Hawaii’s long road to statehood

Today’s blog post comes from Lily Tyndall in the National Archives History Office.

Map of the Territory of Hawaii, 1915. (National Archives Identifier 25464219)

Hawaii’s journey to statehood was long and difficult.

For centuries the islands of Hawaii were ruled by warring factions. In 1810, King Kamehameha unified all of the Hawaiian Islands into one royal kingdom.

During the 19th Century, Western influence grew and by 1887 the Kingdom of Hawaii was overrun by White landowners and businessmen. They forced then-King Kalākaua to sign a constitution stripping him of his power and many native Hawaiians of their rights.

In 1893, his successor Queen Lili’uokalani introduced a new constitution that would restore her power and Hawaiian rights. In response, the powerful White residents of Hawaii formed the “Committee of Safety” and overthrew Lili’uokalani to create their own government.

Letter from Lili’uokalani, Queen of Hawaii to U.S. House of Representatives protesting U.S. assertion of ownership of Hawaii, December 19, 1898. (National Archives Identifier 306653)

Although President Cleveland’s Blount Commission found that Lili’uokalani had been overthrown illegally, she never regained her throne. The Committee of Safety formed a new government of White officials known as the Republic of Hawaii.

In a letter of protest written to the U.S. House of Representatives, Lili’uokalani stated that the Committee took her throne illegally, and that any U.S. efforts to annex Hawaii without the due process of law would be unacceptable.

Nevertheless, the U.S. annexed Hawaii easily with an American-run government already in power, making it the U.S. Territory of Hawaii in 1898.

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.

J. Res. 1 of the Legislature of the Territory of Hawaii, August 15, 1903. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

Over the course of the next 50 years, the Territory of Hawaii worked to achieve statehood. The legislature sent multiple proposals to Congress including a joint resolution requesting statehood in 1903, only to be denied. Other resolutions were similarly ignored.

In 1937, a congressional committee found that Hawaii met all qualifications for statehood and held a vote on statehood in Hawaii. Although this resulted in a vote in favor of statehood, the attack at Pearl Harbor paused all talks as the Japanese population in Hawaii came under suspicion by the U.S. government.

Hawaii’s territorial delegate Joe Farrington, elected in 1942, revived the battle for statehood after the war.

While the House debated and passed multiple Hawaii statehood bills, the Senate did not vote on them.

Hawaiian activist groups, students, and political bodies sent in letters endorsing statehood in hopes of spurring congressional action. 

President Eisenhower signing the Hawaii Statehood Bill, March 18, 1959. (Eisenhower Presidential Library, National Archives)

In the 1950s Congress combined Hawaii’s statehood bid with Alaska’s. Congress ultimately decided to first grant statehood to Alaska, a then-Democratic leaning territory, in early in 1959. With this new Democratic state, Congress was now open to granting the then-Republican leaning Hawaii statehood to restore political balance.

Finally, in March 1959, a Hawaii statehood resolution passed both the House and the Senate, and President Eisenhower signed it into law. That June, the citizens of Hawaii voted on a referendum to accept the statehood bill.

On August 21, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the official proclamation admitting Hawaii as the 50th statemarking the end of over half a century of work for Hawaiian statehood.

Many documents regarding Hawaii statehood, including Lili’uokalani’s letter of protest, the Hawaiian legislative resolution for statehood, and even student brochures and personal letters written by Hawaiians are held here at the National Archives.

Legislative documents related to Hawaii statehood can be found in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. It houses congressional records such as bills and resolutions, memos, and committee reports from both the House and the Senate.

Executive documents related to Hawaii statehood including letters, press releases, and the President’s remarks can be found in the Eisenhower Library. It houses documents and artifacts of the Eisenhower administration.

4 thoughts on “Hawaii’s long road to statehood

  1. It was said the indigenous people were reluctant or refused to work in the “white man” business ventures. Permission was given first by the monarch to import labor.

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