On the day of the overthrow the Hawaiian newspaper Ka Leo o ka Lahui ran on its front page “Ka Moolelo o Hiʻiakaikapoliopele,” the story of Hiʻiaka and Pele. It was as if Hawaiians, knowing that change was coming, looked to their own mythology to retain their identity.
By the time of Liliʻuokalani’s ascension to the throne in January 1891, the stage was beginning to be set for a takeover; the British ambassador Wodehouse, who had been critical of American ambitions, was replaced by a more conciliatory one in the early 1890s, for example. But the real stage-setter was the “Bayonet” Constitution – the constitution of 1887, virtually signed at gunpoint. Willie Kauai has argued that this constitution, with its restrictions on voting rights, was the beginning of racial demarcations, rather than those of citizenship. It gave voting rights by race, whereas previously there had been universal male suffrage for Hawaiian subjects.
There may never have been an overthrow if it werenʻt for US Minister [essentially the ambassador] John L. Stevens and a small group of men from Maine. Stevens was a close friend of James Blaine, US Secretary of State, part of the group that College of William and Mary Professor William Crapol has called the “Maine mafia.” In what the Cleveland administration called “reprehensible” behavior, Stevens was coaching the insurgents on how to conduct the overthrow.
In 1892, Lorrin Thurston had travelled to Washington to get a green light for the overthrow. He communicated that “it may be necessary to secure the government through a coup dʻetat.” B.F. Tracy, Secretary of the Navy responded that “the President does not think he should see you, but if you feel compelled to act as you have indicated, you will find an exceedingly sympathetic administration here.” Crapol has said that this arms length kept between President Harrison and Thurston, and the statement that they would be “sympathetic,” without mentioning the coup directly, strongly suggests the knowledge that the US was possibly in breach of international law. It was B.F. Tracy who later sent the order to US Marines on the USS Boston (a state of the art battleship) the following year to head to Honolulu and await orders.
Louis “Buzzy” Agard has found encoded documents (and the code book!) in the US archives that show a US plan to attack the major ports in Hawaiʻi ending in Honolulu. This changes the story from a US-backed overthrow to a US overthrow, and sheds light on Stevens’s actions – they were secretly condoned and encouraged by the Harrison administration.
The Queen planned to promulgate a new constitution, but the cabinet backed down – likely aware of the plans that were being fomented by the conspirators. The Queen counseled patience.
COMMITTEE OF SAFETY
The so-called “Committee of Safety” – a name based on the pretense that American lives and property were in danger was comprised of 9 foreigners and 4 haole citizens of the Kingdom.
Marshall Charles Wilson closed saloons early – 9:00pm rather than 11:00pm – to prevent any pretext for foreign troops to land (as they had done during the riots after Kalākaua’s election). He sent agents to do surveillance on the conspirators. Wilson proposed to arrest the conspirators and put the island under martial law, but the cabinet advised against it and refused to give Wilson permission to make arests. Wilson felt that Hawaiian forces could successfully oppose the Marines. They had over 200 men, whereas there were 152 men in the Marine battalion, and 11 officers.
Stevens wrote: “in view of the existing critical circumstances in Honolulu, I request you to land US Marines and sailors under your command to secure American life and property.” G. Wiltse, commander of the USS Boston responded to Stevens’s request and marched his men past the palace. At 4:25 Wiltse landed the Marines to “assist in preserving public order.”
The cabinet had not requested the landing of the troops – cabinet member Samuel Parker requested the “authority upon which this action is taken.” The marines stationed themselves on Mililani Street, but ended up staying at a hotel that, ironically, had been Liliʻuokalani’s childhood home. [I heard this recently, but have not verified it]. The Queen asked why the troops had landed when everything was at peace. Attorney General Paul Neumann said that the charged that lives and property were in danger was “spurious and false … lives and property were as safe here as in Kennebec, Maine.” This was a reference to the curious link to three towns in Maine that seemed to be the origin of annexationist sentiment – Augusta, Hollowell, and Kennebec.
The conspirators continued to recruit at a lodging house, and Marshall Wilson suggested proclaiming martial law and arresting the conspirators. The Queen asked why the troops had not stationed themselves in front of American properties instead of “with guns aimed at us?”
January 17, 1893: by 11:00am Dole had been named as President of the Provisional Government. He had considered the matter overnight, as a Supreme Court judge undoubtedly knowing that his actions constituted treason.
On the street, a policeman named Leialoha was shot trying to intercept a wagon of arms.
Dole and a small group of men walked to the entrance of the Government building, the present-day Judiciary building. Henry Cooper, a denizen read the proclamation: “the monarchical government is hereby abrogated and a Provisional Governement established.” Those who signed the proclamation included McCandless, Wilhelm, Thurston, Smith, Jones, Emmeluth, Ashley, Cooper, Frear, Bolte, Browne, and Waterhouse.*
The Palace and barracks and police were still under the control of the Queen and could make an attempt to resist. But Minster Stevens recognized the Provisional Government immediately: “I recognize said Provisional Government as the de facto government of the Hawaiian islands.”
