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A Profile in Political Courage:President Grover Cleveland and the Annexation of Hawaii Standing alon

An Historical Refection

President Grover Cleveland is not remembered by most Americans and his legacy I would venture today is rarely if taught at all in American public schools.  He was the first Democratic president since James Buchannan and the start of the CivilWar. He was the only president to serve two non consecutive terms. (He was the 22nd president elected in 1884 & 24th President elected in 1892).

President Cleveland  -A flawed reformer and defender of the constitution He was a reformer who appointed his department heads by merit instead of by patronage. He believed in hard currency and that the paper dollar should be backed by gold. He fought against inflating the money supply and destroying the confidence of the US dollar as what is happening today. He successfully fought against the temperance movement that the progressive movement later adopted in the early 20thcentury which lead to the disastrous 17th amendment and the imposition of prohibition.  He was a believer in the restrained power of the federal government as proscribed by the constitution. On the negative side he was a flawed man and very much a product of his upbringing as evidenced by his actions as governor of New York supporting school segregation. Also being the first Democratic President since the civil war he made it especially clear he was a “friend” to the south and would not continue the former Republican policies of reconstruction and active federal involvement in protecting the voting rights of African Americans.

The Annexation of Hawaii and President Cleveland’s Principled Stand

The story of how the United States acquired Hawaii is one of the most shameful chapters in our history. The actions taken by a few American businessmen and their accomplices in the federal government would have appalled and saddened many of the founders of our country since it ran against our core principles of our republic. One of the few heroes’ of this sad chapter was President Grover Cleveland.In 1893 a conspiracy was hatched by a small group of American businessman, sugar and plantation owners in Hawaii. These men enlisted the aid of the then American minister to Hawaii  former Maine State Senator Republican John L. Stevens to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy . Under the guise of protecting American property soldiers and marines from the American vessel Boston aided the coup. The conspirators imprisoned the queen and seized 1.75 million acres of royal land and set up a provisional government. The excuse the businessman claimed was that they were replacing a corrupt regime with a democratic one. This was of course a lie since they never intended to give the vast majority of the native Hawaiian population voting rights. In order to preserve peace and protect her subjects from violence Queen Lydia Kamakaeha Liliuokalani stepped down from her throne and called upon the U.S. government “to undo the actions of its representatives..” The U.S. Government refused to assist her regain her throne. After this coup was complete the American  businessmanpetitioned President Benjamin Harrison and Congress to annex Hawaii. President Harrison sent the treaty for annexation to the U.S. Senate for ratification in the last month of his term.

Anti-Annexation Carton 1890’s -Shotgun Wedding U.S. & Hawaii

The last Monarch of Hawaii-Queen Liliuokalani

        Newly elected President Cleveland withdrew the treaty for re-examination and received Queen Liliuokalani in Washington. He ordered that the American flag be taken down in Hawaii and replaced with the Hawaiian national flag. Cleveland then took bold action which angered many people in his own Democratic as well as the Republican parties by ordering a study into the causes of the Hawaiian revolution. The results concluded that U.S. minister Stevens conspired with American business interests  to overthrow the government of a  sovereign nation. The study also concluded that the revolution would have failed “but for the landing of the United States forces upon false pretexts respecting the dangers to life and property”. President Cleveland later wrote that the “the provisional government owes its existence to an armed invasion by the United States. By an act of war…a substantial wrong has been done.”  President Cleveland strongly recommended to congress that the Hawaiian monarchy be restored. Both parties in congress rejected his recommendation.  The House of Representatives did vote to censure Minister Stevenson and adopted a resolution opposing annexation. In 1894 Sanford Dole the pineapple plantation baron declared himself President of the Republic of Hawaii this was of course done without the native Hawaiians voting for him. Dole’s government found Queen Liliuokalani guilty of treason and put her under house arrest.

     During the 1894 U.S. presidential election the Republican Party called for the annexation of Hawaii in its campaign platform. The newly elected Republican president William McKinley called for a joint session of congress which voted for annexation. Petitions for a popular vote in Hawaii on the issue of annexation were ignored. The islands became a U.S. territory in 1900.  in 1959 Hawaii entered the union In 1959, after 90% vote of approval. One hundred years after the “Businessman’s Coup” a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress signed for by President Clinton apologized for the U.S. role in the coup.

President Cleveland would have smiled.

This is an example of what can happen when special interests corporate or otherwise align themselves with the federal government without regard for its founding principles.  In the 21st century an example of this  is “Crony Capitalism” with special favors for special interests that favor one corporation or industry over another. The federal government should be the neutral and a fair arbiter of the marketplace and not favoring its friends nor punishing those who disagree with their policies.

Just my opinion D.B.   

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