Queen Liliuokalani and the American Take-over of Hawaii

On January 16, 1893, United States Marines from the U.S.S Boston surrounded the palace of Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii.  The Queen was informed that a “provisional government” composed of American citizens had been established until such time as the island nation could be annexed by the United States.  Queen Liliuokalani peacefully yielded power to avoid bloodshed and put her faith in the government of the United States to restore sovereignty to its peaceful Pacific trading partner.  The story of how the U.S. came to invade this small island nation is a shameful but largely forgotten chapter in American history.

A Western Model Nation

By the mid-19th century Hawaii had developed a modern government as a constitutional monarchy.  American missionaries were firmly entrenched and Protestant Christianity was the dominant religion.  A modern economy based largely on exports had developed, dominated by merchants from the U.S.  Sugar was the most important export crop.  During the Civil War the North relied largely on Hawaiian sugar imports to replace Southern growers, and the industry boomed.  Hawaii’s reigning King Kalakaua did much to assist the sugar industry.  A reciprocity trade treaty was negotiated with the United States and agreements were made with Asian nations to bring in much needed labor.

Nevertheless, a movement grew among American citizens in Hawaii to gain greater control over the country.  Many favored annexation by the United States.  In 1887, these citizens drew up a new constitution with the intention of assassinating the king and establishing a republic.  At the last minute, fears of the reaction of the vastly larger native population caused the revolutionaries to rewrite the document, leaving the king in place but stripping him of power.  Hawaii had no standing army to speak of, and militia companies organized by the revolutionaries presented the new constitution to the king essentially at gunpoint, causing it to be dubbed the “Bayonet Constitution.”  Provisions in the constitution ensured that American business interests would remain in control of the government.

Queen Liliuokalani

When King Kalakaua died in January 1891, his sister, Queen Liliuokalani ascended the throne.  By this time revolutionaries were at a fever pitch over the McKinley Tariff of 1890, which caused a recession in the islands by withdrawing the safeguards ensuring a mainland market for Hawaiian sugar.  Under the 1887 constitution, power was essentially vested in the legislature and the cabinet of ministers, both controlled by American business interests, but Liliuokalani found a loophole.  The death of the former King allowed her to dismiss the cabinet, as the constitution makes no provision for their continuance after the death of a monarch.  Over the coming months, Liliuokalani selected new cabinets, only to have them removed by the legislature.  As the wrangling continued, Liliuokalani was forced to sign questionable bills passed by the legislature which would later be used by Americans to condemn her, including a lottery bill and legalized opium trade.

photo of Queen Liliuokalani
Queen Liliuokalani


In Participant Account #1, an excerpt from Liliuokalani’s autobiography, Liliuokalani describes a great upwelling of support among native Hawaiians for a new constitution.  Supporters drew up a constitution that essentially restored the pre-1887 government.  Word reached American interests and became the pretext for a coup.  John L. Stevens, the American minister to Hawaii and an ardent supporter of annexation, called on troops from the U.S.S. Boston to enter the city and take control of Iolani Palace and various other governmental buildings.  In Account #3, we see that Stevens justifies this action “for the protection of the United States legation and United States consulate, and to secure the safety of American life and property.”  Yet in Account #2, Liliuokalani describes the city as peaceful that day.  A provisional government was established with Sanford B. Dole, one of the leaders of the coup, as President.  In Account #1 Liliuokalani describes the charges the revolutionaries made against her.  The provisional government almost immediately sends a delegation to Washington to seek annexation, as Stevens describes in his letters in Account #3.
photo of John L. Stevens
John L. Stevens
President Cleveland took office soon after and was unhappy with the situation.  He sent James H. Blount to replace Stevens as minister to Hawaii and to report on the situation.  Blount interviewed all parties and submited an exhaustive 1300 page report in which he concluded that the majority of Hawaiians supported Liliuokalani.  He implicated Stevens in the illegal overthrow of Liliuokalani and recommended she be restored.  Blount returned home and Albert S. Willis was sent as the new American minister to discuss the possibility of restoring Liliuokalani to the throne.  Liliuokalani describes in her autobiography that her discussions with Willis were confusing and led to the false charge in American newspapers that she would behead the revolutionaries if restored to power.  Congress intervened and on July 4, 1894, the Republic of Hawaii with Sanford B. Dole as president was declared and recognized by the United States government.  Official U.S. policy was to let Hawaii determine its own government.

In January 1895, an attempt was made by native Hawaiians and sympathetic Americans to overthrow Dole’s government.  In her autobiography, Liliuokalani describes how she is aware of the rebellion but takes no active part.  The rebellion swiftly failed.  A collection of antique firearms that belonged to her late husband was used to accuse Liliuokalani of maintaining a cache of weapons for the rebels.  She was imprisoned and told that she would be put to death along with the rebels.  Her autobiography describes her imprisonment and how her captors evidently change their mind about execution for fear of American public opinion.  Liliuokalani was presented with a document formally abdicating the throne and told the rebels would be executed if she did not sign.  Liliuokalani chose abdication to save the lives of her supporters.  Nevertheless, Liliuokalani was tried for treason and sentenced to pay $5000 and serve 5 years in prison at hard labor (which she doesn’t serve).  At her trial Liliuokalani made an eloquent statement defending her actions and pleading for the future of her nation, found in Account #4.

Not all Americans approved of what happened in Hawaii.  As previously mentioned, Americans took part in the rebellion of 1895, which attempted to restore Liliuokalani.  In his letters to Washington, Stevens speaks of  “ ‘liberals,’ as they term, themselves, composed mostly of the irresponsible white voters” who support Liliuokalani.  At least one American journalist was ousted by Dole for showing sympathy for the Queen.  Political cartoons from the time express concern in the American population over annexation.

Sanford B. Dole
Sanford B. Dole


In 1898, Hawaii was annexed to the United States through a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress under Present William McKinley.  Liliuokalani wrote her autobiography and continued to live in Hawaii until her death in 1917.  In 1993, on the one hundred year anniversary of the coup, President Clinton signed a bill into law formally apologizing to Hawaii for the illegal invasion by the United States.


It is comforting to remember the great things we have done as a nation.  America was founded on ideals of freedom and self-determination that are a model to the world.  Yet, we have not always lived by those ideals.  Greed and feelings of innate superiority have led our ancestors to make decisions we can scarcely be proud of.  Our past has a bearing on our present and our future.  Understanding the mistakes we have made helps us understand the implications of our future decisions.  If we persist in a view of the past that insists that America can do no wrong, we will scarcely question the course we take in the future.

Stories like the invasion of Hawaii must be told.  Liliuokalani, while she would not consider herself an American, was as intelligent and brave as any that we hold up as American heroes.  One need only read Account #4 to appreciate her eloquence.  By choosing to forget a shameful chapter in America’s story, we deny Liliuokalani the place she deserves in history.

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Created by: Merrill Davis and Mehreen Tejani
Page Created November 15, 2005

We are teacher education candidates at the University of Texas at Austin completing our Student as Historian assignment in order to meet course requirements for Secondary Advanced Social Studies Methods.