It [tobacco] is a culture productive of infinite wretchedness. Those employed in it are in a continued state of exertion beyond the powers of nature to support. Little food of any kind is raised by them; so that the men and animals on these farms are badly fed, and the earth is rapidly impoverished.
Notes on Virginia, Query XX [Chapter 20], 1782
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders recognize bad deals.
January 11 of last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s report on the hazards of smoking. 160 years before that, Jefferson wrote that tobacco produced “infinite wretchedness.”
His claim was based not on the health of tobacco users but on tobacco growers and the effect of that crop on the soil. Tobacco was (and still is) a very labor-intensive crop. Farmers who raised tobacco devoted all their efforts to it, excluding crops that would have nourished those farmers and their livestock.
Tobacco was “hard” on the soil, meaning it stripped nutrients from the ground to produce its crop. Tobacco could not be raised on the same land year after year, because it depleted those nutrients. Some land could produce tobacco only once every seven years.
He saw deliverance for his state: “But the western country on the Missisipi, and the midlands of Georgia, having fresh and fertile lands in abundance, and a hotter sun, will be able to undersell these two states [Virginia & Maryland], and will oblige them to abandon the raising tobacco altogether. And a happy obligation for them it will be.” (Same source as above.)
Tobacco and wheat were the only cash crops in Virginia. Tobacco itself was even used as currency. Jefferson raised it out of necessity. About 1790, upon his return from France and finding his lands greatly depleted through both tobacco farming and absentee supervision, he abandoned that crop in favor of wheat and a rotating system of other grains and cover crops to replenish the soil.
An interesting aside… Tobacco was packaged for sale and shipment in large barrels called hogsheads. About 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide, each held 1,000 pounds of compressed tobacco. Learn about hogsheads here.
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