As Hawaii celebrates the 60th anniversary of the State’s admission into the Union, there continue to be some observers who think statehood was a mistake.
Look more closely at their reasons, however, and you will see arguments against annexation, not statehood.
Hawaii was a kingdom from 1810 until 1893, and then became a republic in 1894. The monarchy lasted for less than a century, and was not able to prevent outsiders from coming into Hawaii and gaining significant power. These outside interests forced a change in the Constitution. In 1893, when Queen Lili’uokalani tried to rewrite the constitution and take back the power of the monarchy, the powerful business interests were able to overthrow the monarchy entirely.
President Grover Cleveland of the United States said that the overthrow was illegal, but the U.S. government had no power over Hawaii. The most powerful business interests were American, but Great Britain and France also had significant interests there. Worrying that European powers would colonize Hawaii, the American business community in Hawaii worked with the U.S. government to annex Hawaii in 1889. By 1900, Hawaii was a territory of the United States, along with Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
Was annexation good for Hawaii?
At the time, the United States was concerned about European power in the Americas. The U.S. was also flirting with imperialism. There was certainly a lack of respect for the native people of Hawaii, who generally did not want annexation and protested against it. The beginning of the Spanish-American War made the U.S. government feel an urgent need for an offshore military base.
American writers of the time, like Curtiss James, worried that the native Hawaiian population, already much smaller by then than it had been when Europeans first visited the islands, would not be able to defend their nation against other nations. James wrote that it was obvious to him that “it is impossible for the islands to maintain their independence for any length of time.”
“Indeed,” he wrote, the question is not annexation — for this is inevitable — but to which country shall Hawaii be annexed? Shall it be England, Japan, or the United States?”
Annexation of Hawaii would not be the choice the United States would make today. However, it took place long before statehood. Hawaii came under the protection and the power of the United States, and the land was added to the property of the United States. People who refer to statehood for Puerto Rico as “annexation” are mistaken; Puerto Rico already belongs to the United States. Equally, Hawaii by the time of statehood had belonged to the United States for as long as Hawaii has now been a state.
The annexation of Hawaii was controversial then and may still be controversial now, but it was a completely separate event from statehood. The use of the term “annexation” for statehood may be part of the confusion on the part of those who think that Hawaii went directly from being a monarchy to being a State.
By the time the U.S. annexed Hawaii, there had already been efforts to stifle the Hawaiian culture. The teaching of the Hawaiian language was forbidden in schools, the hula had been suppressed by missionaries, and the native Hawaiians were outnumbered by Asian, American, and European settlers who often held the overtly racist attitudes that were common at the time.
Being a territory was not good for everyone in Hawaii. Special tax deals for American companies led to greater prosperity for the owners of sugar plantations, pineapple plantations, and Macadamia nut plantations, but native and immigrant workers alike toiled under oppressive conditions.
With no voting representatives in the federal government — just as Puerto Rico now has no senators or voting members of Congress — the people of Hawaii had little recourse.
Since statehood, the Hawaiian language has been promoted and is an official language of Hawaii. The language is still considered endangered, but its use is increasing. The size of the native Hawaiian population is also increasing; now about 20% of Hawaii residents are identified as native Hawaiians.
Independence was not on the ballot for Hawaii when they voted for statehood. The options were to remain a territory or to become a state. Most native Hawaiians did not vote, according to some Hawaiian scholars, though claims that they were not allowed to are not supported by evidence.
The National Archives report that territory status was beneficial for the few:
As a territory, Hawaii had little power in the United States government, holding only one, non-voting representative in the House. The territory status allowed rich, white plantation owners to import cheap labor and export their products to the mainland with low tariffs. These landowners used their power to keep Hawaii in territorial status.
Native Hawaiians and non-white Hawaiian residents, however, began to push for statehood. These residents wanted the same rights as U.S. citizens living in one of the 48 states. They wanted a voting representative in Congress and the right to elect their own governor and judges, who were currently appointed.
Over the course of the next 50 years, the Territory of Hawaii worked to achieve statehood.
Since statehood, there have been many attempts to provide self-determination for native Hawaiians, specifically the descendants of the subjects of the Hawaiian royal family living in Hawaii in the 1700s and 1800s. These efforts have in many cases tried to give this population a similar arrangement to that of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives.
A 1996 vote showed a 3 to 1 preference for some kind of self-government, though no details were given. Some sovereignty groups objected to the vote on the grounds of low turnout, and no action was taken.
Rather than harming Hawaii, statehood ended the excessive power taken by individuals and corporations in Hawaii both during and after the overthrow of the monarchy.