Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.
On July 7, 1898, President William McKinley signed the joint resolution annexing the islands of Hawaii which eventually became the 50th U.S. state in 1959.
Hawaii’s path to statehood was both long and conflicted, creating controversy even today. Acknowledging Hawaii’s complicated history and relationship with the federal government allows for a more nuanced understanding of statehood and the historical impact of creating the current United States.
U.S. presence on the island began soon after they were “discovered” by British explorer James Cook in 1778. European and American settlers, missionaries, and traders came to the island and helped Kamehameha the Great unite all the Hawaiian islands under his leadership by 1810. During this 32-year period, American interest in the islands grew as White businessmen operated a growing number of sugar plantations. Behind the scenes, U.S. government officials started maneuvering for statehood.
By 1887, American businessmen held the dominant power in the kingdom. In 1891, Queen Lili’uokalani came to the throne. She attempted to restore the power of her position and Hawaiian rights and claimed that any U.S. annexation of Hawaii without due process of law and compensation was unacceptable. On January 14, 1893, White business leaders forced her abdication and formed the provisional Republic of Hawaii. They also asked that the U.S. formally annex Hawaii into statehood rather than just holding it as a territory.
During this time, the population makeup of the islands began to shift as White American businessmen who owned the plantations imported Chinese migrant labor to work the sugar fields. By 1890, Asian immigrants made up 32 percent of the total population. The influx of the two demographics pushed Native Hawaiians to the margins, causing their dispossession and displacement. Annexation would only exacerbate the issues, further reducing the Native Hawaiian population’s power and influence.
After the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani, Native Hawaiians formed the Hawaiian Patriotic League, consisting of two groups, the Hui Aloha ‘Aina (the women’s division) and the Hui Kālaiʻāina (the men’s division). These organizations furthered Hawaiian nationalist ideology. On September 11, 1897, Hawaiian women signed a petition against annexation; these petitioners were mainly members of the Hui Aloha ‘Aina.
Addressed to “His Excellency” William McKinley and the Senate of the United States of America, the petition states that the members of the League “earnestly protest against the annexation of the said Hawaiian Islands to the said United States of America in any form or shape.” In addition, the League wrote the protest in both English and the native ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi language. In total, the League garnered more than 21,000 signatures against annexation.
Though the immense outcry and activism by Queen Lili’uokalani served to delay Hawaii’s annexation, the 1898 Spanish-American War—and the fears it generated—spurred Congress to ratify Hawaii’s annexation. The Hui Aloha ‘Aina and the Hui Kālaiʻāina turned their activism efforts towards ensuring that Native Hawaiians received political and civil rights under U.S. Government authority.
Hawaiians’ fight against U.S. annexation shows the country’s complicated history of expansion, imperialism, and capitalism. Many Native Hawaiians continue to assert the island’s individuality and independence, offering an alternative narrative to the one presented in U.S. history textbooks. Recognizing the United States’ fraught history of growth leaves room for truth and nuance in the country’s narrative.
Many documents related to the annexation of Hawaii are located at the National Archives. Check out this link for further primary sources, or visit these additional resources:
- Hawaii’s Long Road to Statehood (Pieces of History blog)
- Joint Resolution to Provide for Annexing the Hawaiian Islands to the United States (1898) (Milestone Documents)
- Making Good History: Preserving Records of the February 1893 Negotiations with Hawaiian Commissioners (Text Message blog)