Today is Election Day, that momentous occasion when we affirm ourselves as a free nation and elect people who will decide the direction of the county and the country in these unsettled times.
I suspect those of you who read this are executing your right to vote, but I wish more of Hawaii's noncomplying voters would turn out. "It's all rigged," seems to be a common excuse.
We take universal suffrage as a given, but as events around the world show, it's always hard-fought. Hawaii has a long history of granting the vote to the masses and then denying it.
In 1837, the Protestant mission brethren excused the Rev. William Richards from his duties at the Lahaina Station so that he could educate Kauikekaouli, the young Kamehameha III, and the high chiefs in American constitutional law. They met in the longhouse built over the king's taro patches where the Lahaina library is now and deliberated for several years.
In the summer of 1840, they moved back and forth between Lahaina and Honolulu, drafting the kingdom's new constititution, which Richards hoped would protect the people from abuse by limiting the absolute authority of the ruling chiefs and defining their duties.
It established a legislature consisting of 15 hereditary chiefs and seven elected representatives, the first time the common people were given a role in the government. It called for this body to appoint four judges, who, with the king and kuhina nui (premier), formed a Supreme Court.
Kamehameha III - known to history as "Ka Mo'i Lokomaika'i'," the beneficent king - signed the new code of laws on Oct. 8, 1840, in Honolulu, the first of many acts during his reign intended to empower the people.
The updated constitution of 1852, authored at the end of the reign of Kamehameha III by the young Supreme Court Judge William L. Lee, bore the imprint of American political ideals and was considered a model in protecting the civil liberties of the Hawaiians. The legislature was refashioned into two houses sitting in separate chambers. The nobles were selected by the king for life, but all male citizens were allowed to vote for the House of Representatives.
This universal vote, however, displeased the king's successors.
Six months after Alexander Liholiho, Kamehameha IV, was crowned, he challenged the power granted to the House of Representatives when it deadlocked with the House of Nobles on an appropriations bill.
Members were irresponsible, he said, for authorizing spending beyond the capacity of the kingdom to pay (plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose) and concluded that "the people were not yet fit for Representative Institutions." Alexander and his brother, Lot, made many unsuccessful attempts to amend the constitution in favor of a stronger executive and were rebuffed each time.
Lot came to the throne in 1864 as Kamehameha V, determined to "rule as well as reign," and refused to take an oath upholding the 1852 constitution. "I believe that universal suffrage is a right altogether beyond the political capacity of the people as it exists to-day (sic)," he told his Cabinet.
Prosperity and the accumulation of property, he believed, were the best indices of the intelligence and capability of an individual.
The king's move to curtail his subjects' political liberties provoked an outcry among educated Hawaiians, missionaries and foreigners with American sympathies.
He convened a constitutional convention hoping to persuade Hawaiian delegates to support him, but they refused to compromise on an article that set a literacy test and property and income qualifications for voters, $100 worth of land or $75 a year in income.
Kamehameha V then took matters into his own hands and dissolved the convention. "I make known today that the constitution of 1852 is abrogated," he told the delegates. "I will give you a Constitution."
The constitution of 1864 limited voting rights, abolished the office of kuhina nui and reduced the influence of the privy council. The House of Representatives was folded into the House of Nobles as one collective body, and the king was granted veto power over its actions. In effect, the king and Cabinet became the dominant power in the government.
Kamehameha V handled his authority well and the constitution of 1864 remained in force for 23 years. But as history reveals, the potential for abuse remained. His coup d'etat set "an awful precedent," as the Rev. Dwight Baldwin protested, and proved the undoing of a later king and queen.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.