Hawaii’s path to a constitutional republic
by Rachelle Chang, Better Hawaii, August 19, 2014
Statehood was an exciting time for many people in Hawaii. It was something lobbied for, voted on, and celebrated. Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole introduced the first Hawaii Statehood Act in 1919, and 94% of Hawaii voters supported statehood 40 years later. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Hawaii’s statehood proclamation on August 21, 1959.
But today, 55 years later, statehood has become a controversial issue.
I don’t intend to debate the legality or illegality of the monarchy’s overthrow, the formation of the Republic of Hawaii, or annexation by the United States (without a public vote).
I’m not a Hawaiian history scholar or legal expert, but I want to put forward the idea that Hawaii was already influenced by the United States Constitution and heading towards a constitutional republic.
In 1810, Kamehameha I established a monarchy, the Kingdom of Hawaii, after uniting the islands through war and treaty. He vowed to protect ordinary people from war by declaring Kānāwai Māmalahoe, the Law of the Splintered Paddle: “Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety.” It was a revolutionary idea.
In 1839, Kamehameha III enacted the first Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Ke Kumukānāwai o ka Makahiki 1839, which acknowledged the rights of the people. “These are some of the rights which [God] has given alike to every man and every chief, life, limb, liberty, the labor of his hands and productions of his minds.”
A year later, Kamehameha III enacted the second Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Ke Kumukānāwai o ka Makahiki 1840, which affirmed the rights of the people and organized the government. It established a constitutional monarchy – “The prerogatives of the King are as follows: He is the sovereign of all the people and all the chiefs. The kingdom is his.” It established the government, with a Premier of the Kingdom and four governors, with representation by an appointed House of Nobles and an elected representative body.
The Kingdom of Hawaii made several Constitution revisions over the years. Queen Liliuokalani’s draft constitution of January 14, 1893 attempted to restore power to the monarchy that had been eroded – “To the Queen belongs the executive power. All laws that have passed the Legislative Assembly, shall require Her Majesty’s signature in order to their validity” – which may have led directly to the overthrow of the monarchy.
From a society ruled by warring ali’i, Hawaii became a kingdom that guaranteed rights and protections for everyone, and gave people a voice in how the Kingdom was run. Today we are part of the United States; citizens elect our leaders and there are peaceful transitions of power.
I am proud to live in a country and time when men and women can be successful because of their abilities and hard work, and not solely because of their birth. We long for an idealized past, but we need to look to the future. The United States has made many mistakes as a nation, but we keep trying to do better.