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The Long and Complicated History of Hawaiʻi Statehood Day

Hawaiʻi Statehood Day, also known as Hawaiʻi Admissions Day, is observed annually on the third Friday of August. Hawaiʻi became the 50th US state on August 21st, 1959. As an official State holiday, government offices and most public schools are closed in observance. Although 94% of Hawaiʻi voters were in favor of Statehood in 1959, Hawaiʻi Statehood Day is somewhat controversial today, especially amongst Native Hawaiians. To understand the controversy, it is important to have an understanding of the complex historical relationship between Hawaiʻi and the United States of America.

The Hawaiian Kingdom’s Democratic Relationships with Foreign Powers

Hawaiʻi has dealt with the influence of foreign powers since its inception. When King Kamehameha the Great was in the process of conquering the Hawaiian Islands with the purpose of unification from 1792-1794, he placed the conquered islands under British protection under the authority of George Vancouver. In 1810, with the surrender of Kauaʻi, the Hawaiian Islands were united under a single ruler for the first time.

On December 23, 1826, The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, under the rule of King Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli and the United States of America enter into a Treaty of Friendship. This treaty indirectly acknowledges Hawaiʻi independence as a foreign governed entity. Though it was never ratified by the US Congress, both parties acted in accordance with its articles.

King Kauikeaouli enacted the first Kingdom of Hawaiʻi constitution in 1840. The new constitution established a Western style of government, featuring the House of Nobles and a House of Representatives chosen by the people. This system is similar to the two-body system used in the United Kingdom. A judicial system with a supreme court was also established. The first constitution of Hawaii begins with the words “God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the earth in unity.” All people born in Hawaiʻi were citizens of the Hawaiian Kingdom regardless of race and ethnicity, and immigrants were afforded easy naturalization and full political rights.   

The first occupation by a foreign power came from Great Britain. In 1843, the British Navy under the command of Rear Admiral Richard Thomas occupied Hawaiʻi for five months. After negotiations between Rear Admiral Thomas and King Kauikeaouli, sovereignty was restored to Hawaiʻi’s king via “He Olelo Lokomaikai (An Act of Grace) on July 31st, 1843. On this day, King Kauikeaouli spoke a prayer of thanskgiving, which included the quote “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono,” translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” This statement would later become the motto of the State of Hawaii. Restoration Day was a festive occasion, with its own anthem written to mark the celebration. Great Britain issued a formal joint declaration with France on November 28, 1843, guaranteeing Hawaiian independence.

On December 20, 1849, the U.S. and the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi signed a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation and Extradition. Under this treaty, Americans were able to live in Hawaiʻi and be permanent residents.

The Beginning of the Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii Monarchy, Leading to Hawaii Statehood Day

In 1872 King Kamehameha V died without naming a successor to the throne. Article 22 of the Constitution directs the Legislative Assembly to elect an “ali’i of the kingdom” as successor. Hawaiʻi’s first elected king, William Lunalilo reigned for only one year (1873-1874) before his death. In 1874, David Kalākaua is elected King over the Dowager Queen Emma.

In 1875, King Kalākaua signed The Reciprocity Treaty with the United States. This treaty established free trade with the US, giving Hawaiʻi products such as sugar cane duty-free access to the US market. Reciprocally, U.S. agricultural products and manufactured goods were able to enter Hawaiian ports duty-free. The Reciprocity Treaty greatly expanded Hawaiʻi’s agricultural industry. This treaty was originally intended to last for a duration of seven years.

On December 6, 1884, the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi signed a Reciprocity Convention, an extension of the 1875 Treaty of Reciprocity. This convention allowed the US to use and occupy Pearl Harbor, and the US gained the lands that would become Pearl Harbor Naval base.

