Hawai'i statehood

On August 21, 1959, Hawai'i became America's 50th state, culminating years of effort after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy to make Hawai'i part of the United States. Hawai'i's statehood had been delayed numerous times due to fears of its large non-white population that included Japanese. However, following the Revolution of 1954 , statehood became a goal of Hawai'i's Democratic Party and statehood efforts were spearheaded by John Burns with the support of newly elected Japanese American politicians like Daniel Inouye . Eventually lobbying efforts in Washington D.C. were successful, and in 1959, Hawai'i followed Alaska and joined the Union.

Early History

On January 17, 1893, the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani, was overthrown in a coup d'état organized by primarily European and American residents. The Republic of Hawai'i was declared in 1894 after President Grover Cleveland, a friend of Lili'uokalani, prevented the immediate annexation of the Islands. On July 7, 1898, Hawai'i became a territory of the United States following the passage of the Newlands Resolution in Congress. In 1900, Hawai'i was granted self-governance and, although several attempts were made to achieve statehood, for nearly sixty years Hawai'i remained a territory of the United States. Plantation owners in the Islands supported Hawai'i's territorial status as it enabled them to continue importing inexpensive foreign labor while consolidating their political influence through a legal system that attempted to reaffirm their authority. As historian Gary Okihiro noted, American annexation specifically served planter interests as it "was a way of avoiding being swamped by the 'yellow wave' or by a coalition of Asians and Hawaiians against whites." [1] White anxieties of Asian domination in Hawai'i that were linked to yellow peril fears and anti-Asian movements sweeping through America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries were also articulated in Thomas C. Hobson's 1898 article entitled "Japan's 'Peaceful Invasion.'" [2] Hobson claimed that the large number of Japanese migrants was part of a strategy by the Japanese government to "strike terror in the breasts of every lover of republican principles and American institutions" through an "invasion" of Hawai'i. Hawai'i's annexation to the United States subverted this threat by decisively closing the political process to Asian migrants as the United States Naturalization Law of 1790 limited naturalized citizenship to "whites." [3] After systematically disenfranchising plantation laborers, planters were able to utilize the police power of the state to protect their vested interests. [4]

However, throughout Hawai'i's history there were efforts to garner statehood. In his inaugural address, Sanford B. Dole, the first governor of the territory of Hawai'i, raised the possibility of statehood. In 1903, the territorial legislature petitioned Congress to grant Hawai'i statehood. Sixteen years later Jonah Kuhio submitted to Congress the first bill calling for statehood. Numerous congressional reports, recommendations, and investigations were produced in the following years but Hawai'i statehood was never achieved. Instead, Hawai'i remained as a territory under the control of Congress that could abolish the territorial legislature and local governor and place the Islands under a resident commissioner or under a navy commission. Hawai'i had been threatened with a commission government before, particularly during the Massie case , to control the dangerous ethnic elements that seemed to threaten white interests within the Islands.

Contributing to the statehood movement was the recognition that Hawai'i's status as a territory severely limited its influence in Washington D.C. Island residents were unable to vote for their own governor or for president and with only one nonvoting Congressional delegate Hawai'i did not receive adequate federal funding for conservation, improvements of rivers and harbors, roads, land-grant colleges, and vocational education. Additionally, as early as May 1929 Congressional delegate Victor Houston had warned Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association members that statehood was essential to protect the Islands' sugar industry. Unless Hawai'i became a state, inexpensive labor from the Philippines and the high protective American tariff might end. Thus in May 1935, Delegate Samuel Wilder King presented a statehood bill to the House of Representatives. Additionally, the territorial legislature created the Hawaii Equal Rights Commission to "assure Hawaii's equality with the states in federal legislation and to study the advisability of submitting the ideas of statehood to a plebiscite." [5] The Commission authorized Governor Joseph B. Poindexter , its former chairman, to appear before the territorial congressional delegation to discuss the matter of statehood.

Congressional Statehood Hearings

By 1940, supporters had convinced the territorial legislature to approve a plebiscite on the question of statehood. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association strongly supported statehood as it now recognized the need to protect Hawai'i's position in the domestic sugar market. Local newspapers such as the Honolulu Star-Bulletin , Hawaii Hochi , and Nippu Jiji endorsed the plebiscite in news columns and editorials while the Honolulu Advertiser resisted statehood efforts as it believed that Japanese Americans who possessed dual citizenship could not be considered loyal Americans. Eventually two of every three voters in Hawai'i supported statehood in the plebiscite, particularly in the neighboring islands. Statehood was more controversial on O'ahu in traditionally white communities that had feared the Japanese population.

Between 1935 and 1958, twenty congressional statehood hearings were held with more than 1,000 witnesses testifying. Particularly after the conclusion of World War II, statehood efforts were renewed. In January 1947 the Hawaiian Equal Rights Commission changed its name to the Hawaii Statehood Commission as a reflection of its ultimate goal. Later that year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill providing for Hawai'i statehood, but it became buried in various Senate committees. The House passed additional statehood bills in 1950 and 1953, and a Senate bill was passed to admit both Hawai'i and Alaska in 1951 but these bills failed to pass both sides of Congress. Eventually in 1956 John Burns was elected as Hawai'i's Democratic delegate in a Democrat-controlled Congress. In Washington, Burns cultivated the support of southern congressmen, who were the leading opponents to Hawaiian statehood, by working with two powerful Texans—Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn. At the risk of his own political future, Burns supported the so-called "Alaska Strategy," separating the question of statehood for Alaska and Hawai'i and allowing Alaska to go up for a vote first. Returning Japanese American veterans who were lauded for their bravery and valor also helped to change attitudes toward Hawai'i statehood as previously fears of large non-white populations in the Islands were undermined by the loyalty demonstrated by these former soldiers.

In April 1958, both houses of Congress passed a resolution of statehood for Alaska, and on January 3, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill into law. That same year, the Hawai'i bill came out of committee, passing in the House by a 323 to 89 vote and in the Senate by a 76 to 15 margin. At last, eighteen years after Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i's people were officially American citizens. In the referendum, Hawai'i voters ratified statehood by an overwhelming margin of 17 to 1.

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura , University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Coffman, Tom. Catch a Wave: A Case Study of Hawaii's New Politics . Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1973.

Fuchs, Lawrence H. Hawaii Pono: A Social History . New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1961.

"Hawaii Statehood, August 21, 1959." The Center for Legislation Archives, the National Archives.

Okihiro, Gary. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865-1945 . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Takaki, Ronald. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920 . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

Whitehead, John S. "The Anti-Statehood Movement and the Legacy of Alice Kamokila Campbell." Hawaiian Journal of History 27 (1993): 43-63.


  1. Gary Okihiro, Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865-1945 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 58.
  2. Thomas C. Hobson, Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1898 (Honolulu: Thomas G. Thrum, 1897), 131-134.
  3. Ronald Takaki, Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), 73.
  4. Ray Stannard Baker, "Wonderful Hawaii: A World Experiment Station" American Magazine 73 (December 1911): 201-14.
  5. Lawrence H. Fuchs, Hawaii Pono: A Social History (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1961), 408.

Last updated Feb. 12, 2024, 9:56 p.m..