This article was originally published in Social Education with reproducible documents. The documents are not included in this text-only version. For information on obtaining the documents mentioned in this article, contact the National Archives Education Branch at the address within the article.

The 1897 Petition Against the Annexation of Hawaii

 

Wynell Schamel and Charles E. Schamel

It is the mission of an archives to collect and preserve the historically significant documents of the organization for which it is responsible. Through the study of original documents in an archives, it is possible for historians and other scholars to piece together what happened in the past, which allows them to write more accurate history books. As researchers reexamine documents that are preserved in archives throughout the world, they occasionally find documentary evidence that either calls into question the interpretation of a historical event or uncovers a lost aspect of the past. Sometimes the documents discovered are of great significance to individuals or groups of people.

The 1897 Hawaiian Petition Against Annexation, stored in the National Archives and Records Administration, is such a document. The petition (actually, two separate petitions by men and women) is highly revered by native Hawaiians today because it stands as proof that the native Hawaiian people did not seek annexation by the United States, but rather, formally opposed it in great numbers. Its rediscovery by the newest generation of historians helps set the record straight.

In 1898, the United States annexed the islands of Hawaii after an 11-year internal struggle between native Hawaiian people and white American businessmen for control of the Hawaiian government and recognition as its legitimate voice on the issue of annexation. The 1897 petition against annexation that was submitted to Congress by the Hawaiian Patriotic League briefly forestalled annexation of the islands by treaty. The coming of the Spanish American War, however, focused the attention of U.S. policy makers on the strategic value of the islands as a mid-Pacific military base, and led to the annexation of Hawaii by means of a joint resolution.

The Hawaiian islands, originally governed individually by chiefs or kings, were united under the rule of a single monarch, King Kamehameha, in 1795. This event occurred just 17 years after Captain James Cook, the first European explorer to set foot on Hawaii, visited the islands in 1778. By 1820, Christian missionaries and American businessmen were established on the islands and had begun a process that, over the following decades, changed the way Hawaiian islanders lived. The influence of the white missionaries, planters, and traders was far-reaching, leading to changes in the landholding system and prohibitions on teaching the Hawaiian language and performing the native Hula dance. Eventually, it led to the overthrow of the traditional Hawaiian monarchy in favor of a constitutional monarchy, and then to the establishment of a government elected by a small group of enfranchised voters.

In 1887, David Kalakaua succeeded King Kamehameha V after the short reign of King William Lunalilo. In spite of the fact that King Kalakaua signed a reciprocity treaty with the United States making it possible for sugar to be sold to the U.S. market tax-free, the haole—or “white”—businessmen quickly became distrustful of him. They criticized his ties to men they believed to be corrupt, his revival of Hawaiian traditions such as the historic hula, and construction of the royal Iolani Palace.

In the very year Kalakaua ascended the throne, a scandal involving the king united his opponents who, under the leadership of Lorrin Thurston, forced the king to accept a new constitution stripping him of executive powers and replacing his cabinet with members of the businessmen’s party. The new constitution, which effectively disenfranchised most native Hawaiian voters, came to be known as the
“Bayonet Constitution” because the king signed it under threat of violence. In succeeding years, there was growing sentiment among white businessmen that annexation by the United States, the major importer of Hawaiian agricultural products, would be beneficial for the economy of Hawaii.

When King Kalakaua died in 1891, his sister Lili’uokalani succeeded him. The new monarch, who resented the constitution her brother had been forced to sign, was persuaded by members of the native population to promulgate a new constitution that would restore executive power to the throne. Queen Lili’uokalani’s attempt to restore the constitution was countered by a small group of white businessmen and politicians who called themselves the Committee on Annexation. Supported by John Stevens, the U.S. Minister to Hawaii, and a contingent of Marines from the warship U.S.S. Boston, the Committee overthrew the queen.

Without permission from the State Department, Stevens recognized the revolutionary regime and proclaimed Hawaii a U.S. protectorate. The Committee on Annexation immediately proclaimed itself to be the Provisional Government. President Benjamin Harrison signed a treaty of annexation with the new government, but before the Senate could ratify it, Grover Cleveland replaced Harrison as president and withdrew the treaty.