On July 6, 1887, the Honolulu Rifles militia, in association with the Hawaiian League, held King Kalākaua at gunpoint and forces him to sign the Bayonet Treaty. A new cabinet is appointed, established primarily to write a new constitution that reduces the judicial powers of the monarchy and place executive powers in the cabinet. This constitution makes seats in the House of Nobles positions of elected public office. This constitution also stripped away Native Hawaiian land rights and gave the vote to foreign landowners. In 1891, Princess Lydia Kamakaʻeha, sister of Kalākaua, succeeds to the throne as Queen Liliʻuokalani. Queen Liliʻuokalani considers drafting a new constitution to address the extreme voting restrictions the Bayonet Constitution imposes on Native Hawaiians and Hawaiian-born citizens. After failing to get her new constitution through the legislature, Liliuokalani planned to enact it by royal fiat on January 14, 1893.

The Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi

At the start of 1893, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi had foreign legations (diplomatic missions) from many countries present in Honolulu, including the United States of America, Portugal, Great Britain, France, and Japan. The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi had its own abroad representatives legations in Washington, D.C., London, Paris, Saint Petersburg, Lima, and Valparaiso. Kingdom of Hawaiʻi consulates were established in over 25 foreign states, including the Philippines, Canada, Australia, Germany, Japan, China, and México.

Despite the well-established diplomatic relationships with so many foreign powers, a cabal of European and American businessmen, with the support of US military forces, staged a coup to overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom and depose the Queen in January of 1893. Their purpose was the annexing Hawaiʻi to the United States as a means to further their business interests. The cabal called themselves the “Committee of Safety,” with many of their ranks coming from the previous Hawaiian League, composed of missionary descendants and all of Caucasian, non-Native Hawaiian ethnicity. The coup d’état concluded on January 17, 1893, when Queen Liliʻuokalani yielded authority to avoid bloodshed. “I yield my authority until such time as the government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representatives and reinstate me,” she wrote. Many English language newspaper accounts of the overthrow are heavily biased, with The Hawaiian Gazette and The Pacific Commercial Advertiser outright refusing to print Queen Liliu‘okalani’s protest against the overthrow and painting her efforts to reestablish the Kingdom’s authority as illegal and counterrevolutionary.

A provisional government controlled by the Committee of Safety was then instituted pending annexation to the United States. In 1894, the Committee of Safety declared themselves the “Republic of Hawaiʻi” and waited for a better political opportunity to seek annexation. They established a provisional government and appointed Sanford B. Dole as President of the Republic of Hawaiʻi. The constitution of the Republic of Hawaiʻi substantially restricted voting, with prospective voters required to fulfill the following requirements: “be male and at least twenty years old, to have lived in Hawaiʻi for at least a year and be a registered voter, to swear allegiance to the Provisional Government, to be of Hawaiian, American or European birth or descent, and to have paid their taxes for 1893.” The Republic of Hawaiʻi constitution particularly excluded Chinese and Japanese Hawaiʻi residents from becoming citizens. On August 7, 1894, US President Grover Cleveland formally recognized the Republic of Hawaiʻi. In 1895, a revolution to restore the monarchy proved unsuccessful. Queen Liliʻuokalani was imprisoned in ‘Iolani Palace. While under house arrest, Queen Liliʻuokalani signs a document formally abdicating her throne on January 24, 1895.     

Annexation by the United States

In 1897, Hui Aloha ‘Āina for Women, Hui Aloha ‘Āina for Men, and Hui Kālaiʻāina organized petition drives to protest annexation and restore the Hawaiian monarchy. A delegation of the groups traveled to Washington, D.C. to present the petitions to President McKinley and the United States Congress. The contingency submits the anti-annexation petition, which is read and accepted by the United States Senate.

In 1898, the Hawaiʻi annexation treaty did not achieve the required number of votes and was not ratified by the US Senate. Following this Senate decision, the US declared war on Spain, and Hawaiʻi became a strategic military location. President McKinley signed the Newlands Resolution, annexing Hawaiʻi to the United States. The Newlands Resolution was passed by both houses of Congress on July 6, 1898. With this Resolution, the “Republic of Hawai‘i” ceded sovereignty of the Hawaiian Islands, as well as its title to Hawai‘i’s public lands, to the United States. The last Hawaiian flag to fly in Hawaiʻi was lowered at 12 noon on August 12, 1898. The United States flag was raised in its place.   

