Printable Version

The Hawaiian Situation: Our Present Duty
Digital History ID 4052

Author:   William M. Springer

Annotation: Hawaiian annexation, 1893

Document: In the complications which have arisen recently in the Hawaiian Islands a few residents, prompted by their personal interests, nearly all of whom are of foreign birth and many of whom are aliens, have sought to embroil our government in the internal affairs of a peaceful, but feeble nation. The pretext for this intervention is based upon the alleged fact that the government of the queen of the Hawaiian Islands was a semi-barbaric monarchy resting on no solid or moral foundation, dead in everything but its vices, coarsely luxurious in its tastes and wishes, constantly sending out impure exhalations, and spreading social and political demoralization throughout the islands. This is the indictment against the monarchy made by the late minister, Mr. Stevens, who, after leaving the islands, further assails the government to which he was so recently accredited as a diplomatic representative, by charging that the queen has sustained scandalous and immoral relations with one of her ministers. This being the alleged condition of the government of Hawaii, an appeal is made to the moral sentiment of the American people to justify the overthrow of that government and establish in its stead what its friends and supporters have denominated “a Christian government,” by which we may assume, is meant a government whose administrators profess the Christian religion.

The provisional government which was established had no other foundation for its existence than what is called the great mass meeting of January 16, at which the whole attendance did not exceed sixteen hundred persons. At this meeting a committee of public safety was appointed, which committee proclaimed a provisional government. This provisional government was not even submitted to the town meeting for its approval. It could not have maintained an existence for an hour had it not been for the fact that the marine forces on board the United States steamship Boston, then lying in the harbor, were, at the request of the committee of public safety and the American minister, landed, and were stationed at such points as the American minister, acting in conjunction with the provisional government, directed. These armed forces of the United States remained on shore in Honolulu for seventy-five days, and thus this remarkable revolution in the Hawaiian Islands was accomplished. The government of Hawaii, whatever may have been its faults, was not founded upon bayonets, the whole number of the armed forces of the queen being less than one hundred, a mere police or constabulary force for maintaining law and order in and about the public buildings in the city of Honolulu. The local government was overpowered by the mere presence of the United States troops. The queen states, in her appeal to the President of the United States, that she surrendered to the superior forces of this government in order to avoid unnecessary conflict, and trusting to the justice of our government, when all the facts shall be known, to reinstate her in her rightful position.

Whether the government of Hawaii was a just one, a moral one, or an efficient one, is a matter which does not concern the American people. We have no more right to overthrow a monarchy in Hawaii because it does not conform to our ideas of a just government, than we have to overthrow a monarchy in Canada or Great Britain, or Russia or Turkey, or Spain or elsewhere.

But it is alleged that the presence of the United States forces on shore was necessary to the protection of American life and property. This claim can only be supported upon the assumption that American citizens were actually in danger in their persons and in their property while peacefully pursuing their business there. If American citizens were interfering with the local government and using their influence to overthrow it, they had no right to claim the protection of American forces in this unlawful and revolutionary procedure. If they were peaceable and obeying the local law they were in no danger whatever. There is not an allegation that one of the subjects of Great Britain or of France or Germany or of China or Japan or of any other government required the interposition of the armed forces of their governments for their protection, or that the property of these subjects of such governments was in any way endangered by anything that was being done at the time. It is passing strange if ours were the only foreign citizens who were endangered in their lives or their property. If the citizens of the United States who were in Honolulu at the time had been minding their own business and had kept their hands out of the affairs of the local government, they would no more have been in danger of their lives and property than were the citizens and subjects of other governments. Besides this, what injury could a weak and defenseless government, such as that of Hawaii, have inflicted upon the citizens of the United States, when all the armed forces of the monarchy did not exceed a hundred persons all told? Therefore the claim that the lives or property of American citizens were in danger is a mere pretext, having no foundation whatever in fact.

The people of the United States are not responsible for the kind of government that may be in existence in the Hawaiian Islands. Nor is it any of their concern as to whether that government deals justly with its citizens and subjects or not. Whether the government of Hawaii is a good government or a just government is a matter for the people of that island to determine for themselves. There is no divine right of republicanism in this world, any more than there is a divine right of kings. The divinity in all these matters is in the right of the people to govern themselves.