President Cleveland then appointed James Blount as Special Commissioner to Hawaii to investigate the United States role in the overthrow of the queen. Blount reported that Minister Stevens had acted improperly, and ordered that the American flag be lowered from Hawaiian government buildings and that Queen Lili’uokalani be restored to power. But the president of the Provisional Government of Hawaii, Sanford Dole, refused to turn over power, objecting that the United States had no right to interfere in the internal affairs of Hawaii. The provisional government proclaimed Hawaii a republic in 1894, and soon it was recognized by the United States.

The overthrow of Lili’uokalani and imposition of the Republic of Hawaii ran contrary to the will of native Hawaiians, who staged mass protest rallies. Two gender-designated groups formed to protest the overthrow and prevent annexation: the Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina, loosely translated as the Hawaiian Patriotic League, and its female counterpart, the Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina o Na Wahine. (These are the groups that later wrote and circulated the petition featured in this article.) On January 5, 1895, the protests took the form of an armed attempt to derail the annexation. The armed revolt was suppressed by republic forces, and for failing to put down the revolt, Queen Lili’uokalani was imprisoned along with its leaders.

On June 16, 1897, U. S. President William McKinley and three representatives of the government of the Republic of Hawaii—Lorrin Thurston, Francis Hatch, and William Kinney—signed a treaty of annexation. President McKinley then submitted the treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification.

The Hui Aloha Aina for Women and the Hui Aloha Aina for Men now organized a mass petition drive, hoping that if the U.S. government was made aware that the majority of native Hawaiian citizens opposed annexation, the move to annex would be stopped. Between September 11 and October 2, 1897, the two groups collected petition signatures at public meetings held on each of the five principal islands of Hawaii. The petition, clearly marked “Petition Against Annexation” and written in both the Hawaiian and English languages, was signed by 21,269 native Hawaiian people, or more than half the 39,000 native Hawaiians and mixed-blood persons reported by the Hawaiian Commission in its census for the same year.

The 556-page petition was then prepared for presentation to the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. Four delegates—James Kaulia, David Kalauokalani, John Richardson, and William Auld—left Hawaii on November 20, 1897, and arrived in Washington on December 6, the day the second session of the 55th Congress opened. There they met with Queen Lili’uokalani, who was already in the nation’s capital lobbying against annexation, and together they planned a strategy to present the petition to the Senate. The following day they met with Senator George Hoar, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and presented the petition to him. On December 9, with the delegates present, Senator Hoar read the text of the petition to the Senate and it was formally accepted.

The next day, the delegates met with Secretary of State John Sherman and submitted a formal statement protesting the annexation to him. In the following days, the delegates met with many senators, voicing opposition to the annexation. By the time the delegates left Washington on February 27, 1898, there were only 46 senators willing to vote for annexation. The treaty was defeated in the Senate.

But other events brought annexation up again immediately. On February 15, 1898, the U.S. Battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor in Cuba. The ensuing Spanish-American War, part of which was fought in the Philippine Islands, established the strategic value of the Hawaiian islands as a mid-Pacific fueling station and naval installation. The pro-annexation forces in Congress submitted a proposal to annex the Hawaiian Islands by joint resolution, which required only a simple majority vote in both houses, rather than by treaty, which needed a two-thirds vote by the Senate. House Joint Resolution 259, 55th Congress, 2d session, known as the “Newlands Resolution,” passed Congress and was signed into law by President McKinley on July 7, 1898.

Thus the Hawaiian Islands were annexed by the United States and remained a U.S. territory until 1959, when they were admitted to statehood as the 50th state. The story of the annexation is a story of conflicting goals as the white businessmen struggled to obtain favorable trade conditions and native Hawaiians sought to protect their cultural heritage and maintain a national identity. Ultimately, the interests of the businessmen won out, and over the coming decades, most historians who wrote the history of Hawaii emphasized events as told by the Provisional Government and largely neglected the struggle of the native Hawaiians. Today, there is a growing movement on the Islands to revive interest in the native Hawaiian language and culture.

