One hundred and nineteen years ago, the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown. Queen Lili‘uokalani began her reign on Jan 29. 1891. Concerns at the start of her reign included the Bayonet Constitution, internal political struggles and the McKinley Tariff. When Lili‘uokalani ascended the throne, she was forced to pledge an oath of allegiance to the Bayonet Constitution. This meant that the monarch was unable to accomplish any act without the cabinet’s or the legislature’s approval. The monarch’s greatest power was the ability to appoint cabinet members.
But internal political dissention made it difficult for Lili‘uokalani to select and keep an ideal cabinet. As the queen put it in her 1897 book Hawaiiʻs Story, “The legislature, instead of creating legislation to benefit the people, spent its time in the making and unmaking of cabinets.” The parties involved included the Reform Party, the National Reform Party, and the Liberal Party
The Reform party was also known as the downtown party, or the missionary party. It consisted of sugar businessmen. A key figure was Lorrin Thurston, whose agenda was to maintain control of the government and achieve annexation to the US.
The key figure in the National reform party was the new Queen, Lydia Kamaka‘eha Lili‘uokalani. Her agenda was to maintain Hawaiian independence, change the constitution, and to govern via careful and irreproachable means, so as not to provide the foreign presence in Hawai‘i any justification for calling for assistance from their home countries, which could lead to an overthrow.
Finally, the Liberal party’s key figure was Robert Kalanihiapo Wilcox, one of the young Hawaiians educated in Italy under the guardianship of Celso Cesar Moreno. His agenda was to maintain Hawaiian independence by not acknowledging the validity of the Bayonet Constitution. Further, he planned to take back control of government through more “liberal” means. This group, which included anti-annexation activist Joseph Nawahï, eventually advocated a Native Hawaiian-controlled republic.
The queen consulted with the anti-annexation political party Hui Kalaʻāina to ask the members of the group to draft a new constitution. Lili’uokalani told the group to hold on to the document until further notice. After Lili’uokalaniʻs alliance between the Reform Party and Wilcox’s Liberal Party, she decided it was time for a new cabinet. The Queen wanted to restore some measure of native rule that was lost in the Bayonet Constitution.
US Marines in Hawai’i, January 1893
As Queen Lili‘uokalani was about to promulgate a new constitution (to replace the “Bayonet Constitution” forced on her brother King Kalakaua in 1887, which gave foreigners the right to vote), non-Hawaiian business leaders, most connected with the sugar industry, overthrew the Queen with the aid of US Marines. On January 16th, 1893, the day that Queen Lili‘u was to instate a new constitution, John L. Stevens had the sailors and marines of the USS Boston land at Honolulu harbor and take up quarters in the yard of Arion Hall, in direct view of ʻIolani palace. The Marines acted at the request of Stevens, US Minister to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, but without the knowledge or authorization of Congress or the President.
The next day, January 17th 1893, the conspirators read a proclamation declaring that the “Hawaiian monarchical system of government is hereby abrogated,” at the back door of Aliʻiolani Hale, the government building. Henry Cooper read this proclamation to “no one in particular” according to Tom Coffman– there was no crowd present to hear the proclamation. The oligarchy proclaimed itself a provisional government, elected Sanford B. Dole President, and Stevens immediately recognized this government as the “de facto government of the Hawaiian Islands.” De facto means “in fact” as opposed to de jure, meaning “in law.”
Lili’uokalani’s statement read:
I, Liliʻuokalani, by the grace of God and under the constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the constitutional government of the Hawaiian kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a Provisional government of and for this kingdom.
That I yield to the superior force of the United States of America, whose Minister Plenipotentiary, his Excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu, and declared that he would support the said Provisional Government.
Now to avoid and collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss f life, I do, under this protest and impelled by the said forces yield my authority until such time as the government of the United States shall, upon the facts presented to it, undo the acts of its representative, and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.
Liliʻuokalani yielded, as Kamehameha III had fifty years earlier, under protest to “the superior force of the United States of America, until such time as the Government of the United States should undo the action of its representatives.” The provisional government then proceeded to lobby the US Congress to annex Hawaii. Their aim was to become a territory, thereby avoiding foreign tariffs on sugar. In March 1893 Grover Cleveland replaced Harrison as President, and withdrew the treaty of annexation from the Senate.
