The Bayonet Constitution

#178 in the Moʻolelo series

It is important to bear in mind that the purpose of the Bayonet Constitution was not a seize power for its own sake, but to renew the 11 year old Reciprocity Treaty, which allowed the export of sugar to the US duty-free.* Kalākaua refused to renew the treaty because it upped the ante, giving the US exclusive use of Pearl Harbor. Bernice Pauahi Bishop was one of the land owners along the harbor (Kaʻōnohi, an ʻili commonly called Pearlridge, was inherited from her mother), and she fought with her husband Charles Reed Bishop over ceding access – it is said to be their one disagreement in their long marriage.

The Bayonet Constitution was an illegal document because the king signed it under duress, or threat of overthrow and violence, and it was not ratified by legislature or the populace. Osorio encapsulated the predicament presented by the bayonet constitution, which he claimed:

allowed the whites political control without requiring that they swear allegiance to the king. Indeed the constitution removed  every paradox that had previously confounded haole citizens by making the nation belong to them without requiring that they belong to the nation.

Osorio, 2002, 197

This control came from the clause that allowed the cabinet to override the King. The cabinet at that time consisted of Reform Party members, sugar growers’ interests, in other words, Kalākaua’s enemies. The Constitution had provisions that allowed foreigners to vote without giving up their foreign citizenship (called “denizens”). Voting requirements were taken from the Jim Crow-era Constitution of Mississippi, using property ($3000 worth) and income ($600 per year) requirements for eligibility. This almost made the minority of whites (about 2000 in a Kingdom of 100,000) into a majority of the voters. (Jon Van Dyke points out that they were not actually a majority, because that was impossible with those numbers, so Hawaiians still controlled the vote after the Bayonet Constitution, but by a much smaller margin).

Attorney Samuel Kāne summed up the native position under this constitution well:

We have not yet signed it … If we do not take the oath, of course, we cannot vote. But in this perilous time we are under obligation to take oath under it. No matter if we agree with it or not, we shall have a majority on our side, and then we will be able to change it.

Osorio, 2002, 244 – 245

Article 48 of the constitution of 1864 states that the:

Legislature has full power to and authority to amend the constitution as hereinafter provided; and from time to time to make all manner wholesome laws not repugnant to the provisions of this constitution.

Constitution of 1887, Article 48

This suggests a further reason that the Bayonet Constitution was illegally promulgated – it was put forward by the wrong branch of government. With the Bayonet Constitution in place, the Reform party cabinet signed the renewed reciprocity treaty with the Pearl Harbor clause. Lorrin Thurston later readily admitted that the Constitution was “extra-legal,” i.e., illegal. Promulgating a new Constitution became the singular goal of both Kalākaua and Liliʻuokalani after him, who made a draft Constitution in 1893.

Lorrin Thurston

*The original Reciprocity Treaty had a 7 year term and was renegotiated every year thereafter.

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