Establishing the U.S. Territory of Hawaiʻi

On April 30, 1900, the US Congress passed the Organic Act establishing the Hawaiʻi territorial government. Honolulu is named the capital of the Territory of Hawaiʻi. The title of Sanford B. Dole is changed from President to Governor. Those residing in Hawaiʻi prior to August 12, 1898 became citizens of the Territory of Hawaiʻi. Voting and property rights mirrored those found on the US continent. Elected in 1902, Republican Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole Piʻikoi served for 20 years as the Hawaiʻi delegate to the United States Congress.

On December 7, 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Martial law was declared. Under Martial law, Governors lose administrative powers, the territorial constitution is suspended, and the legislature and supreme court are dissolved indefinitely. Martial law does not end until 1944. In 1945, the Territory of Hawaiʻi is placed under Article 73 of the United Nations Charter as a non-self-governing territory, under the administering authority of the United States.

Admission of Hawaiʻi as the 50th U.S. State – Hawaiʻi Statehood Day

By the time Hawaiʻi was admitted as a state, it had been occupied by the United States for 66 years. In 1959, the US Congress passed the Hawai‘i Admission Act in March 1959, which admits Hawai‘i as a State of the Union on August 21, 1959. The Act was signed into law by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Act transferred the United States’ title for most of Hawai‘i’s public lands to the State as a public trust. Some of the lands governed by this trust are to be used for the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians as defined by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. Certain lands are retained by the federal government for defense and other federal government uses. In 1963, Congress passes an act that allows lands retained by the federal government to be returned to the State if such lands are declared unnecessary for federal purposes. The former flag of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi is adopted as the flag of the State of Hawaiʻi. August 21st is recognized as Hawaiʻi Statehood Day, a Hawaiʻi State holiday. 

Honolulu Star Bulletin newspaper announces Hawaiian Statehood Day 

In 1978, Governor George Ariyoshi and the people of Hawai‘i amend several provisions of the State Constitution in a Constitutional Convention. The amendments affirm Native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights, declare the Hawaiian language one of two official state languages, and require Hawaiian educational programs in public schools. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) is created to serve as the main public agency for the performance, development, and coordination of programs and activities relating to Native Hawaiians.

Hawai’i Statehood Day in Recent Years

In 1993, President Clinton signed into law “Public Law 103-150,” apologizing for the United States’ role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom 100 years earlier, and for the deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination. “Whereas, it is proper and timely for the Congress on the occasion of the impending 100th anniversary of the event, to acknowledge the historic significance of the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi,” the apology states, “to express its deep regret to the Native Hawaiian people.”

In 2000, U.S. Senator’s Akaka and Inouye introduced the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act (NHGRA), which aims to “reaffirm the United States’ special political and legal relationship with Native Hawaiians, provide a process for the reorganization of a Native Hawaiian governing entity within the framework of federal law, and provide for the federal recognition of the reorganized Native Hawaiian governing entity.” The Akaka Bill was highly divisive amongst Native Hawaiians, with some in support of Federal recognition, and others stating that such recognition was not a replacement for Native Hawaiian sovereignty.

On January 17, 2018, the 125 year anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the deposition of Queen Liliʻuokalani, thousands marched towards ‘Iolani Palace. A portrait of the Queen, along with purple flocked kahili, torches, and Hawaiian flags are all carried in the march. ‘Oli (chants), mele (songs), and hoʻokupu (offerings) are offered in memory of Queen Liliʻuokalani and the Hawaiian Kingdom. A Hawaiian flag is hoisted above ‘Iolani Palace. To this day, Native Hawaiians continue to advocate for the right to self determination and self-governance.   

For further reading about foreign relationships in Hawaiʻi politics, including Hawaiʻi Statehood Day:

  • Edmund Janes Carpenter, America in Hawaiʻi: A History of United States Influence in the Hawaiian Islands, Small, Maynard & Company, 1899
  • Richard Simpson Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, vol. 1: Foundation and Transformation, University of Hawaii Press, 1938, reprinted 1968
  • Liliʻuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, 1898, Reprinted by Mutual Publishing 1991
  • Jon M. Van Dyke, Who Owns the Crown Lands of Hawaiʻi?, University of Hawaii Press 2008
  • To read more about Hawaii’s history, visit our History Section.
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