How Hawaii Became a State

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Podcast Transcript

The United States consists of 50 states, each of which is represented by a star on the American flag. 

Most of those states consist of some section of North America divided by lines on a map that separate them from other states, Canada, or Mexico.

But there is one state that is not like the others. It isn’t located in North America. It doesn’t have a land border with anything, and its route to statehood was unlike that of any other state in the union. 

Learn more about the long and controversial way Hawaii became a state on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Hawaii is known for many things. It has one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It is known for its many beautiful beaches. It was the place where surfing was developed. 

However, in the context of the United States, what makes Hawaii special is its unique history and geography. 

For starters, Hawaii is a chain of islands. It isn’t just a chain of islands, it is the most isolated archipelago of islands in the world. There really isn’t anything next to Hawaii. 

Its isolation makes it really far away. Its closest point to the US mainland is almost 2500 miles, or 4000 kilometers away. The distance from Honolulu to Washington DC, the capital of the country, is 4,837 miles or 7,784 kilometers. Honolulu is actually closer to the capital cities of 24 other countries than it is to Washington. 

While the geography of Hawaii is undoubtedly very different from every other state, what makes Hawaii even more different is its history. 

Hawaii was the 50th and last state to join the union. Why took it so long to achieve statehood and the reason it even became part of the United States in the first place is a story filled with kings, queens, skulduggery, violence, and patience. 

The story starts with the fact that Hawaii is a Polynesian island and part of the Polynesian Triangle. I’ve mentioned the Polynesian Triangle several times, and if you are to know anything about Polynesia, this is one of the things you should know. 

The Polynesian Triangle is the rough area that defines the islands settled by Polynesians. It consists of New Zealand in the southwest, Easter Island or Rapa Nui in the southeast, and Hawaii in the north. 

The Hawaiian islands were some of the last islands in the Pacific that were settled due to their isolation and distance from other Polynesian islands. The first humans to arrive in Hawaii probably came from Tahiti.

When they actually arrived has been subject to debate, and there is a wide range of estimates. The earliest estimates place the first Hawaiians arrived around the year 300, and the earliest carbon-14 dating has humans arriving somewhere around 900 to 1100. 

However, the story of modern Hawaii begins in the 18th century. In particular, there are two individuals who shaped what Hawaii was to become. 

The first was the British captain James Cook, a man who has made an appearance in many episodes. He is important because he was the first European to arrive in Hawaii in 1778. Some claim that a Spanish captain, Ruy López de Villalobos, may have found it 200 years earlier, but if that’s true, nothing came of it. 

The other major figure was King Kamehameha I. Kamehameha was the first person to unify all of the Hawaiian islands under a single kingdom, a process which he began in the 1790s and completed in 1810 with the capitulation of the island of Kaua’i.

Kamehameha was a brilliant strategist and a feared warrior. There are some estimates that he may have been as much as seven feet tall, given the surviving items of his, which still exist. 

In addition to being an excellent military strategist, Kamehameha was also willing to adopt new technologies to achieve his goals. He received cannons and guns from Europeans, which helped him to quickly consolidate his kingdom. 

Kamehameha’s deal with Europeans was a double-edged sword. They helped him gain power, but it came at an enormous cost. 

Europeans brought diseases such as smallpox and measles with them, which decimated the native population in Hawaii. Estimates vary, but prior to European contact, there may have been as many as 120,000 to 300,000 native Hawaiians. 

By the late 19th century, that number was around 40,000. The biggest epidemic was a plague that hit the islands in 1803.

The Hawaiian Royal Family, the House of Kamehameha, quickly became Westernized and adopted many Western traditions. They tried to establish diplomatic relations with other countries to ensure their independence. 

This courting of Western powers can be seen in the Hawaiian state flag today, which actually has the Union Jack on it. The flag was designed as a compromise between British and American interests.

However, throughout the 19th century, Westerners, particularly Americans, began exerting more and more influence in Hawaii. Missionaries came to spread Christianity, and businessmen arrived to establish plantations to grow sugar cane. More and more Hawaiian land was being purchased by these foreigners, and all the while, the population of native Hawaiians was shrinking. 

In 1874, the Hawaiian King Lunalilo died without an heir. After a referendum to select a new monarch, supporters of the winner of the popular vote, the wife of the precious king, attacked the Hawaiian parliament after they awarded the election to a high-ranking chief. The newly coronated king called in the American military to restore order. 

In 1875, Hawaiian King David Kal?kaua went to Washington to negotiate a treaty of reciprocity where Hawaiian imports to the US could be imported without tariffs. In exchange, the United States Navy was granted access to Pearl Harbor as a naval facility. 

The treaty not only gave the US government a toe hold in Hawaii, but it caused the acreage of sugar cane in Hawaii to grow over tenfold in a period of just 15 years. Almost all of the sugar plantations were owned by American businessmen. 

Hawaii entered a period of instability that resulted in a series of rebellions between 1887 and 1893. 

