have more than two bottles apiece to themselves. And alcohol such as hard cider was served with most meals, including breakfast, in part because water often wasn’t safe.

The hemp use isn’t particularly damning either, as hemp then was used mainly for rope, paper and other commercial purposes, not recreational drug use, and there’s no documented and little circumstantial evidence that Washington smoked its flowers.

Washington’s laudanum consumption is another matter. Laudanum, a mixture of opium tincture and alcohol, was a widely used medicine at the time, an analgesic and nostrum used for many maladies and ailments. It was cheaper than simple booze because it was considered medicine, so not subject to alcohol taxes. Although it retains some legitimate uses, such as for diarrhea, laudanum is highly addictive, especially if used more often or in greater doses than prescribed. Back then, it might have been as casually abused as other opiates and opioids today. Until 1868, laudanum was pretty much unregulated, and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that its risks were well known.

Washington needed laudanum because of his famously ‘wooden’ teeth, which were actually made of real teeth, both human and animal, and carved ivory (probably from hippopotamus tusks). They were so ill fitting that they caused him constant pain. The belief that they were wooden may be because they would become stained and cracked, thus resembling wood grain. Washington had only one remaining tooth to anchor his dentures.

Many other notable people have been known for or suspected of laudanum addiction over the centuries including poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and authors Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

If Washington was addicted to laudanum, it wasn’t for the purpose of getting high, or even coping with the stress of being the Revolutionary War hero and first President of the United States (talk about pressure). Washington took laudanum for intense pain. He was at worse a high-functioning addict who accomplished a lot and lived to age 67 after suffering from smallpox, tuberculosis and other life-shortening disabilities before the invention of penicillin. That’s quite an achievement.

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