Ka Huliau: Overthrowing the Overthrow

#160 in the Moʻolelo series

A short post by Dr. Ronald Williams, Jr. got a lot of attention and comments on Mooolelo: Hawaiian History:

Today—14 December—in Hawaiian History [1893]: The U.S.S. Corwin arrives unexpectedly in Honolulu. It carries secret instructions for US Minister Albert Willis from US President Grover Cleveland that Willis is to negotiate the restoration of Queen Liliʻuokalani to her rightful position as sovereign of Hawaiʻi.

Ronald Williams, Jr.
Kentucky Senator and US Minister Albert Willis

What some don’t know about the overthrow is how close it was to being overturned. As Grover Cleveland’s grandson George Cleveland has said, “my grandfather’s greatest regret as President was not being able to get the overthrow overthrown.” (See my “Interview with George Cleveland” here). In fact, there is a legal argument that Cleveland did get the overthrow reversed and Liliʻuokalani reinstated, but the decision was not enforced by Congress.

Grover Cleveland (second wedding, which produced George Cleveland’s father).

When people hear of Cleveland’s address to Congress, in which he states that: “the provisional government owes its existence to an armed invasion by the United States. By an act of war…a substantial wrong has been done [that we should endeavor to repair]” (President Grover Cleveland, 1893. Source: digital history.uh.edu) they might think that Cleveland needed Congress’s support in the decision. But the President had the full ability to make the decision. What he needed from Congress was approval only for funding to send US troops to enforce the decision – congress has “the power of the purse” – as part of the separation of powers in the US system. This is what Congress denied, and the reason that the Provisional Government was able to simply refuse to step down, hypocritically claiming sovereignty (it was true, but this was the same sovereignty they tried to rid the Kingdom of, offering it up to the US).

Queen Lili’uokalani

Former Kentucky Senator Albert Willis was sent as the replacement of John L. Stevens, whose conduct in virtually orchestrating the overthrow Cleveland called “reprehensible.” As mentioned on the Moʻolelo Channel, Cleveland was still referring to Liliʻuokalani as the Queen in December, 1893, eleven months after the “overthrow.”

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