How and Why Did Hawaii Become a Part of America?


American planters had a profound effect on the annexation of Hawaii. They not only brought laborers from their own country to the small monarchy and making original Hawaiians a minority in their own land, but also succeeded in overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy for purposes of securing a market for their sugarcane. This eventually led to the annexation of Hawaii by the United States in 1898. Later in the mid 1930s, plans to make Hawaii part one of the states of the United States started in earnest.

Military and planters

The island of Hawaii was not only a good farming location for the planters, but also an ideal location for military strategists, who liked the strategic location of the island next to the pacific quadrant. Led by Sanford Dole, the Americans forced a new constitution on the islands during the reign of King David Kalakaua. In 1887, they made the King to sign the Bayonet constitution, which drastically reduced his powers and consequently gave native Hawaiians a voice in subsequent government. The same year marked the formation of the Hawaiian league, which was more of a secret society with an approximate 400 people (mostly from the United States and missionary descendants). Their sole aim was to bring a new governance structure to Hawaii in order to secure their interests in the Islands. To the public however, the league said that they wanted to reform the monarchy. Unfortunately, the native Hawaiians loved their monarchy just the way it was. They loved the King, the queen and respected them for their education, intelligence and social graces. They were also comfortable with court ceremonies and other social norms that ensured that peace and justice prevailed in the Islands. The last thing they needed was a constitution imposed on them.

The Bayonet constitution took all the powers from the King and made him just a figure head. Executive powers were placed on the cabinet, which again courtesy of the same constitution, was predominantly made of Hawaiian league members. The King had no powers to dismiss any cabinet member and the powers to amend the constitution were given to the legislative. Apart from this, the bayonet constitution was also intended to reduce and curtail the dominance of Native Hawaiians polling powers and consequently reduce the numbers of their representatives in the legislature. This was done by giving European and American foreigners the rights to vote, while denying Asians (even those who had taken up Hawaiian citizenship by naturalization) the power to vote. To further keep native Hawaiians away from governance, the Bayonet constitution stipulated that the House of Nobles be voted during the polls. Previously it was the King who appointed its members. People who wanted to vie for elective posts ad to meet specific income requirements or property ownership. The voters were also subjected to the same income and property requirements thus locking out two-thirds Hawaiians who could not meet the requirements.Prior to voting for the preferred candidates to the House of Representatives, native Hawaiians had to swear that they would uphold the new Bayonet Constitution.

It did take long for the native Hawaiians, the Asians of Chinese and Japanese origin to start petitioning the King regarding the reduced participation of the natives in the governance of the monarch. Unfortunately, the King had no powers and therefore could do nothing about the situation. There were calls for the revocation of the Bayonet constitution, but once more, the Hawaiian League had beat the natives to this one too; only the cabinet could revoke the constitution.

Hawaii continued being governed as a monarch ruled by Queen Lili’uokalani who took over after the King’s death. She started drafting a new constitution for the monarchy immediately she took over power. Before she proclaimed the new constitution however, the Hawaiian league leaders summoned a Committee of Thirteen, which came up with the plan to overthrow the queen. With the support of John L. Stevens, who was a minister in the United States, the league members got 150 marines and sailors from a visiting ship from the United States to come onto the island. This led to the Queen being overthrown by Americans in January 17 1893. She let go of the monarch mainly because Hawaii did not have an army and therefore knew her monarch could not put up a fight against the marines and sailors. Historians cite sugar interests as the main reason behind the American actions. The Hawaiian monarchy had always ensured that there were favorable treaties between the United States and the Islands since the US was the chief importer of the sugar from the islands.

Earlier in 1826, the United States government had acknowledged the sovereignty of the Hawaii, albeit indirectly by imposing tariffs on sugar imported from the island. This did not seat well with the American farmers who realized that the taxes would have a negative effect to profits obtained from the sugar. To avoid this tariff and restore their profits, the American planters saw it necessary that Hawaii becomes part of the United States. The Hawaiian League was at the fore front of this plan.

