The 1850 Masters and Servants Act

#232 in the Moʻolelo series, although it was drafted by William Little Lee, this law constitutes a possible dark mark on the Hawaiian Kingdom government. Mahalo to Anuenue kudu Puhi Adams for reminding me to write about the law.

Hawaiian Kingdom Attorney General William Little Lee has an intriguing and problematic role in the “Middle Kingdom” period – that crucial period around 1850:

As a Harvard-trained lawyer, former student of US Supreme Court Joseph Story, William Little Lee was certainly one of the most able lawyers in the Kingdom at this period, and his background deserves some attention. Merry (2000, 3) considers William Little Lee archetypical enough to begin her book with a description of his position as a joint architect (along with several others) of Hawaiʻi’s legal system:

In October 1846 William Little Lee arrived in Hawaiʻi  … Lee was twenty-five years old and a lawyer. Trained at Harvard University under judge Joseph Story and Professor Simon Greenleaf, Lee had practiced law in Troy, New York, for a year and had been admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Scarcely a month after his his ship docked in Honolulu, Kamehameha III, the king of HawaiʻI, had persuaded Lee to stay on in the independent kingdom and become a judge in the Honolulu court. By 1847 he had helped to draft legislation creating a new Superior Court of Law and Equality; he was immediately elected its chief justice. In the same year he was appointed to the Privy Council and appointed president of the Board of Commissioners to Quiet Land Titles … Lee … invested in one of the earliest sugar plantations with his friend [Charles Reed] Bishop … By 1850 Lee had penned a new criminal code for the islands, modeled after a Massachusetts prototype, and by 1852 a new constitution.

Sally Engle Merry, Colonizing Hawaiʻi, 2000.
William Little Lee (Source: wikipedia commons)

Lee’s attitude and approach toward working with Hawaiians is apparent in a letter Lee wrote to a friend in 1851:

Certainly they are a kind and peaceable people, with a superabundance of generous hospitality; but with all their good traits, they lack the elements necessary to perpetuate their existence. Living without exertion, & contented with enough to eat and drink, they give themselves no care for the future, and mope away life without spirit, ambition or hope. Now & then we meet an enterprising native, climbing up in the world, and I feel like crying bravo! my good fellow! bravo! but the mass of the people, where are they? I consider the doom of this nation as sealed, though I will labor on without ceasing, hoping for the blessing of heaven to bring some change (Merry, 2000, 5).

Lee was not alone in his sentiments on the “protestant work ethic.” This idea was so ingrained in the inner circle, that “several laws enacted in 1839 and 1840, and later compiled in the Laws of 1842, permit[ing] the extinguishment of tenant rights in limited circumstances,” including the “dispossession of tenants because of idleness, where such idleness is proven at trial,” public purposes and road building (PASH v. Hawaiʻi County Planning Commission, 1995). Forbes (2000, 7) notes that Lee was chosen for a committee of three that would revise the constitution in 1850-51 and produce the Constitution of 1852 under Kauikeaouli.

With that background, let us turn to the masters and servants act – Wilma Sur asks whether the law constitutes a “brutal [form of] slavery:”

In 1850, Lee drafted the Masters & Servants Act, which stated that workers (servants) had to provide work to their employers (masters) according to the contract.   Contracts often changed without notice to workers.  If workers were exploited and abused during their jobs, they could not run away as that would breach their contract, punishable by imprisonment or redemption, plus interest, of lost hours.  There were cases of Kanaka Maoli and early immigrant Chinese workers being beaten by their employers (Sur).

Sur, Wilma. “Hawai’i’s Masters and Servants Act: Brutal Slavery?” 31 U. Haw. L. Rev. 87

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