How did Hawaii become a US State?

Figure 1. The emblem of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

The state of Hawaii is the only tropical state in the United States. It is also an example of late 19th-century expansionism that saw the United States compete with other major Western powers for influence across the World and particularly in the Pacific. Hawaii was also a kingdom and the first government the US overthrew to gain possession of the islands.

The Kingdom of Hawaii

The Kingdom of Hawaii came about after the conquest of the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha, king of Hawaii's main island. In 1810, the islands of Kauaʻi and Niʻihau joined the kingdom after they volunteered to join the larger state. Before this unification of the islands, each of the Hawaiian islands was ruled by local chiefs who were believed to descend from the Polynesian Earth mother goddess. Native Hawaiians do descend from Polynesians who migrated to the islands sometime between 124 and 1120.

James Cook, in 1778, became the first Westerner to encounter the native population. During the 83 years of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the 19th century, many social and political changes occurred on the islands, including increasing trade relations with China and the United States. The first major trade agreements were established with China, with sandalwood traded from Hawaii.

Queen Kaʻahumanu (1819-1832), one of the rulers, also attempted to modernize Hawaiian society by introducing literacy and improving women's rights (Figure 1). The Hawaiian military also modernized with the introduction of canons and muskets. This was also a period when a constitution was established that outlined how the state ruled its subjects. In 1848, the Great Māhele was an event that saw major land redistribution on the islands, with 98 percent of lands going to chiefs and nobles. The new order also made it so that land could not be sold but transferred to others with the same lineage.

However, what also changed Hawaii was smallpox, and other diseases became common as Hawaiians increasingly came into contact with outsiders. The population went from about 120,000 Hawaiians in 1778 to 24,000 by 1920. These demographic changes proved consequential as the islands needed outside labor.[1]

American migrate to Hawaii

Figure 2. Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last native ruler of Hawaii.

In 1849, there was an invasion by French troops over the issue of Catholics gaining religious rights. By this time, Protestant denominations were most active on the islands. The invading force caused damage but eventually withdrew. After 1850, Americans increasingly came to Hawaii and became the most influential on the islands. Initially, missionaries, who largely converted the native population to Protestant Christianity, were the most active in commerce and civil affairs.

The missionaries became powerful in influencing the royal family and set up trade ties with the US. Eventually, most of the islands' indigenous religions faded. Sugar became the primary industry in Hawaii as that was seen as the most profitable, with more Americans migrating to the islands and setting up plantations. This also changed Hawaii's demographic makeup by bringing over 200,000 laborers from East Asia, including China, Japan, and the Philippines. Many of these laborers stayed after their contract periods, although most did go home.

Overtime, Hawaiians became more ethnically diverse, and interracial marriages became common. In 1872, the first ruling Hawaiian dynasty, the Kamehameha dynasty, died out. With the dynasty's death, monarchs became elected, with the first elected monarch being William C. Lunaii. In 1887, the so-called Bayonet Constitution, because it was threatened by force on the king, was passed, which effectively made the Hawaiian kingdom a constitutional monarchy similar to the United Kingdom. This gave the legislature and cabinet government power over the king.

In 1891, Liliʻuokalani became the queen in Hawaii, and she soon threatened to change the constitution to put more power back in the monarch's hands (Figure 2). The queen came in a time of economic troubles for Hawaii, as William McKinley, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had supported legislation that created what became known as the McKinley tariffs that helped to remove advantages Hawaiian exporters enjoyed previously in the US. The tariffs became a catalyst to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

On January 17, 1893, a group of non-natives (5 Americans, 1 British, and 1 German) overthrew the queen as they saw the tariffs as a threat to their businesses. The local US government minister, John L. Stevens, then ordered US sailors to land on the island and take up positions on key areas of US interest. The Committee of Safety, a group of mainly US individuals with business and missionary interests that planned and supported the overthrow, proclaimed an 'imminent threat to American lives and property' to justify the overthrow and occupation of the Hawaiian islands by US forces. This effectively ended the Hawaiian Kingdom.[2]

Joining the US

Hawaii from 1893-1895 had effectively been ruled by the Committee of Safety, who had lobbied formal annexation of Hawaii by the US government. The new government was known as the Republic of Hawaii, with Sanford B. Dole as head of government. However, instead, President Cleveland felt the overthrow during the time of his predecessor was illegal and wanted Queen Liliʻuokalani back on the throne.

