The 50th at 60: Hawaii’s Statehood Anniversary

August 20, 2019 Updated: August 20, 2019


The most recent state to join the union, Hawaii (or Hawaiʻi), will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its statehood on Aug. 21. The “Aloha State” certainly adds to the beauty of the nation and provides a military foothold in the Pacific that’s particularly important now, as in the past, given recent activity on the Korean Peninsula.

Its journey to statehood also makes for a fascinating historical study.

The earliest identified settlers of the Hawaiian Islands were Polynesian sea voyagers who arrived in the eighth century. The various islands were long ruled by different native factions, but prior to the first arrival of Europeans in 1778, the inhabitants had a highly organized, self-sufficient society similar to many feudal systems of ancient Europe. They had a sophisticated language, a well-established culture, and developed religious practices.

The first Europeans came in 1778 with Captain James Cook, the British explorer. While Cook was killed during a skirmish with islanders in 1779, his arrival marked the beginning of significant changes in Hawaii.

In 1810, King Kamehameha I unified the islands and established a monarchical government. The kingdom used a common-law legal system based on ancient traditions and “practices of the celebrated chiefs that had been passed down” through time, according to the Hawaiian Kingdom government website.

Businessmen and traders were attracted to Hawaii by the ability to deal in sandalwood, which was highly valued in China. The sugar industry, which was introduced in the 1830s, quickly grew. American farmers, traders, and missionaries came, bringing new ideas about political, cultural, economic, and religious life.

The 1839 Declaration of Rights was a significant departure from the ancient Hawaiian ways. It established rights across three different classes: the government, the chiefs, and the native tenants. Rights accorded to chiefs and native tenants included the right to “life, limb, liberty, freedom from oppression; the earnings of his hands and the productions of his mind …”

In 1840, King Kamehameha III relinquished his absolute powers and established a government that acknowledged the rights established in the Declaration of Rights. He enacted a constitution that recognized three branches of government: the king/chief executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. The legislature had both a house of nobles and a house of representatives.

Kamehameha III sent delegations to several nations to secure the recognition of Hawaiian independence and prevent encroachment on its territory. On Dec. 19, 1842, President John Tyler granted assurances that the United States would recognize Hawaiian independence. Similar assurances were received from Great Britain on April 1, 1843. France joined in the agreement later that year.

U.S. businessmen continued to move to the islands, and eventually, a significant portion of the white residents had been born and raised in Hawaii, and considered themselves natives. In 1887, with the legislature out of session, a group of Hawaiian subjects and foreign nationals together with a militia named the “Honolulu Rifles,” threatened to harm King David Kalakaua if he didn’t accept a new government. Within the week, a new constitution was forced upon the king.

In 1893, Kalakaua’s successor, Queen Lili’uokalani, tried to undo the new government by introducing another new constitution that would restore power to Hawaiian nobility. In response, a group of American expatriates and sugar planters formed the “Committee of Safety.” Supported by a division of U.S. Marines, they deposed Lili’uokalani. One year later, the Republic of Hawaii was established as a U.S. protectorate.

Many in Congress opposed the annexation of Hawaii and the way in which it was accomplished. President Grover Cleveland appointed a commission to investigate the overthrow of Lili’uokalani. The commission’s report, known as the Blount Report, identified “the United States’ complicity in the lawless overthrow of the lawful, peaceful government of Hawaii.”

The Blount Report didn’t have the immediate impact that one might think. It was followed in 1894 by the Morgan Report, the conclusions of which contradicted the Blount Report, finding all participants except Liliʻuokalani “not guilty.” That effectively ended Cleveland’s efforts to restore the queen to power. (In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a joint resolution apologizing for the role the United States played in her overthrow.)

The Spanish–American War broke out in April 1898, and the United States annexed Hawaii with a congressional joint resolution three months later. There was already a U.S.-run government in place, so the U.S. military was able effectively to use the Hawaiian Islands as a base for fighting in the Spanish-controlled territories of Guam and the Philippines. After the war, both of them, as well as Puerto Rico, joined Hawaii as territories of the United States.

As a territory, Hawaii’s only voice in the federal government was a single, non-voting representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. Over the next 50 years, territorial leaders worked toward becoming a U.S. state. The Hawaiian legislature sent multiple proposals to Washington requesting statehood, only to be denied or ignored.

Some U.S. lawmakers were concerned about Hawaii’s noncontiguous geographical location. It was some 2,000 miles off the coast and had an undeveloped infrastructure. Other lawmakers were concerned about establishing a state that was governed by an ethnic minority and had the potential of split loyalties. (Even today, Hawaii remains the only state that has an Asian plurality.)

In 1937, a congressional committee finally found that Hawaii met all qualifications for statehood and voted in favor of it. The people of Hawaii also voted: 46,174 in favor of statehood, 22,428 against. Action seemed imminent, but then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Two thousand, four hundred and three Americans were killed, including 2,008 Navy personnel (1,177 from the USS Arizona), 109 Marines, 218 Army soldiers, and 68 civilians.

The tragedy cemented Hawaii’s place in America’s national identity. Pearl Harbor became a rallying cry and a key U.S. Navy base. Action on Hawaii’s statehood, however, was put on hold. Martial law had been declared, and the territorial government had been dissolved. That greatly complicated the statehood cause.

Moreover, territorial Sen. Alice Kamokila Campbell mounted a campaign against statehood. She argued that Hawaiians should not “forfeit the traditional rights and privileges of the natives of our islands for a mere thimbleful of votes in Congress.” She opened an anti-statehood clearinghouse, and sued the statehood commission to stop them from spending public money to lobby for statehood. Eventually, however, the resistance was overcome.

In the 1950s, Congress combined Hawaii’s statehood bid with one from Alaska. When Democratic-leaning Alaska was granted statehood in January 1959, Democrats were more open to granting statehood status to Republican-leaning Hawaii.

In March 1959, Hawaii’s statehood resolution passed both the U.S. House and Senate, and in June of that year, Hawaii’s citizens overwhelmingly voted to support statehood. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the official proclamation to admit Hawaii as the 50th state on Aug. 21, 1959.

With its beautiful beaches, tropical weather, unusual topography, and exotic customs, Hawaii is a popular destination for tourists, surfers, biologists, and volcanologists. It’s also a crucial base for the U.S. military. Its path to statehood had many twists, turns, and difficult moments, but the nation is prettier, stronger, and safer than it would be without the Aloha State.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.