The State of Aloha
At the dawn of the 20th century, the oligarchs who controlled Hawaii had a problem. It went back to the days of King David Kalakaua and his coerced acceptance of a new constitution in 1887. Nicknamed the “Bayonet Constitution” because it was signed at the point of one, the monarch’s powers were sharply curtailed.
It was the constitution that Queen Lydia Liliuokalani swore to and inherited when she became the monarch in 1891. She bristled under the restrictions imposed by the legislature, which was dominated by white businessmen and the descendants of missionaries.
When she attempted to restore the monarch’s powers, the haole business community acted quickly. Working in concert with an imperialist American minister and an all-white militia, the queen was ousted. The newly formed emergency government petitioned the United States for an annexation treaty in 1893.
The plan backfired. They petitioned as the presidency of Republican Benjamin Harrison was winding down. Harrison welcomed annexation, signed off on a treaty and sent it over to the Senate during the final days of his administration. The Senate took no action. The new president, Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, who opposed imperialism, recalled the American minister and withdrew the proposed treaty from the Senate.
The emergency government improvised and declared Hawaii an independent Republic. It was an historic misnomer. The Republic had tight restrictions on who could participate in government and who could vote — the franchise tended to be limited to white men who owned a certain amount of property.
The Republic rode out the Cleveland administration, and when an imperialist Republican, William McKinley, returned to the White House, annexation was back on the table. At the dawn of the 20th century, Hawaii had become an American territory.
With annexation Hawaiians became American citizens and they could participate in government again. They returned with a vengeance.
Formed only a few weeks after annexation in a Honolulu shed, the Home Rule Party ran candidates for office. Re-enfranchised Hawaiians vividly remembered the overthrow and the days of the Republic. They dominated the territorial legislature and their candidate won as Hawaii’s delegate to Congress.
Their demands were unacceptable to the white community. Home Rulers wanted land reform, homesteads for Hawaiians, pardoning prisoners, stipends for locals getting their education on the Mainland and issuing licenses for practicing kahuna.
Indeed, the problem facing the oligarchy controlling the islands was democracy itself. Republicans needed a plan to keep control and destroy the Home Rule Party.
One night in the Pacific Club, the country club of the haole elite, Maui’s own planter and missionary scion Henry P. Baldwin met with Prince Jonah Kuhio. Kuhio was an ardent royalist, but was convinced that annexation could not be undone. Baldwin and Kuhio talked for most of the night. In the end, Baldwin convinced Kuhio that the best way to help the Hawaiian people was by joining the Republicans.
It worked. The Republican Party with Kuhio as their candidate crushed the Home Rule Party and kept Democrats in disarray. Kuhio was sent to Congress for nearly 20 years.
Although Kuhio resented his alliance with the former overthrowers and annexationists, he was able to promote more representation of Hawaiians in county governments and the Hawaiian homestead program, which for all its troubles still benefits Native Hawaiians to this day.
But the oligarchical grip over the islands remained firm for decades. As one representative for the plantation owners told Congress a century ago, “the white race, the white people, the Americans in Hawaii are going to dominate and will continue to dominate — there is no question about it.” As the grip of the oligarchs eased in the ’30s, the military itself threatened to take control of the islands and govern by commission. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, it did just that.
After the war, Hawaii’s people were hungry for democracy again. People were eager to vote, run for office and have their voices heard. Those years ushered in great change. It broke Republican control and Hawaii was admitted into the Union. Voter turnout was at an all-time high.
As that era fades further and further into history, it seems that our democratic institutions have become worn out. Voter turnout steadily declined to an abysmal low.
Our State Legislature switched to mail-in voting to bring out the vote. It seemed to have worked. Turnout skyrocketed in our most recent election 2020. It was a good day for democracy in Hawaii. Perhaps this marks a return of vigorous democratic participation and the “problem” of the oligarchs will flourish again. Only time will tell.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”