William Richards

#168 in the Moʻolelo series

William Richards was born in 1793 in Plainfield, Massachusetts. He attended Williams College (today the #1 ranked liberal arts college in the US) and Andover Seminary. In 1822 he was ordained as a minister, married Clarissa Lyman* and the following year arrived in Hawaiʻi with the second company of missionaries at the age of 30. Stationed in Lahaina, he befriended such luminaries as Governor Hoapili and David Malo. In 1838, Richards left the mission to become an advisor to the chiefs, a government employee – something that was forbidden by the mission board. His knowledge of Hawaiian was among the best of the missionary cohort, and he translated many works into Hawaiian. Chief among these was No ke Kalaiaina a translation of Francis Wayland’s Elements of Political Economy. Wayland was the President of Brown University, a philosopher not an economist, and his work is as curious as it was fitting for Richards’s purpose – to indoctrinate the chiefs in what he viewed as the moral value of capitalism.

Haʻalilio and Richards, ca. 1843

Wayland’s text begins with the surprising assertion that the principles of moral philosophy and “political economy” (i.e., capitalism) were synonymous. No one in these fields today would make this assertion (though they might believe it to be true) and it smacks of the attitude of the amateur. And this is what Richards was: he was tasked to find a teacher of political economy and sent to the US, but returned empty-handed and then offered the position.

Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa’s book Native Land and Foreign Desires has a mouthful of a subtitle: “Pehea Lā e Pono Ai?” But this subtitle comes directly from the lessons Richards gave the chiefs. When Richards criticized the Hawaiian way of doing economics, the chiefs asked “Pehea Lā e Pono Ai?” (in my rough translation of rendering this question: “what is the proper way of doing things?”). Richards humbly admits in his journals that he had no ready answer to this penetrating ling of questioning.

This is not to say Richards was worthless to the kingdom, quite the contrary. He accompanied, and later cared for, the Hawaiian ambassador Timoteo Haʻalilio in their successful mission to gain recognition of Hawaiʻi’s sovereignty. And when it came to countering other Western influences, Richards fell squarely on the side of the Hawaiian chiefs, and very nearly paid for it with his life in what came to be called “the outrages.”

Williams was part of the initial Board of Commissioners to Quiet Land Titles (the Land Commission, tasked with executing the Māhele), became Minister of Public Instruction in 1846 and died in 1847 in Honolulu. He is buried in Lahaina at Waiola cemetery.

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