The queen petitioned President Grover Cleveland when she travelled to Washington the same year saying that she gave up powers peacefully for purposes of avoiding hurting her people. Dole had threatened to use the US navy warships located on Honolulu harbor on Hawaii if the queen resisted giving up her monarchial powers arguing that he was promoting stability and democracy in the region. Cleveland issued an order to Dole, telling him to reinstate the Queen. He is quoted as having saying how ashamed he was of the whole affair. Dole who had already assumed the presidency of Hawaii said that Cleveland was interfering with the internal affairs of Hawaii and therefore did not do as ordered. Although they did not receive immediate backing from the US government, the US plantation owners had made their intentions known and further planted the idea that America could indeed lay aside its anti-colonial policies to take advantage of the strategic location that Hawaii has it on the Pacific Ocean.

In 1893, the debate on whether to annex Hawaii was introduced in Congress. It took eight years before the joint resolution of the annexation was reached (Kent 1993, 7). However, the urgency in which the annexation resolution was reached raised suspicions especially considering that the senate had always rebuked the attempt to annex the islands, while the public had completely ignored the debate. This was despite 1860s attempt by secretary of state William Seward and president Ulysses Grant’s 1870s attempts to have the resolution passed. In 1892, one of the main annexation planners, Lorrin Thurston had received an assurance from President Benjamin Harrison that his administration would support the annexation. President Grover Cleveland had categorically refused to the annexation idea, but William McKinley, who succeeded him agreed. This was the final stroke that led to the annexation of 1898.

The annexation

After the Hawaiian league success in overthrowing the Monarchy, they pushed hard for the annexation of the islands, claiming that such an action would benefit the Island greatly. The reasons they put forth were political stability, greater economic benefits, and profits to people of Caucasian origin in Hawaii who run businesses. Their efforts were however impeded by law in the United States, which required that for any annexation to take place; those petitioning for such an action must have evidence that the residents of the target country were backing the annexation.

To substantiate this, the law required that the Hawaii league carry out a public vote. Since they stood no chance of getting such a vote, the league members did not try to get one. They however continued to push for the annexation. The people of Hawaii reacted to the ongoing concerns by holding protests in 1887. They also signed and sent an anti-annexation petition to the Congress.The petition clearly showed that the majority of the Hawaiian population was against the annexation. Despite the support for the monarchy by the Hawaiian natives, congress passed the annexation resolution in 1898 and President McKinley signed his approval to the annexation resolution the same year. The rush to annex the islands is widely believed to have been driven by the Spanish-American war outbreak in 1898. Since thousand troops from the United States had gone to Philippines and that Hawaii’s strategic position made the islands a crucial staging point for the US troops during the war.

Until 1941, Hawaii was a territory of the United States. During these years, the economy of the islands grew at an impressive rate especially with the bolstering effect it got from the sugar and pineapple industries. As the economy grew, so did social and political awareness. Native Hawaiians never tired of lobbying congress for the return of land illegally taken from them. Success for them partly came when prince Jonah Kuhio won an election into congress in 1903. Though he lobbied for the return of the land, it would take 17 more years before the US congress could pass the Hawaii Home Commission Act. The act set 200,000 acres of land aside for use by native Hawaiians who had been displaced from their ancestral lands. Unfortunately, bureaucratic red tape made the issuance of these lands drag on for years. Many people died while still on the waiting list. Those who were lucky enough to get the land found the locations too remote for any beneficial use. In frustration, they lodged protests and public appeals, which further worsened the situation.

The war

Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor with bomb-laden airplanes on December 1941, and although people initially thought the airplanes to be mock flights by the US military, the intensity of the situation was realized as soon as huge clouds of smoke emerged from ships anchored in Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack force has 441 aircrafts, 47 submarines and ships. They assaulted US military installation in Pearl Harbor destroying hundreds of airplanes, ships and killing an approximated 3000 people (military men and civilians). Pearl Harbor was the United States’ most valued naval site in the location, and the move by the Japanese was deliberately intended to cause considerable damage to the equipment and people there. Although a number of battle ships and cruisers were either sunk or destroyed, the most devastating attack was on the a 1,777 crew member battleship (USS Arizona), which exploded killing all people on board. This triggered a major reaction in the US consequently marking the beginning of World War II.

