The 1840 Hawaiian Kingdom Constitution – one of the world’s first modern constitutions

The first modern constitution (the Magna Carta is not considered an actually constitution, but rather a precursor to constitutions) was the US Constitution of 1788. Fifty-one years later, the Hawaiian Kingdom, having proclaimed a Declaration of Rights in 1839, promulgated the Constitution of 1840, of which the Declaration became a preamble. It always struck me that 50 years, in the slow process of “constitutionalism” was quite a short period of time. Today, constitutions are standard documents, but in the mid-1800s most governments were absolute monarchies, without constitutions. I had my students look up the answer to the question: How many constitutions were made in that 50 year period? The answer, excluding Hawaiʻi, is four! So if my information is correct, the Hawaiian Kingdom’s 1840 Constitution was only the fifth modern constitution in history! The four constitutions that predate Hawaiʻi’s are: the United States (1788), The Kingdom of Norway (1814), the Netherlands (1815), and Belgium (1831). Hawaiʻi followed in 1843 and Denmark was next in 1849. Now this list is of constitutions that are still in effect and only counts independent states, not federated states like New York, etc.

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Those who question the credibility and viability of “The Kingdom” should contemplate this revelation, and consider the significance of the fact that Kamehameha III gave this constitution voluntarily, rather than being forced as King John was when the Magna Carta was created. The constitution was revised in 1852 by Kamehameha III and 1864 by Kamehameha IV to better adopt concepts such as separation of powers, before the 1887 Bayonet Constitution (according to Dr. Willie Kauai the first time race was used to delineate citizens) was illegally forced on King Kalākaua.

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