Queen Liliuokalani to President Benjamin Harrison Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When white American businessmen, assisted by US diplomat John L. Stevens and US Marines, took over the islands of Hawaii in 1893, the overthrown Queen Liliuokalani requested help from American president Benjamin Harrison. Unfortunately for her, no help came. By the 1890s, Hawaii had become important to US officials both as a territory and as a stepping-stone to the vast trade potential of China and other parts of East Asia. Though the United States did not annex Hawaii officially until 1898, white Americans effectively ruled the islands after 1893, culminating a long period of growing Caucasian interest and involvement in the kingdom. In addition to being a plea for help, Queen Liliuokalani’s letter sheds light on broader historical questions, including, on one hand, whether or not the United States intended to be a Pacific power and, on the other, whether or not American expansion after victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War was a break with previous policy.

Summary Overview

When white American businessmen, assisted by US diplomat John L. Stevens and US Marines, took over the islands of Hawaii in 1893, the overthrown Queen Liliuokalani requested help from American president Benjamin Harrison. Unfortunately for her, no help came. By the 1890s, Hawaii had become important to US officials both as a territory and as a stepping-stone to the vast trade potential of China and other parts of East Asia. Though the United States did not annex Hawaii officially until 1898, white Americans effectively ruled the islands after 1893, culminating a long period of growing Caucasian interest and involvement in the kingdom. In addition to being a plea for help, Queen Liliuokalani’s letter sheds light on broader historical questions, including, on one hand, whether or not the United States intended to be a Pacific power and, on the other, whether or not American expansion after victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War was a break with previous policy.

Defining Moment

Queen Liliuokalani’s letter marked the most important shift in the relationship between Hawaii and the United States. By the 1820s, American Protestant missionaries were active on the islands, and the United States had signed its first trade deals with the kingdom. From the 1840s to the 1860s, American leaders included Hawaii in their visions of expanding American power and influence in the Pacific. For instance, in the 1842 Tyler Doctrine, President John Tyler declared Hawaii to be an object of US national interest and warned against European encroachments on the islands. In 1851, Secretary of State Daniel Webster declared that the United States would defend Hawaii’s independence with force. Many American leaders and businessmen saw Hawaii as important both as a potential source of trade in itself and as a stop on the way to the rumored vast China market, which opened to Western trade after British victory in the First Opium War in the early 1840s and the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s.

The American Civil War (1861–65) began to change power relations in Hawaii. Because the source of Southern sugar was cut off, sugar production grew rapidly on the islands, leading to the increasing influence of white American planters. These men even helped the Hawaiian king negotiate a treaty with the United States in 1873 that allowed the tariff-free importation of Hawaiian sugar into the United States in exchange for Hawaii’s refusal to sign any significant economic or military treaties with European nations. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, therefore, Hawaii came under American influence even more. In early 1893, Queen Liliuokalani decided to reassert the authority of native Hawaiians by changing the constitution to reconcentrate control in the hands of the monarch–therefore reclaiming control from the white American ministers, who, by then, occupied many important positions in the Hawaiian government–and by extending the vote to indigenous Hawaiians. The American plantation owners had already begun planning to overthrow Queen Liliuokalani because of their opposition to her views, and the new constitution set their plans in motion. With the help of Marines from the USS Boston, sent ashore “to preserve order” by Stevens (who was in league with the plotters), the planters overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and rushed an annexation agreement to the United States.

The American businessmen expected, and initially received, a warm welcome in Washington, DC, from President Harrison, a pro-expansionist; but before the Senate could approve Hawaiian annexation, Grover Cleveland was elected to his second (nonconsecutive) term as president. As an anti-expansionist, Cleveland put a temporary end to the attempt to annex Hawaii. However, even though Cleveland’s investigation into the events of the coup determined that indigenous Hawaiians did not want American rule, he did nothing to reverse what had already happened. Eventually, the United States officially recognized the new, American-dominated Hawaiian government, and in 1898, the United States formally annexed the islands, ending the dispute over their status and making them a US territory.

