Blogs > Liberty and Power > Grover Cleveland: Defender of Hawaiian Independence

Aug 16, 2005

Grover Cleveland: Defender of Hawaiian Independence

A report on NPR this morning noted that the United States had supported a coup against the Queen of Hawaii. It implied that this coup led directly led to the incorporation of Hawaii into the United States.

The full story of Hawaiian annexation is more complicated and more interesting. In early 1893, a cabal of American-born planters overthrew Queen Liliukalani. The American minister to Hawaii, who had aided the plotters, declared triumphantly, "The Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe, and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it." The outgoing administration of President Benjamin Harrison hurriedly drafted a treaty of annexation.

Although ultimate Senate passage seemed a foregone conclusion, the Democrats delayed the vote so that incoming President Grover Cleveland could get the glory of adding Hawaii to the U.S. map.

When Cleveland took office in March, however, he defied nearly everybody's expectations. He not only came out forcefully against the treaty of annexation but condemned the coup as illegal. He also called for restoration of the deposed Queen and reaffirmed what he saw as the American foreign policy tradition of non-interventionism.

Offered Hawaii on a silver platter, Cleveland stood up for principle and said"no." In 1898, he recalled "I regarded and still regard the proposed annexation of Hawaii as not only opposed to our national policy but as a perversion of our national mission. The mission of our nation is to build up and make a great country out of what we have, instead of annexing islands."

Cleveland held the line against annexation for the rest of his term. Meanwhile, the coup plotters, now shunned by the United States, had to content themselves by setting up a"Republic of Hawaii." Only in 1898 during the expansionist administration of Republican William McKinley was Hawaii incorporated into the United States.

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David T. Beito - 8/20/2005

Thanks for the corrective. It is nice to hear that Cleveland is getting credit for something for a change.

scott p crawford - 8/19/2005

FYI, under the Hawaiian Kingdom Penal Code (Chapter VI, Section 9) at the time, as enacted by the Hawaiian legislature, treason was a capital offense.

Whoever shall commit the crime of treason, shall suffer the punishment of death; and all his property shall be confiscated to the government.

So it wasn't so much that the queen "threatened to behead" the traitors as some personal vendetta, she just sought to apply the law (which I believe would have resulted in hanging, not beheading).

However, Cleveland said that "The members of the provisional government and their supporters, though not entitled to extreme sympathy, have been led to their present predicament of revolt against the Government of the Queen by the indefensible encouragement and assistance of our diplomatic representative. This fact may entitle them to claim that in our effort to rectify the wrong committed some regard should be had for their safety."

Therefore, he said, "I instructed Minister Willis to advise the Queen and her supporters of my desire to aid in the restoration of the status existing before the lawless landing of the United States forces at Honolulu on the 16th of January last, if such restoration could be effected upon terms providing for clemency as well as justice to all parties concerned. "

At the time of his address he had not received word of her accession to this condition, but the Queen did agree to grant clemency or amnesty to the traitors.

However, the "provisional government" would not then accede to Cleveland's demands, and with great historical irony claimed that he was trying to interfere in the internal affairs of Hawaii. Despite his noble and righteous position, he did not have the political capital or perhaps inclination to send in the military to remove a white government (that they had previously helped to install) in favor of a brown monarchy. He refused to support annexation, but once he left office then the annexationists plan moved ahead with McKinley under the exigencies of the Spanish-American War.

scott p crawford - 8/19/2005

Pro-independence folks are very well aware of this, and I personally quote it often. My objective in supporting Hawaiian independence is not to demonize America, my country which I love, but to tell the truth about the history, and Cleveland's statements are very important in understanding that. While the U.S. troops did invade Hawaii in an illegal intervention, they did so without authorization of the President or Congress, and the way Cleveland handled it was something to be proud of. I think his statement to Congress in December of 1893 withdrawing the treaty of annexation, after a comprehensive investigation into the Hawaii situation, was a powerful and eloquent expression of the anti-imperialist tendencies of the U.S. and expresses foreign policy principles that we would be wise to listen to today.

Here it is posted on two prominent pro-independence sites, very much worth reading:



David T. Beito - 8/16/2005

You are right. I really wasn't writing it to make a big case against NPR.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/16/2005

Actually, it is noted because it highlights the moral bankruptcy of the overthrow/Republic of Hawai'i/annexation period.

A minor quibble with the generally fine original post: just because the overthrow didn't lead immediately to the annexation doesn't mean that it didn't lead directly to the annexation.

David T. Beito - 8/16/2005

I am not defending Cleveland in thi scase but it would be a mistake to argue that he sent in the troops with the goal of "suppressing" the strike per se. He was responding to claims (not wholly without foundation) that the strike had degenerated into violence and rioting.

For the record, I think Cleveland established a dangerous precedent by sending in the troops (especially under the "deliving the mail" pretext) but his actions need to be put in some context.

Roderick T. Long - 8/16/2005

If a necessary requirement of a great president is that he not do anything seriously bad as president, then I think we've had no great presidents. Who would qualify? I like Jefferson, but even if we leave aside his slave-owning as not being something he did qua president, he was guilty of some rather nasty civil liberties violations. Jackson did some great stuff, but he also did the Trail of Tears. Etc., etc.

David T. Beito - 8/16/2005

Great relative to other presidents perhaps.

Jesse Walker - 8/16/2005

Better than most presidents, but not necessarily great. He did send federal troops to suppress the Pullman strike.

Common Sense - 8/16/2005

Let us not forget Cleveland's veto of Congress' Texas Seed Bill -- another shining moment for GC.

Common Sense - 8/16/2005

A great man...and the last great president. (I put Harding/Coolidge in the "near great" category.)

William Marina - 8/16/2005

Cleveland would have put the Queen back on the Throne, but she threatened to behead all of those who had created the "Republic." In the years, 1893-98, they began to sell bonds to wavering
Senators/Congressmen, 25 cents on the dollar, with loans as well, greasing the way for the later Joint Resolution. A corrupt Congress, now isn't that news?

David T. Beito - 8/16/2005

I suspect that the pro-indepdence people wouldn't be interested because it unduly "complicates" the story they want to tell.

Kenneth R Gregg - 8/16/2005

This was one of Cleveland's finest moments, little remembered today. I do wonder if Hawaiians note this. I should think that he would be regarded highly for this. Certainly can't even imagine the current Prez acting similarly.

Just a thought.
Just Ken