A royalist faction had attempted to overthrow the Republic but was stopped before their attempt came into fruition, and the Queen was now placed in house arrest and was made to abdicate the throne formally. By 1897, the new President, William McKinley, was determined to expand the United States as European and other powers also extended their territory globally and across the Pacific. He felt the United States needed to compete. Japan had vehemently opposed annexation, even sending warships if it foreshadowed the events of Pearl Harbor 44 years later.

With the Newlands Resolution on July 7, 1898, Congress paved the way for Hawaii to be formally annexed. Despite widespread opposition that wanted the queen to be reinstated, Sanford B. Dole was appointed as the new territory governor in 1900. Hawaiin governors became appointed by the US president, with advice and consent from the Senate, under the Organic Act, which also established Hawaii's territorial government.[3]

Hawaii Statehood

Throughout the early half of the 20th century, Hawaii was dominated by major sugarcane companies. The Republican party mostly ran the territorial government and held power during this time. The military, particularly the Navy, saw Hawaii as critical to the Western defenses of the US. After the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the US into World War II, Japanese Americans, who made up a much larger percentage of residents in Hawaii relative to other states, avoided being interned, mainly due to their large numbers.

Hawaii saw a large influx of soldiers during World War II as it was used as the launching grounds for the US to attack the Japanese Empire. Interestingly, the most decorated US unit in World War II for its size, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was mainly composed of Japanese-Americans who fought in Europe. In 1952, the Democratic Party became the most powerful political force on the islands, paving the way for industrial strikes and labor movements that weakened the sugarcane plantations that dominated the local economy.

By this stage, the Democrats made many appeals for statehood, and in 1959 Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act to allow Hawaii to become the 50th state. The vote was preceded by a referendum in which 93% of the population had wanted statehood for the islands.

During the 1960s, there was renewed interest in Hawaiian culture and language as many on the islands saw the nature in which Hawaii became a US territory as illegal. After decades of lobbying, in 1993, President Clinton signed the "Apology Resolution" to formally give the US government apology for Hawaii's conquest: 'Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893...and the deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination.'[4]

There remains an active Hawaiian independence movement that has advocated for Hawaii's sovereignty and native rights. In 2009, President Obama supported The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2009, allowing a native Hawaiian government to form similar to native groups in the continental US. However, with political infighting, the bill never came to fruition.

In 2015, the Department of Interior announced procedures to enable a Native Hawaiian government to be formed. However, lawsuits filed stopped the process from taking effect, citing that elections cannot use race as a way to define who can vote. Creating an independent Hawaiian government has been stalled by race as a defining characteristic of who can vote.[5]


To this day, Hawaii is the only state that the US government has officially apologized for how we took it over. Hawaii is mainly known as a vacation paradise for most Americans. Still, for native populations, there is lingering resentment on how a once independent country was annexed without any possibility for native groups to voice their opinion on the matter. Most Hawaiians pushed for statehood in the early 20th century, as gaining statehood ensured more resources for the island and greater rights. The independence movement is active, but Hawaii has also become much more diverse as non-natives have also moved to the islands.


  1. For more on how the Hawaiian kingdom became established, see Potter, N.W., Kasdon, L.M., Rayson, A., Potter, N.W., 2003. History of the Hawaiian kingdom. Bess Press, Honolulu.
  2. For more on the last decades of an independent Hawaii and how the last monarch was overthrown, see: Siler, J.F., OverDrive, I., 2012. Lost Kingdom. Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  3. For more on the process of Hawaii becoming part of the United States, see Bell, R.J., 1984. Last among equals: Hawaiian statehood and American politics. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.
  4. For more on 20th-century politics in Hawaii, see: Coffman, T., 2003. The island edge of America: a political history of Hawai’i. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
  5. For more on Hawaii's independence movement, see: Kauanui, J.K., 2018. Paradoxes of Hawaiian sovereignty: land, sex, and the colonial politics of state nationalism. Duke University Press, Durham.