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Bordering on Empire

They were followed by her Majesty the Queen, dressed in a light colored silk which tended to add somewhat to her dark complexion and negro-like features, and more plainly exhibiting in the facial outlines a look of savage determination.… Next came four homely ladies-in-waiting, dressed in the loud colors so much admired by all dark-colored races.… And then the dignified [white] justices of the supreme court, whose manly bearing and intellectual appearance gave a relief to what had preceded. One of them, Mr. Dole, afterwards became President of the Republic.


Of all the American boundaries, Hawaii’s is, far and away, the most far and away. How and why did the United States extend its border to such an extreme?

In 1893 citizens in Hawaii overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani, replacing the island chain’s monarchy with a democratic republic. Being a small, remote nation, the new Hawaiian government sought the protection of a powerful but like-minded democracy, the United States, in the form of annexation.

Or one could say: In 1893 a cabal of wealthy white people living in Hawaii overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani and established a government in which representation was gerrymandered to ensure that the white population would rule. The first president of this new government was Sanford Dole. Since Hawaii’s white population—composed primarily of Americans or descendants of Americans—was a small minority in this remote chain of islands, Dole and his associates sought increased protection and control through annexation to the United States.

Both of these versions of events are true. But there are buts in both. Numerous white people in Hawaii, including some wealthy owners of sugar plantations, opposed the overthrow of the monarchy; others opposed annexation to the United States. Multiple issues were involved. Each of those issues remains a major factor in American politics today: involvement in foreign affairs, cheap immigrant labor, racism, and an issue that was new at the time: the power of Japan.

American annexation of Hawaii had first been proposed in the mid-nineteenth century by Hawaiians. King Kamehameha V feared that his realm was being eyed by Europe’s colonial empires, particularly France. Since Hawaii had only scant experience with foreign governments, its king turned to the few whites living on his islands for advice. They urged numerous changes, including an elected legislature to advise the king and a cabinet to administer government functions, and suggested that the king ask the United States for protection since that nation shared Hawaii’s value of self-rule. Kamehameha initially resisted this last idea, but in 1851, fearing that a French attack was imminent, he sent a formal request to the United States seeking cosovereignty in the event that France invaded.

But the United States declined. Secretary of State Daniel Webster told Kamehameha that while “the government of the United States was the first to acknowledge the national existence of the Hawaiian government … acknowledging the independence of the Islands, and of the government established over them, it was not seeking to promote any peculiar object of its own … or to exercise any sinister influence itself over the counsels of Hawaii.”1 Even as Webster wrote those words, Americans 3,000 miles from his desk were developing a coastal region the nation had only recently acquired: California. Its highly populated port city of San Francisco constituted both a market for, and a direct connection with, Hawaii. While American missionaries had lived in Hawaii since 1820, a new motive sent a second wave of Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans. Hawaii’s climate and soil were perfect for growing sugarcane. Big money could be made.

Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917) (photo credit 39.2)

Sanford Dole (1844-1926) (photo credit 39.1)

Because it benefited everyone, sugar production quickly grew to the point that, in 1855, a free-trade agreement was negotiated by President Franklin Pierce and Hawaii. But sugar producers in the United States successfully lobbied the Senate to reject the treaty. In 1867 California sugar refiners lobbied the Senate to ratify a more limited free-trade treaty. That same year the purchase of Alaska reflected the fact that the nation’s attitudes about boundaries were expanding beyond the continental United States. President Andrew Johnson expressed the new view in his statement to Congress on the proposed trade agreement with Hawaii:

I am aware that upon the question of further extending our possessions it is apprehended by some that our political system cannot successfully be applied to an area more extended than our continent; but the conviction is rapidly gaining ground in the American mind that, with increased facilities for intercommunication between all portions of the earth, the principles of free government … would prove of sufficient strength and breadth to comprehend within their sphere and influence the civilized nations of the world.

Though attitudes were changing, they were not completely changed. The Senate again rejected the treaty.

An additional reason for the Senate’s reluctance to ratify either treaty can be inferred from its third time at bat. In 1873 the Senate did ratify a trade agreement with Hawaii … and Britain immediately protested. Quite likely, until this time, the Senate had not thought it wise to risk military conflict in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with the world’s preeminent empire.

Once the United States and Hawaii had established this free-trade agreement, the islands’ sugar industry expanded exponentially. Not everyone in Hawaii was thrilled, however. “Some foresaw that this treaty with the United States might become the entering wedge for the loss of our independence,” Queen Lili’uokalani later reflected in her memoirs. “What would be the consequences should the Islands acquire too great a commercial attraction, too large a foreign population and interests?”

The fear of too large a foreign population soon took on an additional dimension. The sugar plantations could produce far more sugar than Hawaii had natives to provide the labor. Workers would have to be imported. The white plantation owners were as cognizant of the risk they were taking by importing foreign workers as Hawaii’s king had been in entering into the free-trade treaty. Initially the plantation owners paid for immigrants from Portugal, which had a surplus labor supply. (China and Japan, too, had a surplus of workers, but the planters considered the Portuguese, being Europeans, to be a more “desirable for permanent settlement.”)2 Providing transportation from Portugal, however, proved to be so costly that planters began opting for Chinese and Japanese workers. As feared, these immigrants came to constitute half the population over the next fifteen years. Native Hawaiians now made up roughly 45 percent of their nation, with the white population, which controlled nearly all the wealth, constituting the remaining 5 percent.3 While political power remained in the hands of the monarch, the rapid change—and lack of change—led to racial, religious, and political friction.