Liliʻuokalani yielded not to the Provisional Government, but to the “superior force of the United States:”
I, Liliuokalani, by the grace of God and under the constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the constitutional Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a Provisional Government of and for this Kingdom. That I yield to the superior force of the United States of America, whose minister plenipotentiary, His Excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu and declared that he would support the said Provisional Government.
Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss of life, I do, under this protest and impelled by said forces, 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 representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.
Done at Honolulu, this 17th day of January, A. D. 1893.
(Signed) Liliuokalani R.
(Signed) Samuel Parker, Minister of Foreign Affairs.
(Signed) Wm. H. Cornwell, Minister of Finance.
(Signed) John F. Colburn, Minister of Interior.
(Signed) A. P. Peterson, Attorney-General.
At 7:15pm Wilson disarmed the police and others who had taken up arms.
Hui Aloha ʻAina noted the irony that after only eight days, the Provisional Government requested to be a protectorate of the US.
Stevens soon preached of the opportunity Hawaiʻi’s overthrow presented to the burgeoning American empire: “the Hawaiian pear is now ripe and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it.” But the overthrow was a kind of non-event and was always really about America’s reaction to it. The lame duck President Harrison rushed a treaty of annexation to the Senate in February. But in March, 1893, Grover Cleveland was inaugurated, and withdrew the annexation treaty from the Senate on March 9th, 1893 (executive documents, p. 1190).
On March 29th, 1893 former Senator James Blount arrived in Honolulu and ordered the troops back to their ships and the lowering of the American flag. Blount asked what the result would be if there were to be a vote on the question of annexation. One respondent noted that “it would be overwhelmingly defeated.” Later, Congress ensured that the matter would not be put to a vote.
The Womenʻs Hui Aloha Aina issued a statement:
We resent the presumption of being traded like a flock of sheep or bartered like a horde of savages, and we could not believe that the US could tolerate such an annexation by force, against the wishes of the majority of the population – such an annexation would be an eternal dishonor.
Harperʻs weekly noted the irregularity of the event:
the Hawaiian islands have been stolen and offered to the United States by the thieves. What is the duty of the US, accept the stolen goods?
As late as December, 1893, Lili’uokalani noted in the book Hawaii’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen, that President Cleveland still considered her the head of state.
On December 18th, 1893, Grover Cleveland addressed Congress, informed by the Blount report:
By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of Congress, the Government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair. The provisional government has not assumed a republican or other constitutional form, but has remained a mere executive council or oligarchy, set up without the assent of the people. It has not sought to find a permanent basis of popular support and has given no evidence of an intention to do so. Indeed, the representatives of that government assert that the people of Hawaii are unfit for popular government and frankly avow that they can be best ruled by arbitrary or despotic power.
The law of nations is founded upon reason and justice, and the rules of conduct governing individual relations between citizens or subjects of a civilized state are equally applicable as between enlightened nations. The considerations that international law is without a court for its enforcement, and that obedience to its commands practically depends upon good faith, instead of upon the mandate of a superior tribunal, only give additional sanction to the law itself and brand any deliberate infraction of it not merely as a wrong but as a disgrace. A man of true honor protects the unwritten word which binds his conscience more scrupulously, if possible, than he does the bond a breach of which subjects him to legal liabilities; and the United States in aiming to maintain itself as one of the most enlightened of nations would do its citizens gross injustice if it applied to its international relations any other than a high standard of honor and morality.
In a seemingly scitzophrenic move, the Provisional Government refuses to relinquish control, saying that the US is intervening in the affairs of a sovereign country, then proceeding to call themselves the Republic of Hawaiʻi, with an independence day of July 4th. At their 1894 Constitutional convention, 3000 voted, and 14,000 refused to vote.
In January 1985, Robert Wilcox attempted an insurrection. The plot was discovered and he and 200 others, including Prince Kūhiō, were arrested for treason, and tried before a military tribunal.
The queen was imprisoned in the palace for eight months. She was pardoned in October 1896, and she travelled to Washington, D.C. in December to lobby against annexation and protest to the State Department.
There was debate over the extent of the American empire, whether it would be hemispheric or global. Itʻs not hard to see the irony of Cleveland’s position, as one newspaper pointed out: “never before has an American executive [attempted to] stamp out Republicanism and restore monarchy.”
Even with the 1898 breakout of the Spanish-American war, there was not enough support for a treaty, and annexation was purported to be achieved via joint resolution. As one newspaper put it: “if Congress should strictly obey the constitution, annexation could not take place” [Harpers Weekly]
By the end of the century the US had also taken Guam , Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
One commentator noted: “Annexation is not a change, it is a consummation.”
On August 12, 1898, 12 noon, the annexation ceremony took place. Surrounded by US Military troops, Dole exchanged a treaty for a Joint Resolution, and proclaimed:
I now yield up to you representative of the US, the sovereignty and public property of the Hawaiian islands.
As Iʻve noted elsewhere, the purpose of the overthrow was always annexation. In The Secret Session, I published the entire transcript of the closed-door session of the Senate in which the Joint Resolution was discussed.
* Some members of the Committee of Safety are described in another post, Who Was the Committee of Safety? The Inner Circle of Overthrow