KE KUMU KANAWAI: THE CONSTITUTION OF 1840

#169 in the Moʻolelo series


The 1840 Constitution stated that “No law shall be enacted which is at variance with the word of the Lord Jehovah,” in other words,  it established that Hawai’i was a Christian nation at that time. It established three branches of government, a hybrid of American and British branches of government: 1) an executive branch, comprised by the king and his administration, 2) a bicameral legislative branch composed of two houses: a House of Representative and a House of Nobles, and 3) a Judicial branch made up of a Supreme Court. While some similarlity is seen here to the American branches of government, the legislative branch was modelled on the British parliament, with its House of Commons and House of Lords. The House of Representatives was made up of elected makaʻāinana and the House of Nobles was composed of appointed Aliʻi. The Constitution further defined the powers of the king.  It also confirmed that land was held by the king and not alienable.

The 1840 Constitution, not the Principles of the Land Commission, is also the source of Hawaiian makaʻāinana Kuleana land rights, as it provides that Kamehameha I had control of all the landed property, but that “It was not his personal private property.”

Kauikeaouli – Kamehameha III

As I wrote in “The Hawaiian Kingdom Constitution of 1840 – one of the world’s first modern constitutions” in 2016 (long before the Moʻolelo series began):

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.

Who wrote it? Received wisdom seems to hold that William Richards wrote the Constitution, but Richards himself wrote that it was “the Lahainaluna scholars” (“scholar” at that time mainly just meant student). Among these scholars of the time was Boaz Mahune, who’s name appears enough in records in the 1830s and 1840s to make one suspect he was particularly gifted – and also underrated as a historical figure as I wrote previously: he was #1 on the list in “Mai Poina: Lost to History.”

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