Author Biography

Queen Liliuokalani was born in 1838 and became well acquainted with American norms as a result of her interaction with influential New England missionaries in Hawaii. She also traveled widely, and was, therefore, familiar with both white worldviews and the power of white nations; thus, she knew she could not combat the United States with force. However, she was willing to do everything else in her power to keep Hawaii independent. As early as 1881, when her brother (who was the king at the time) was abroad, she closed the kingdom’s ports to stop the spread of smallpox brought in by some Chinese who came to work on the plantations, and then she stood firm despite the anger of white American businessmen. When she became queen in 1891 upon her brother’s death, the white growers knew that she might challenge their growing power. Her new 1893 constitution confirmed their fears. After failing to receive the support of the US government, however, she exited public life. She died in Honolulu in 1917.

Document Analysis

While the letter is relatively short, many sections reference the events of the coup. The first paragraph announces the overthrow and also demonstrates Queen Liliuokalani’s calculated response. It was apparent that the US minister to Hawaii had been directly involved. The queen relates that, because of his involvement, she believes the American government supported the coup: “I submitted to force, believing that he would not have acted in that manner unless by the authority of the Government which he represents,” she states. Because of her shrewd understanding of international politics, she may have actually believed that President Harrison and Secretary of State James G. Blaine wanted Hawaii to be part of the United States. Indeed, historians have discovered that these two did support the coup and even gave tacit approval to its planning several months before it occurred. Furthermore, Harrison’s rapid approval of an annexation treaty seemed to illustrate his support for the overthrow.

Even if the queen does not believe the US government supported the coup, she realizes that fighting the American Marines and planters would be futile and would likely have repercussions. Indeed, her first reason for not fighting back is her recognition of “the futility of a conflict with the United States.” With European colonization rapidly occurring around the world at the end of the nineteenth century, partly because of the superior weaponry and military organization of Western nations, Queen Liliuokalani correctly recognizes that her chances of military success were slim.

However, she reminds the president of Hawaii’s long-standing friendship with the United States, which stretched back seven decades, to the 1820s. Previous Hawaiian monarchs had utilized the growing power and influence of the United States to remain independent during European imperialist expansion throughout the Pacific, and many American missionaries and businessmen had strong ties to the islands by the 1890s. Queen Liliuokalani is not only invoking this friendship to remind the United States that Hawaii had long been a willing partner, but she is also trying to strike a middle ground between completely shedding US influence (and therefore opening up Hawaii to predation by European nations) and submitting to complete US control. As many non-Western leaders did during the late nineteenth century, the queen faced a hard choice between attempting to keep Hawaii independent, transitioning to semi-independence, or becoming a territory or colony of a Western power.

Essential Themes

The American takeover and annexation of Hawaii was part of the larger process of the growth of US power in the Pacific in the latter half of the nineteenth century. By 1898, the path to becoming a power whose influence spanned two oceans was set when the United States finally annexed Hawaii (and also took Guam and the Philippines from Spain). Historians debate, however, the extent to which the United States intentionally expanded its imperial influence. Did US leaders simply seize on opportune moments to expand US holdings, or did more extensive planning inform US geopolitical maneuvering in the Pacific during the 1800s? This issue relates to the question of whether the 1898 victory over Spain should be seen as the dividing line between anti-expansionist sentiment and the acceptance of expansion by virtually every US leader of the twentieth century.

During the nineteenth century, most US leaders did not actively seek to expand the country’s power in the Pacific, but the few who did set the course for the United States’ eventual global influence. Late eighteenth-century issues–a lack of public enthusiasm for overseas expansion, a lack of experience or resources for US diplomats, and domestic issues such as the Civil War, transcontinental expansion, and the Plains Indian Wars–hampered the ambitions of those US leaders who did lobby for expansion in the Pacific. Nonetheless, President Tyler in the 1840s, Secretary of State Webster in the 1850s, Secretary of State William H. Seward in the 1860s, and Secretary of State Blaine in the 1880s and early 1890s all laid out visions for American power in the Pacific. These plans variously included American influence in Alaska (a territory that Seward successfully purchased from Russia in 1867), Hawaii, the Philippines, and China. Therefore, the takeover of Hawaii by white Americans (and Queen Liliuokalani’s response to the coup), was part of the larger story of the growth of American power in the Pacific.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  • Merry, Sally Engle. Colonizing Hawaii: The Cultural Power of Law. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. Print.
  • “Hawaii’s Last Queen: The Program.” American Experience. PBS Online, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
  • “Hawaii’s Last Queen: Timeline.” American Experience. PBS Online, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Categories: History Content