The People’s King: William Lunalilo

#103 in the Moʻolelo series

William Lunalilo was the first elected monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Unfortunately, he was sick man and only ruled for one year and 25 days. He was elected in a campaign against Kalākaua. Although the constitution required only a vote of the legislature, Lunalilo requested and was granted a popular election. He won all the votes of the legislature and the popular vote in a landslide (according to Willy Kauai, it was something like all but 6 votes in the popular vote). Efforts like the popular election led to his being given the nickname “the people’s King.”

William Charles Lunalilo’s plain dress seemed to speak of his being a representative of the people – a normal, if not common, man in the position of King. Contrast his appearance with that of Kalākaua, who was constantly trying to prove his exalted birth and whose appearance spoke of high born greatness (see below)

Lunalilo was a democrat – with a lowercase d – that is, he was an advocate of democracy. Along these lines, Lunalilo advocated universal suffrage, i.e., the right to vote for all, including women. In his short reign, Lunalilo was able to gain universal “manhood” suffrage – the right to vote for all men. Some have criticized the Hawaiian constitutions for not having a right for women to vote. Here a little historical perspective is helpful: the first country to grant women’s suffrage was New Zealand in 1893. So Lunalilo was advocating women’s suffrage over 20 years before the first country in the world granted it!

King David Kalākaua

To go a little further, it is casually reported in the Hawaiian history textbook by Linda Menton and Eileen Tamura that women in the Hawaiian legislature (House of Nobles only) could vote as early as 1840! This is even before some Territories which predated New Zealand, such as Wyoming, which had women’s suffrage in 1877. So to criticize the Hawaiian constitutions for a lack of women’s suffrage neglects the fact that Lunalilo was decades ahead of his time in advocating this issue and I daresay may have achieved it were he to have survived longer. Dare I say it? Yes, I think it’s fair to say that Lunalilo was a progressive. And it may even be possible to make the case that women – elite women in the legislature at least – could vote in Hawaiʻi before anywhere else in the world, but this has to be checked.

Before he died at age 41, he is said to have been close to naming Emma as his heir, but he did not. This may have led her to run against Kalākaua in 1874. It is possible that he wanted another election. Again in true “people’s King” fashion, he is buried not at Mauna Ala with the other monarchs, but in a crypt at Kawaiahaʻo Church in downtown Honolulu – with his people.

Lunalilo Crypt at Kawaiahaʻo Church, Honolulu

As a high ranking aliʻi, Lunalilo had received 33 entire ahupuaʻa in the Māhele. (Lunalilo was a descendant of Kamehameha’s father Keoua). This land was put in trust to form the Lunalilo Home for elderly Hawaiians, but the trustees gutted the trust, selling to their friends, their colleagues and themselves. The trust that began with somewhere between 70,000 and 400,000 acres today has 5 acres in Maunalua. Their previous holdings include most of East Oʻahu where today some of the most expensive real estate in the world lies.

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