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  • Special Rights of Citizenship and the Perpetuation of Oligarchic Rule in the Republic of Hawai'i, 1894–1898
  • Ronald Williams Jr. (bio)

The Republic of Hawai'i was a reactionary move—a chaotic answer to unexpected developments. The scant minority of men that had seized power in the Islands on January 17, 1893, had not intended for their provisional régime to rule for any significant length of time. 1 The plan was for a near-immediate annexation of Hawai'i to the United States of America. A year passed without success, and the ruling oligarchy faced the manifest need to establish a more permanent government. The challenge was in crafting a governing framework that retained power within a small group of supporters yet also one that addressed international concerns over the lack of representative government in Hawai'i. An election in May 1894 for delegates to an upcoming constitutional convention achieved the primary requisite of securing a hold on power but fell far short of appearing inclusive. The oligarchy faced unremitting condemnation. United States policy [End Page 71] at the time was to seek the restoration of Mō'ī Wahine (Queen) Lili'uokalani to power while an organized and dedicated royalist/loyalist 2 resistance within the Islands, led by Kanaka 'Ōiwi (Native Hawaiians), threatened to take back the reins of government by force at any moment. In the midst of mounting pressure, both domestic and international, and with their lives quite literally on the line, the leaders of the Provisional Government of the Hawaiian Islands turned to an extraordinary manipulation of suffrage laws to not only disenfranchise its enemies but, more importantly, to enfranchise a specific group of its supporters. The legal codification of the oligarchy's attempt to maintain a stranglehold on power while appearing more democratic was a specific section of an article written into the new 1894 constitution, "Special Rights of Citizenship." 3

A Plan Thwarted

The critical period following the January 17, 1893, coup in Hawai'i had not gone as intended for the insurgents who, with the critical assistance of US troops, had taken control as a white-led, minority oligarchy. 4 Their intention, stated publicly, had been to quickly hand over governance of the Islands to the United States, and less than forty-eight hours after proclaiming the abrogation of the Hawaiian monarchy, annexation commissioners of the Provisional Government left Honolulu Harbor bound for Washington, DC. The men had been assured by the US Minister to Hawai'i, John Leavitt Stevens, that acceptance of an annexation treaty by the American government would be a swift affair. Stevens dashed off an eager note to his supervisors in Washington, announcing, "The Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe, and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it." 5 The conspiracy of the local insurgents and their partners within the American government appeared on track.

However, US President Benjamin Harrison was unable to speed an annexation treaty through Congress in the brief few weeks he had remaining in his term, and America's new chief executive, Grover Cleveland—prompted by an official request from the newly-formed 'Ahahui Hawai'i Aloha 'Āina (Hawaiian Patriotic League)—withdrew the proposed agreement from Congress and launched an official investigation of the "Hawaiian Affair." 6 The resulting report, delivered [End Page 72] by US Special Commissioner James Henderson Blount on July 17, 1893, laid bare American diplomatic and military involvement in the overthrow of the government of the Hawaiian Kingdom in direct contravention of international law and the ongoing treaty of peace and friendship between the two nations. 7 On December 18, 1893, President Grover Cleveland addressed Congress with an admission of American culpability and a call for justice, saying in part:

By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of Congress, the Government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair. 8

Newspaper headlines in Hawai'i...


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pp. 71-110
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