The annexation petition with its voluminous signatures, along with many related records, is filed in the Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, at the National Archives and Records Administration. The petitions are available on microfilm as publication M1897.

 

Teaching Activities

1. Project an overlay of the featured document on a screen and ask students to examine it and answer the following questions:

A. What type of document is it?

B. Who wrote the document?

C. To whom was it written?

D. What is the date of the document?

E. What was the purpose of the document?

F. Why do you suppose it was written in two languages?

G. What are the constitutional provisions for petitioning Congress?

H. What do you suppose are the effects of petitions such as this one?

2. Tell students, or have them read, the story of the petition as described in this article. Compile on the chalkboard a list of the main characters and groups who played a role in the annexation of Hawaii. Ask students to choose an individual or group to research and report on in a short essay. Possibilities include: King Kalakaua, Lorrin Thurston, Queen Lili’uokalani, John Stevens, President Grover Cleveland, James Blount, Sanford Dole, Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina, Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina o Na Wahine, President James McKinley, James Kaulia, Senator George Hoar, and Secretary of State John Sherman.

3. Direct students to use the petition and their knowledge of the historical debate to formulate their own positions for or against annexation of Hawaii to the United States. Give the students the following arguments, taken from the May 17, 1898, Report of the Committee on Foreign Affairs Report on H.Res. 259 (House Report 1355, 55th Congress, 2d session), and ask them to hold a committee hearing on annexation using characters researched in Activity 3 as members of or witnesses to the committee.

 

Arguments For

 

Arguments Against

 

4. For a closer look at the history and importance of the featured document, have students view the PBS documentary Nation Within: The Story of America’s Annexation of the Nation of Hawaii, produced by Tom Coffman. To obtain a copy of this video, call 1-800-804-1711.

5. Ask students who are interested in dance, music, and religion to research the historic hula and accompanying chants, the songs of Queen Lili’uokalani and the historic song titled “Kaulana Na Pau,” and traditional Hawaiian beliefs including the Kapu system. Allow time for these volunteers to share what they learn about these cultural topics with the whole class.

6. Divide the class into groups of three and ask them to compile the names and dates of the land acquisitions of the United States and the methods by which they were added. Assign each group an acquisition to research and report the following to the class: What peoples were native to each acquisition? How and from whom were the lands obtained? What conflicts arose over the acquisition? Why did the United States want to add the lands? What states were created from each acquisition? Point out on a map lands that are under the protection of the United States but are not states. Lead a discussion of the benefits of becoming a state versus remaining a territory or protectorate. Include American Samoa, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia (although this land was already part of the United States) in the discussion.

7. Display a map of the United States to the class and ask students which state was the last one to be admitted to the union. Follow with these questions: When was Hawaii admitted? What are the constitutional provisions for admitting states to the union? What are the benefits of statehood? What does a territory lose when it becomes a state? Why do you suppose the United States wanted to admit Hawaii as a state? What do you suppose were some of the objections to admitting Hawaii? By what methods might citizens of Hawaii have protested or supported statehood?

8. Discuss with the students the importance of the document featured in this article as a piece of predominantly unknown history. Ask them to consider why the 1897 Petition Against Annexation is important to Hawaiians and all Americans. Brainstorm with them cases of other ethnic, gender, religious, or social groups whose history has been neglected by recorded history. Identify with your students factors that have contributed to exposing these incidents of concealed history.

9. Ask students why they think it is important to keep records of the past. Follow up with a discussion about why the National Archives preserves and maintains for research the records of the U.S. government. (For information about the mission and functions of the National Archives, check the agency’s website at www.nara.gov.). Assign students to write a reflective thought paper on what would be lost if we did not keep records of the past. Allow time for some of the students to read their papers aloud in class. You might conclude with a discussion about the historic, cultural, and political significance of the recent opening of the Russian National Archives.

 

Wynell Schamel is an education specialist in Public Programs at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, and serves as editor for this regular department of Social Education. Charles E. Schamel is an archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives. For more information, write, call, or e-mail the Education Staff at NARA, NWE, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740; (301) 713-6274; education@arch1.nara.gov.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.