In 1887, a group of American business owners created a group called the Hawaiian Patriotic League and threatened to overthrow King Kal?kaua. It resulted in the king signing what became known as the Bayonet Constitution, as it was signed under force. 

In 1889 and 1892, groups of native Hawaiians unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the monarchy. 

King Kal?kaua died in 1891 and was replaced by his sister, Queen Liliuokalani.

In 1893, she was planning on implementing a new constitution that would strip all non-native Hawaiians of voting rights. 

In response, a group of American businessmen, in a very big nod to the French Revolution, set up what they called a Committee of Safety, conducted a coup d’etat, and overthrew the queen, forcing her to abdicate.

They set up a provisional government with the express intent of becoming annexed by the United States. 

However, the president at the time, Grover Cleveland, wanted nothing to do with it. He didn’t believe the United States should be in the business of setting up overseas colonies like the Europeans. 

However, all the provisional government had to do was wait until March 1897, when the very expansionist William McKinley became president. 

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Hawaii was suddenly seen as the key to the United States becoming a Pacific power. 

The Hawaiian monarchy had also made overtures to Japan about possibly getting their protection from the United States. They actually proposed a royal marriage to link the two royal families. 

All of these factors led to the formal annexation of Hawaii as a US territory on July 7, 1898. 

The entire overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy was a sketchy affair and, any way you look at it, completely illegal. There was no election, there was no referendum. The entire event took place with the threat of violence. 

In 1900, President McKinley appointed Sanford Dole, cousin of James Dole, the founder of the Dole Pineapple Company, as the territorial governor. 

The importance of Hawaii and Pearl Harbor lessened in the years immediately following annexation as coaling stations for ships became obsolete.

Hawaii was mostly forgotten by most of the United States for decades, simply viewing it as a faraway outpost that most people had barely heard of. 

That all changed on December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The fact that Hawaii was an American territory suddenly became front and center, and the attack on Hawaii was a casus belli. 

Hawaii grew in impotence during the war as the primary American base of operations in the Pacific. Hawaiians served admirably during the war, including people such as the Japanese-American and future US Senator Daniel Inouye, who was awarded the Medal of Honor. 

The war and Hawaii’s pivotal role in it began a movement after the war for Hawaii to achieve full statehood. 

Statehood had been advocated by some ever since Hawaii had become a US territory, but there was always resistance in Congress. 

After the war, the main opponents to Hawaiian statehood were Southern Dixicrats. Conservative members of the Democratic Party. 

Hawaii had become a very diverse place, with Europeans, Native Hawaiians, and Asians all living together. It would be far and away the most ethnically diverse were it admitted to the union. The Dixiecrats feared that such a state would mean two more votes in the Senate in favor of civil rights legislation that would threaten Southern Jim Crow laws. It would also make it that much harder to filibuster legislation.

However, Hawaii’s bid for statehood was unlike almost any other state since the country was formed. 

When most states were admitted to the union, they had very small populations and were mostly undeveloped. When Nevada was admitted in 1864, they only had 6,857 people living during the previous census in 1860. 

Hawaii had a larger population than several US states, at almost half a million people, and a larger economy than several states as well. 

The first real push for statehood took place in 1953 after Dwight Eisenhower became president. The Republicans controlled Congress in 1953 and 1954, one of only two times they had the majority during a period of almost 60 years. 

During that window, they tried to pass Hawaiian statehood, but it was blocked by the aforementioned Dixiecrats. 

A compromise was eventually offered where Alaska would be allowed to join the union along with Hawaii. Eisenhower, however, didn’t think that Alaska had a large enough population, with only 128,000 people, and he also didn’t want a newly minted Alaskan governor to block the creation of Air Forces bases in Alaska. 

In 1955, the Democrats regained control of the congress,  all new statehood proposals were quashed. 

However, in the 1958 mid-term elections, a host of Northern Democrats were elected, which made the Southern Democrats the minority in their party.

The new leadership amongst the Senate Democrats, plus the rapid increase in population in Alaska over the 1950s, paved the way to renew the compromise that was agreed upon several years earlier. 

Alaska entered the union as the 58th state on January 3, 1959. 

On June 27, 1959, a referendum was held in Hawaii, with 93% of the electorate voting in favor of statehood. Out of a total of 155,000 registered voters, one hundred forty thousand votes were cast.

Hawaii officially became a state on August 21, 1959.

Hawaii’s route to becoming a US state was unlike that of any other. It required a monarchy, a pandemic, a coup d’etat, and a world war.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener ThisGuyNickwick Chadwick over on Castbox. They write:

Great podcast. I install doors. Listen to podcasts all day. Yours is always a go-to. I live right next to the WWVB. You mentioned in an episode that your clock operates off its signal. To others listening, I issue a slight warning as Gary may smell like cheese as he may frequently wear some on his head. All in good fun I actually like the Packers. broncos fan, though.

Thanks, Nickwick Chadwick! Unfortunately, I am still reliving the trauma of Super Bowl XXXII when the Broncos beat the Packers, giving them their only loss in Super Bowl History. 

One of the good parts about living next to WWVB, is that your clocks must always be accurate. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.