Politics in Hawaii: A Brief History


Most visitors to Hawaii know little about its history. They may be aware that Hawai`i enjoys the distinction of having the only royal palace in the United States, but few understand how that royal palace came to be. The political history of Hawai`i often goes undiscussed on the U.S. Mainland and elsewhere, but impacts visitors all the same.

The First Explorers Arrive in Hawaii

Archaeologists generally believe the original settlers came from the Marquesas. Little is known about these first settlers, as approximately a thousand years later a new wave of Polynesians from Tahiti conquered the islands and obliterated any historical account of the first wave.

Each island developed its own leadership hierarchy. At the time, the political system resembled the European feudal system, in that each island was ruled by persons of royal blood, the ali`i, which were believed to have been chosen for those positions by the gods themselves. A king ruled each island, and beneath him were several chiefs who were in charge of the different mahele, or districts, of the island. Underneath the chiefs were the priests and revered craftsmen, the kupuna class. Most everyone else were commoners, but a class of untouchables, the kauwa, suffered at the bottom as a slave caste.

The kapu system of laws and permissions established by the ali`i was very formalized, with strict rules mandating behavior and one’s place in society, all tied closely to the religious beliefs of the people.

Kamehameha I Unites the Islands

It was not unusual for warriors from one island to engage in bloody, brief wars with warriors from another island over political disagreements. The king of the Island of Hawaii, Kamehamaha the First, began a campaign to unite the islands under one single ruler – an ali`i nui. The ensuing conquest took a couple decades, and much bloodshed. When it was all over in 1810, Kamehameha established a central government which kept the kapu system and the ali`i intact. But it wouldn’t last long.

The End of the Kapu System

Missionaries began to arrive in earnest, coming to Hawaii at a time when the old ways were beginning to shift. Kamehameha’s son, Liholiho, abolished the kapu system by symbolically eating with his own mother. Not long after, what had once been a total monarchy began to turn into something more closely resembling Western governance with the addition of a legislature, and a judicial system, which further diluted the monarchy’s executive power.

Struggles for Power

Over the course of the next few decades, representatives of foreign powers began to covet the lands for themselves. The Imperial Russians were granted three forts around the islands for a short time. The British got into the act soon after. On February 10, 1843, Lord Paulet sailed into Honolulu harbor and demanded the Hawaiian throne be handed over to the British government under threat of violence. Kamehameha III was forced to step down, but in a few months was able to reinstate the crown with the help of U.S. forces. A few years later, a French admiral’s troops raided the city after Kamehameha III refused to provide full rights to Catholic missionaries. As with each of these invasions, the struggle ended with the invading force pulling out after a few days.

The End of an Era

The last descendant of the original Kamehameha died a bachelor in 1872 without an heir, so Hawai`i held its first election, a substantial shift in Hawaiian politics that marked the end of the ancient practice of appointment by lineage. Unfortunately, this election was rather one-sided, as only those who owned property could participate, a fact which left out native Hawaiians (ironically, in their homeland). Asians were also forbidden to vote.

David Kaläkaua became the next king of Hawai`i. He ordered the construction of `Iolani Palace, which still stands today as the only royal palace in the United States. Kaläkaua wanted to create a Polynesian Empire, with Honolulu as its capitol. But this never came to pass. In 1887 an armed militia, made up almost entirely of white business owners, assembled and forced the King to sign a new constitution (often called the “Bayonet Constitution”) which largely stripped the monarchy of its power.

When Kaläkaua died a few years later, Queen Lili`uokalani attempted to restore the powers of the monarchy and establish a new constitution. The “Committee of Safety” arrested the Queen and forced her to abdicate the throne under threat of violence. This coup d’etat was assisted by the U.S. Navy, which pointed guns from a battleship toward `Iolani Palace under the pretense of keeping the peace. President Grover Cleveland ordered the crown be returned to Lili`uokalani, but the matter was dropped after his presidency ended.

From Territory to State

Governance of the islands shifted into a republic, which lasted only a few years until the Newlands Resolution allowed the United States to annex Hawai`i as a territory. For sixty years Hawai`i remained in territorial status, with `Iolani Palace still serving as the capitol. When shifting demographics finally tilted the balance of power out of the hands of the plantation owners, the residents of Hawai`i voted unanimously on a statehood bill. Becoming a state had advantages, allowing Hawaiian residents representation they did not have as a territory.


Claiming that the state has failed to represent the original Hawaiians, ever since the overthrow of Queen Lili`uokalani, some have begun pushing for Hawaiian sovereignty. Plans range from a full return of the monarchy to Native American status for native Hawaiians. They face a tough battle, as the powerful economic and political forces which have long sought to control Hawai`i are still firmly in place.


  1. Hawai`i’s Story, by Hawai`i’s Queen, by Queen Lili`uokalani
  2. Shoal of Time, by Gavan Daws, University of Hawaii Press (1989)
  3. To Steal a Kingdom: Probing Hawaiian History, by Michael Dougherty, Island Style Press (2000)