In this connection it is worthy of remark that the American minister, Mr. Blount, in his report to this government, summarized by Secretary Gresham, states that while at Honolulu he did not meet a single annexationist who expressed a willingness to submit the question of annexation to a vote of the people, nor did he talk with one on that subject who did not insist that if the Islands were annexed to the United States, suffrage should be so restricted as to give complete control to foreigners or white persons. I have, myself, on several occasions, conversed with those representing the provisional government in Washington upon this very point, and I inquired especially of them why means were not taken to submit the question to the people of Hawaii as to whether they desired to maintain the provisional government or to be annexed to the United States. In every instance I was informed that the people of the islands were not capable of self-government, and if the question were submitted to them that they would be hostile to this movement. The fact is that the people of Hawaii have never been consulted upon this subject. The so-called provisional government did not emanate from them, and does not have their sanction. It is a usurpation, which could not have had any de facto existence, to say nothing of a rightful existence, except for the presence of the overpowering armed forces of the United States. What right has a provisional government, thus established, to make a treaty with the government of the United States for the annexation of those islands to our government? Who has clothed this provisional government with authority to speak for the people they pretend to represent?

Our own right to self-government is no more sacred than the right of the handful of ignorant Hawaiians in the Sandwich Islands to govern themselves. If they prefer a monarchy, feeble and inefficient though it may be, it is their business, and not ours. But it is claimed that the provisional government is one composed of Christians, and that they are representatives of advanced Christian civilization. The United States, being a Christian nation, should sympathize with and render moral and material aid in sustaining that government; and it is alleged that we have no right to consent to its overthrow. It may be conceded, for the sake of argument, that the provisional government is composed of Christians, and that it more nearly corresponds to our ideas of a just government than does the government of the monarchy, but, as suggested before, this is foreign to the controversy. We have no more right to interfere on this ground with the government of Hawaii than we have to interfere with the government of China or Japan or Turkey, none of which are Christian or administered by Christian statesmen, and none of which, we have a right to assume, are any more just to the subjects of such government than is the monarchy of Hawaii to its subjects.

Such a claim would make the United States the moral and religious arbiter of the world; would constitute us self-appointed crusaders, going about the earth pulling down and destroying alleged heathen and semi-barbaric monarchies, and establishing Christian governments and civilization in their stead. This is not the mission of our government. If we have any concern as to the imperfection of these so-called barbaric governments, we may send our missionaries to them to convert them to our religion or send our statesmen among them to convince them of the superior advantages of our form of government. But to send our naval forces to the ports of other governments, to land them upon their soil, and allow them to be used for the purpose of overthrowing, in connection with foreign-born subjects or aliens, the established government, would make our Christianity a fraud and our boasted republicanism a mockery. Who would suppose for a moment that our government would have permitted such an intervention in the affairs of an island or dependence of Great Britain, or in any province owing allegiance to Great Britain, or to any other powerful government? We would not dare to assume such a role. It would be regarded as a declaration of war, and we would be compelled to withdraw our forces and apologize for our intervention.

The question is frequently asked in partisan papers: How can the monarchy be restored? Or, by what right does the government of the United States assume to reestablish a monarchy which has been overthrown? The government of the United States has no more right to establish a monarchy in Hawaii than it has to establish one in Mexico or in Central America. But it is the duty of the United States Government, when its agents and representatives have committed a wrong against the government of a friendly power, to redress that wrong, and in this case it can only be accomplished by placing the government in statu quo, or in the condition in which it was found at the time the armed forces of the United States were landed upon Hawaiian soil, and interposed in the local affairs of the monarchy. We cannot redress the wrong we have committed by merely withdrawing our forces, after they have been used for seventy-five days to suppress the existing government and establish a provisional government in its stead. We must restore to the queen her own armed forces and we must disarm the forces of the provisional government which were armed and equipped by the aid and under the protection of our navies. Anything short of this is a mockery of justice, a disgrace to our diplomacy, is unworthy of a Christian nation, and a travesty upon our devotion to the principles of local self-government.