By the summer of 1887, white residents had acquired influence with a sufficient number of King Kalākaua’s advisers that the king, not knowing whom among those closest to him he could trust, acceded to what became known as the “bayonet” constitution. It provided for voting representation by the people, while preserving power for the nobility in a creatively revolutionary way. To be or vote for a representative, a citizen had to be a Hawaiian or white male, thereby excluding the nation’s 25,000 or so Chinese and Japanese residents. To be or vote for a noble, however, one had to be a Hawaiian or white male with an annual income of at least $600 or $3,000 in property. Few Hawaiians had that.

Kalākaua’s heir to the throne was his sister Lili’uokalani, who opposed these changes, despite the fact that she was steeped in Western culture. Born in 1838, Lili’uokalani had been educated at elite Hawaiian boarding schools run by missionaries. She was well versed in history, literature, science, and math, and a gifted pianist and composer. Nevertheless, when she ascended the thrown in 1891, Lili’uokalani embarked on an effort to restore power to—depending on one’s point of view—Hawaii’s natives or herself:

I inquired at the opening of the cabinet meeting what was the business of the day, to which reply was made that it was necessary that I should sign without any delay their commissions, that thus they might proceed to the discharge of their duties. “But gentlemen,” said I, “I expect you to send in your resignations before I can act.” My reasoning was that, if they were new cabinet ministers, why should they appeal to me to appoint them to the places that they already filled?

Lili’uokalani’s position was legally sound, and she won the right to nominate new ministers. Since, under the “bayonet” constitution, the monarch could not dismiss a cabinet member after the nominee had been approved by the legislature, Lili’uokalani chose carefully those who would, in effect, run the country. She and her advisers also began to draft a new constitution that would extend greater voting rights to nonwhite citizens. That task was sidetracked, however, when the legislature rejected her cabinet nominees. A tug of war began, ostensibly over nominee negotiations but, as Lili’uokalani knew, really over something far more profound. Hawaii’s wealth had enriched and empowered the white population, but, as Lili’uokalani wrote, “sooner or later [it will] … also elevate the masses of the Hawaiian people into a self-governing class.”

Indeed, Lili’uokalani’s struggle roused the nation’s nonwhite residents. In response, the white residents formed a Committee on Public Safety, which approached the U.S. commissioner to Hawaii for protection. He in turn instructed the commander of the USS Boston, at anchor in Pearl Harbor, to dispatch its Marines. Lili’uokalani later recalled:

At about 2:30 PM, Tuesday [January 17, 1893], the establishment of the Provisional Government was proclaimed, and nearly fifteen minutes later Mr. J. S. Walker [president of the Legislative Assembly] came and told me “that he had come on a painful duty; that the opposition party had requested that I should abdicate.” … Since the troops of the United States had been landed to support the revolutionists by the order of the American minister, it would be impossible for us to make any resistance.

Later that day, the chairman of the Committee on Public Safety declared to a mass gathering outside the government building that Lili’uokalani had abdicated and that a provisional government would rule until union with the United States was completed.4 Sanford Dole had been selected as president of the provisional government.

Dole, the son of missionary parents, had been born in Honolulu in 1844. Though he left Hawaii to attend Williams College in Massachusetts and was, for a brief time, an attorney in Boston, he returned to practice law and was elected to the legislature in 1884. Three years later, he participated in the delegation that had maneuvered King Kalākaua into signing the “bayonet” constitution, transferring power to the white minority. Dole became a justice of the Hawaiian Supreme Court that same year.

Not all white people in Hawaii supported Dole and his colleagues in their quest for annexation, since the 1882 U.S. prohibition of Chinese immigration would be applied to Hawaii, thus ending a main supply of imported labor. On the other hand, the United States had not restricted Japanese immigration. And Japan, as newspapers were beginning to report, was becoming a force to be reckoned with—and was already the nation Hawaii most feared. “The Hawaiian government is now endeavoring to check further Japanese immigration,” the New York Times reported in September 1897, noting that Dole’s government feared “Japanese influence and numbers may become too powerful and possibly overthrow the republic and bring about Hawaiian annexation to Japan.” Previously, the November 1896 issue of Harper’s Monthly had included an article entitled “The New Japan.” It coincided with news reports regarding Japan’s formal protest of American efforts to annex Hawaii.

But Japan declared it had no intention of annexing Hawaii. “I am instructed by the imperial Government to state most emphatically and unequivocally that Japan has not now and never had any such design, or designs of any kind, against Hawaii,” its foreign minister stated.5 (The United States, when Daniel Webster was secretary of state, had said the same thing.)

