Today in 1898: Hawaii annexed by United States

August 12, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryWhen Hawaii gained statehood in 1959, its streets and beaches erupted in celebration. But 51 years earlier, when Hawaii was annexed by the United States, most native Hawaiians weren’t in any partying mood.

The band played ”Hawaii Pono `I,” the Hawaiian national anthem, as the flag of the Republic of Hawaii was lowered on August 12, 1898. Then, to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner,” the stars and stripes went up.

Hawaii annexation ceremony, HonoluluThe ceremony took place at the ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu, where Hawaii’s Queen Lili’uokalani had been forced to abdicate the throne five years earlier. The relatively bloodless coup d’etat was organized by the islands’ powerful American and European sugar-plantation interests and carried out by a 1,500-man militia known as the Honolulu Rifles.

After the overthrow, the constitutional monarchy was replaced with a provisional government set up by the foreigners. The stated goal of the new government was annexation, with an ultimate goal of gaining more favorable tariff treatment for Hawaii’s sugar exports.

President Grover Cleveland opposed annexation because the overthrow appeared to be illegitimate. “I suppose that right and justice should determine the path to be followed in treating this subject,” Cleveland said in a message to Congress. “If national honesty is to be disregarded and a desire for territorial expansion or dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own ought to regulate our conduct, I have entirely misapprehended the mission and character of our government and the behavior which the conscience of the people demands of their public servants.”

However, when the deposed queen refused one of President Cleveland’s conditions for her reinstatement – amnesty for the coup’s planners – he eventually stood aside and allowed Congress to proceed with the annexation.

More than half of the 40,000 native Hawaiians signed a petition against the annexation, a bold move that put many of their jobs at risk, but to no avail; the provisional government’s strict voting requirements prevented most of the population from voting at all. And to this day, some argue that Hawaii is not really a state at all, but rather a nation under siege.