The Impact of war in Hawaii can only be described as dramatic. The United States’ army came to the island in droves. They suspended civil rights and enacted martial law. Every one was given a gas mask, and electricity was disconnected in most parts of the islands at night. Even gasoline was sold on rations. The Japanese population both in Hawaii and US were at the receiving end of the US wrath. Luckily for the Japanese population in Hawaii, their contribution to the sugar cane plantations spared them the probability of being rounded up and sent to detention camps like what was done to their colleagues in the United States.

The Japanese population in Hawaii was however viewed with a lot of suspicion, and their loyalty to the US highly doubted. Still, they made a huge percentage of the population in Hawaii especially because they had been imported by the sugar plantation owners as laborers in huge numbers. It was not until 1943, when the United States came under immense pressure to allow the recruitment of the Japanese into the army that the formation of a combat unit made entirely of Japanese was approved. Dubbed the 442nd regimental combat team, the combat team fought bravery in the war earning themselves more medals and commendations than any other army unit that participated in the war.

Becoming a State

Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States in 1959. Starting in the 1900 when the islands were declared part of the US territory, many statehood bills were introduced and shot down in Congress. Considering that the US was still a racially sensitive culture at the time, Hawaii’s multi-ethnic culture did not look like a necessary addition to most congressmen at the time. More to this, it was believed that giving Hawaii a state status would open the American borders to the influx of Asians in the country.

There were also wide-spread believes that the labor unions in Hawaii could spread the communism notion to the larger America. More to this, American congressmen looked down the Hawaiian leaders arguing that they lacked the knowledge, intelligence and morals necessary to help Hawaii transition from a US territory to a fully fledged state. After the role that the 442 regiment combat team played in the WWII, many congressmen started viewing the Asian community in the US in a completely different light. This increased the support for statehood status for Hawaii.

Still, the islands’ tactical position in the Pacific Ocean was a major pushing point for the supporters of statehood status for the islands. Hawaii was admitted into the union in March 1959; just eight months after Alaska had been admitted as the 49th state of the Union. The admission bill was officially appended the presidential signature in august 1959 by President Eisenhower thus officially making Hawaii the 50th American state. In the same year, Daniel K Inouye, became the first elected house of representative member of Asian ancestry. Statehood has had a major impact on the economy of Hawaii especially through boosting the tourism industry. To date, tourism remains the second biggest industry only preceded by the sugar industry


The main reasons why Hawaii was annexed and later granted statehood are mainly for military and economic reasons. Initially, the plantation owners thought the annexation would benefit them economically as it did, but they also succeeded in planting the notion of the strategic position of the islands (for military reasons) to US leaders. To this day however, native Hawaiians have misgiving about what they term as the “illegal actions by the United States to overthrow a legitimate government”. Referring to the queen’s forced exit from the throne and the natives’ state that Hawaii never voluntarily gave up its sovereignty. During President Bill Clinton’s term, he acknowledged that the way the monarch was broken was illegal. In United States Public Law 103-150, the US officially acknowledges that the 1893 actions to overthrow the Hawaii monarchy were illegal. The law further applauds efforts by a church organization to reconcile the state of Hawaii and natives, and further promises its commitment to foster reconciliation efforts between native Hawaiians and the United States. Through the years, native Hawaiians have held onto their culture, hoping that one day the reinstatement of their monarchy will be a reality. With no deliberate efforts forthcoming from the political class however, it is hard to fathom how this can ever happen.

Reference List

Ahmed, Nafeez Mosaddeq. 2002. The war on freedom: how and why America was attacked, September 11th, 2001. London: Media Messenger Books.59-103

Campbell, Jeff. 2007. Hawaii. New Jersey: Lonely Planet. 38-49

Halsey, Francis Whiting. 1912. Great epochs in American history: described by famous writers from Columbus to Roosevelt. Riverside, NJ: Funk & Wagnalls. 155

Kent, Noel. 1993. Hawaii; islands under the influence, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press. 7-10

Pitzer, Pat. 1994. The overthrow of the Monarchy: Spirit of Aloha. Honolulu: Aloha Airlines. 34-45.

Robinson, John and James, Larry. 2003. Diversity in human interactions: the tapestry of America. New York: Oxford University Press US. 95.

Thurston, Lorrin.1897. A hand-book on the annexation of Hawaii. Michigan: A.B. Morse Co. printers. 4.

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