Most likely, opinions in Japan were mixed, as they certainly were in the United States. The New York Times expressed the views of those Americans who opposed the annexation of Hawaii, many of whom also deplored Hawaii’s coup d’état. Three editorials appeared in 1893 alone bearing headlines such as, “To Convey a Stolen Kingdom,” “A Case of Government by the Few,” and “A Shameful Conspiracy.”

Many other Americans, however, supported annexation. Voicing their views that same year was the Chicago Tribune, arguing in a February editorial:

The objections made nearly a century ago to the purchase of Louisiana were similar to those made now to the annexation of Hawaii. It was asserted that that territory was a great ways off, that its [Louisiana’s French-speaking] inhabitants were un-American … that it would be impossible to defend in case of war with a foreign country. All those were as naught when weighed against the fact that it was necessary for the United States to own the mouth of the Mississippi. It is necessary now that the United States should have Hawaii for the safety of its oceanic commerce.

Even at the highest level of leadership, Americans were of two minds about this unprecedented extension of the country’s borders. President Benjamin Harrison had supported it. But he had been defeated in 1892 for reelection by the man he himself had defeated for reelection, Grover Cleveland. President Cleveland opposed Hawaiian annexation. Moreover, he ordered an investigation into U.S. military involvement in the coup d’état, raising the possibility that he might support the return to power of Lili’uokalani.

Given these uncertainties, Dole expected that the American debate would be long and drawn out. Consequently, he proceeded to turn the provisional government into an official republic, the first step of which was writing a constitution. This entailed defining how Hawaiians would elect their leaders, and that entailed confronting Hawaii’s underlying conflict: power versus race.

Dole sought guidance from an American constitutional scholar at Columbia University, John W. Burgess, to whom he described the delicate issue:

Under the monarchy there were two classes of legislators who sat together and who were elected by voters having different qualifications. There are many natives and Portuguese, who had had the vote hitherto, who are comparatively ignorant of the principles of government, and whose vote from its numerical strength as well as from the ignorance referred to, will be a menace to good government.6

Burgess replied: “I understand your problem to be the construction of a constitution which will place the government in the hands of the Teutons, and preserve it there, at least for the present.” He recommended separating the legislature into a system similar to the American Senate and House of Representatives, but tailored to Dole’s concerns. In addition to maintaining the current voting restrictions, Burgess suggested that the new Hawaiian republic “elect your president by a college of electors, … that one half of those electors should be elected by the voters for the members of the lower house of the legislature, and the other half should be elected by the voters for the upper house of the legislature.” By this method, white residents would garner yet another advantage in determining the nation’s leadership. Burgess closed his letter with some added advice: “Appoint only Teutons to military office.”

Meanwhile, President Cleveland adjudged that, despite legitimate grievances and policy disputes, the coup d’état that had ousted Lili’uokalani was made possible through the use of American troops that had been deployed without presidential or congressional authorization. Consequently, he sent Kentucky Congressman Albert S. Willis to Hawaii to commence efforts to reinstate the queen, provided she grant amnesty to those who had participated in her ouster. Lili’uokalani was less than enthusiastic about this proviso. “There are certain laws of my government by which I shall abide,” she stated. “My decision would be, as the law directs, that such persons should be beheaded and their property confiscated to the government.”

After a month of meetings with Willis and her advisers, the dethroned queen revised her view. “I must forgive and forget the past,” she now officially declared. One day later, Willis sent a message to Dole demanding his resignation, along with that of all others in the provisional government. After conferring with his cabinet, Dole sent Willis an official response saying, in effect, come and get us. It was a shrewd move, since even President Cleveland was reluctant to invade Hawaii and oust an ostensible democracy headed by white people in order to restore a dark-skinned monarch. Cleveland opted to punt; he submitted the question to Congress.

Rather than drag on, however, the decision was made rather quickly, following the explosion of an American battleship at anchor in Havana. The sinking of the Maine in February 1898 triggered the Spanish-American War. Three months later, Admiral George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet defending the Philippines, a Spanish colony, in the Battle of Manila Bay. Dewey’s victory demonstrated the need for a permanent American military presence in the Pacific. Eight weeks later, on July 4, 1898, Congress enacted a resolution offering annexation to Hawaii. The islands’ white-dominated government readily accepted.

In April 1899 President William McKinley appointed Dole to be Hawaii’s first territorial governor. In November Dole’s twenty-two-year-old cousin, James Dole, arrived in the islands and purchased sixty-four acres of government land on which he grew and canned pineapples. Sanford Dole left the governorship in 1903 to accept a presidential appointment as the territory’s federal judge. When he retired in 1915, his cousin James had expanded his operations and was now exporting roughly $10 million of canned pineapples per year.7 Sanford Dole died in 1926, not long after his eighty-third birthday.

Lili’uokalani remained in Hawaii. The former queen urged her people to accept their future as American citizens. Annexation to the United States brought one immediate improvement for native Hawaiians, in that the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the denial of voting rights based on race or color. Periodically Lili’uokalani traveled to Washington, DC, unsuccessfully seeking government compensation for the loss of her family’s property. She died in 1917 at the age of seventy-nine.

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