If the restoration of the status quo, which existed prior to the landing of our forces on Hawaiian soil, should result in the restoration of the monarchy, such restoration would only demonstrate the fact that the overthrow of the monarchy was due to our intervention. If it does not result in a restoration of the monarchy, then we have washed our hands of responsibility in the matter, and have vindicated the integrity of our diplomacy and the high character of our government as one which loves justice and maintains international comity. Therefore it is not the restoration of the monarchy which is in issue, but it is the restoration of the condition which existed prior to the armed intervention of the United States. Justice requires that our government should go back thus far, and when we have thus done justice we are not responsible for the injustice that others may do. We must maintain our integrity as a nation. We must vindicate our regard for the rights of a weak and defenseless government.

One other matter is worthy of consideration, and upon that there is room for honest differences of opinion. Is it desirable that the Hawaiian Islands should be annexed to the United States? What would result from annexation? The so-called treaty which was submitted by the provisional government to the late administration of President Harrison and the Senate for its consideration, provided that our government should assume the debts of the monarchy and should grant a pension to the deposed Queen and to some members of her family. In the event of annexation the inhabitants of the islands would become citizens of the United States, unless they chose to expatriate themselves, or to continue as the subjects of a foreign government. The native Hawaiians would become citizens of the United States. They would have no place else to go for a home or for a domicile. They are ignorant of our laws, and of our institutions, and are incapable of self-government under a system such as that which we have in the United States. The laws which would be passed especially for government of the islands would be passed by the Congress of the United States and all general laws and the constitution of the United States would be over them as over other points of the United States. Laws which would be passed at Washington to govern a people who had no representation whatever in the law-making power, would have as little regard for the wishes of the people as would the laws imposed upon them by the monarchical form of government. In neither case would the people have anything to do with the making of the laws which should govern. There would be serious objections to permitting the admission of the islands into the Union as a State with two Senators and a Representative in Congress. Their civilization, their habits, their ideas of government will not assimilate with our institutions and we do not need the aid of the representatives of such a government in the councils of the nation to assist us in the solution of the governmental problems with which our people have to contend. Annexation therefore is of very doubtful expediency. What is desirable so far as these islands are concerned, and what is the interest of the United States in reference to them? It seems to me that our true interests lie in the direction of a neutral and independent government of the Hawaiian Islands a government for which we would not be responsible and which would not entitle its citizens to the protection of the government of the United States. Let them govern themselves in their own way, and as our government should maintain neutrality as to the local government of Hawaii we should insist that all other governments should maintain like neutrality and like non-intervention. The example which President Cleveland’s administration has set in reference to these islands will enable us to successfully insist that other nations shall maintain a like policy. We should regard the seizure of the government of Hawaii by any other power as casus belli and resist it accordingly. The neutrality and independence of Hawaii as to all other governments is the policy which should he maintained and insisted upon by our government. We need those islands as a coaling station for our merchant marine and our vessels of war. We need them as harbors of refuge for our commerce upon the seas. We need them as places for meeting and exchanging on the high seas our products with the products of other countries. So long as these privileges are granted to us we have no right to object to like privileges being granted to other governments. Hence it is of the highest importance to the commerce of the world and to the peace of nations that the Sandwich Islands should be guaranteed by all governments a separate and independent existence, whose advantages should be shared alike by all the nations of the world, and which should, under no circumstances, be appropriated to the exclusive use of any one of them. As believers in the superiority and efficacy of republican institutions, as compared with monarchical, we may indulge the hope that the example of our own government and the advantages of our civilization may soon induce the people of Hawaii, acting upon their own judgment and desiring to promote their own interests, to suppress their monarchy and establish in its place a republican form of government. This will require time and the education of the masses. In the near future the education necessary to fit that people for self-government will be attained. It is education and not armed intervention that will bring about the reformation which every American citizen should desire.

William M. Springer

Additional information: The North American Review, Volume 157, Issue 445

Copyright 2021 Digital History