By Leigh Morris
Our Place in History
It is no exaggeration to say that to a great extent America was built on a foundation of tobacco. Native to the Americas and a relative of the potato, it is estimated that people in the Andes began cultivating tobacco as a crop 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. Most likely, people first used tobacco by chewing green leaves. In time, they learned to cure the leaves to prepare a product akin to today’s smokeless tobacco. At some point, cured tobacco was ground into a powder and taken into the nose through a special pipe. This was known as a snuffing.
As the cultivation of tobacco spread into Central and North America, people developed new uses for the plant. Cured leaves were smoked in pipes and rolled to form cigars. Many Indian nations throughout the Americas used tobacco in a variety of religious ceremonies. It was used to dress wounds and relieve pain as well as a medium in barter between the various nations.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus chanced upon the New World and natives smoking cylindrical bundles of tobacco leaves wrapped inside corn husks or palm leaves. Members of his crew became the first Europeans to smoke tobacco. Soon it was the rage of Spain and from there spread across the continent.
The introduction of tobacco to Europe was not universally lauded. In 1604, England’s King James I wrote “A Counterblaste to Tobacco,” in which he denounced tobacco use as a “custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”
Englishman John Rolfe generally is credited as being the first person to raise tobacco for commercial use. In short order, tobacco became a major crop upon which the plantation system, slavery and tremendous wealth were built.
Tobacco also played a critical role in the American Revolution. Tobacco planters relied on London banks for financing. When tobacco prices plunged in the 1750s, planters were threatened with ruin. Thomas Jefferson even accused British merchants of intentionally depressing tobacco prices to force planters to take on onerous debt.
The planters and other tobacco interests fanned the fires of colonial discontent, helped unite colonial opposition to the crown, produced many of the most fiery voices of revolution and provided a number of the best known leaders of the rebellion, including Jefferson and George Washington.
Once independence was achieved, four of the first five presidents – Washington, Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe – were tobacco planters.
While tobacco helped achieve independence for the colonies, the power of the planters and the economic importance of tobacco made it impossible for the new nation to ban slavery despite this warning from Benjamin Franklin: “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils.”
While many thought slavery would simply fade away, the failure of the Founding Fathers assured the horrors of the Civil War and the injustices that followed in its wake.
Next: Rise and decline of tobacco.