President Cleveland opposed the annexation of Hawai‘i and the overthrow. Cleveland sent Senator James Blount to investigate the events of 1893. Blount was flooded with testimonies from numerous parties; the largest majority of whom were Hawaiians.
The Provisional Government wined and dined Blount, because he was the one who could justify their actions. Blount did not meet a single annexationist willing to put the question of annexation to a vote of the people. After collecting weeks of testimony from both sides of the issue, Blount produced one of the most scathing critiques of US foreign policy in American history. Blount’s 1400-page document recommended that the Provisional Government step down, and that Lili‘uokalani be restored to her rightful position as the monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
On the basis of this report Cleveland pushed for reinstatement of Queen Lili‘uokalani. In his address to Congress, Cleveland stated: “In an act of war a friendly and confiding people has been overthrown, a substantial wrong has thus been done which we should endeavor to repair.” Congress, however, was mainly pro-annexation, and this led to a standoff for the next five years between Congress and the President over the issue of annexing Hawai’i. The Blount report was excerpted in newspapers across the United States, striking up a national debate over imperialism. Cleveland’s message to Congress strongly advised restoring the throne and government to Lili’uokalani.
Meanwhile passage of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff in 1894 repealed the McKinley Tariff, and replaced Hawai‘i sugar growers in the privileged competitive position with regard to US sugar sales.In Cleveland’s message to Congress he stated: “By an act of war, the government of a friendly and confiding people has thus been overthrown. A substantial wrong has been done that we should endeavor to repair.” President Cleveland was accused by some of restoring monarchy and “stamping out republicanism,” an ironic move for an American President. Others in the US supported Cleveland’s position.
In response to Clevelandʻs recommendation to Congress, however, the Provisional Government, on July 4, 1894, declared itself to be the Republic of Hawaii, claiming that the US had no right to interfere in its domestic affairs. According to Noenoe Silva, the Republic of Hawai’i was created in 1894 by “about 4000 men, most of foreign birth, [who] signed the oath and voted in the election.” Hawaiians protested to the US and other countries over this process, claiming that “confident in the honesty and impartiality of America, [had] patiently and peacefully submitted to the insults and tyranny of the Provisional Government.”
When the Republic of Hawai’i planned to proclaim itself on July 4, 1894 – a date meant to signify a transition from monarchy to republican government – Hawaiians were “outraged” (Silva, 2004, 137). On July 2, between 5000 and 7000 people rallied at Palace square to protest the formation of the Republic. This rally was never reported in any of the standard history books. In January 1895, Robert Wilcox planned a second “counter-revolution,” this time against the Republic of Hawaii. The plan was discovered, and the counter-revolutionaries were chased through the mountains behind Honolulu. A soldier on each side was killed. Two hundred were captured and tried for treason against the Republic.
Capitano Robert Wilcox
Some of the captured counter-revolutionaries were sentenced to death. These death sentences were used as a threat by the Republic to persuade Liliʻuokalani to abdicate, or surrender, her position as queen (as opposed to head of state). US officials sent a message to the Republic that no executions should occur, but the Republic allowed Liliʻuokalani to continue to believe that the executions would still be carried out, and under this impression she abdicated her throne. Lili’uokalani was arrested for “misprision of treason” – an antiquated, or out-of-date charge that meant knowledge of treason. She was imprisoned in ʻIolani palace for eight months. She was pardoned in 1896, and immediately traveled to the US to lobby against the annexation treaty. In Washington, Lili‘uokalani lodged a formal protest with the US State Department.
The Provisional Government declared itself an American protectorate after eight days. According to a statement of Hawaiian Patriotic League: “But eight days had not elapsed before the loyalty, fidelity and patriotism of the incongruous, discordant crowd, who supported the provisional government manifested itself by dissensions running riot, to such a point that the only manner of saving the new order was to implore Mr. Stevens for a declaration of American protectorate.”
The United States sent out diplomatic statements, which, as historian Ralph Kuykendall notes, notified other countries that the US considered Hawai‘I as in its sphere of influence, and that “it would patrol the orchard.” Five years after the overthrow, with a new president in office, the US again attempted annexation, but in a way that was doubly illegal, and as I will argue in a future column, very unlikely.
President William McKinley