Save money on your next flight

Skyscanner is the world’s leading flight search engine, helping you find the cheapest flights to destinations all over the world.

The tropical islands of Hawaii, over 2,000 miles from the US mainland, may seem an unlikely state in the union. Yet this Polynesian paradise has a unique history intertwined with American expansionism in the Pacific.

If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer: The U.S. acquired Hawaii in 1898 after supporting the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy a few years earlier. American businessmen then pushed for annexation to gain full control over the islands.

In this approximately 3,000 word article, we will explore the story behind America’s acquisition of Hawaii – how US economic and military interests combined with political turmoil in the islands eventually led to them becoming a US territory and later the 50th state.

The Rise of American Influence in Hawaii

Indigenous Hawaiian Society and Culture

The Hawaiian Islands were originally settled by Polynesian voyagers likely arriving from the Marquesas Islands over 1000 years ago. Over the centuries, indigenous Hawaiians developed a thriving culture centered around sustainable agriculture, fishing, and religious practices.

Ancient Hawaiians lived in highly organized communities led by chiefs (aliʻi) who governed with strict laws called kapu. Spirituality infused daily life through the Hawaiian religion, which revered natural elements and ancestors as gods and goddesses.

By the late 18th century, the Kingdom of Hawaii encompassed all the Hawaiian Islands, ruled by the paramount chief Kamehameha I.

The Arrival of American Business Interests

American businessmen first arrived in Hawaii in the 1820s seeking lucrative opportunities. Valuable exports like sandalwood and biche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) drew traders, backed by U.S. merchants and ships.

More Americans settled in Hawaii – missionaries aiming to spread Christianity and entrepreneurs establishing sugar and pineapple plantations powered by migrant labor. Between 1826-1843, over 100 whaling and merchant ships visited Hawaii annually, cementing economic ties with the U.S. By the mid-19th century, American advisers and technology assisted plantation agriculture, while U.S. engineers even helped build vital infrastructure in Hawaiian towns.

The Reciprocity Treaty and the Plantation Economy

The foundation for Hawaii’s plantation economy began with the 1875 Reciprocity Treaty signed between the Kingdom of Hawaii and the U.S. This treaty granted a free exchange of agricultural goods and natural resources between the two countries, enabling Hawaii’s sugar exports to enter the U.S. duty-free.

Hawaii’s sugar exports boomed – soaring from 12 million pounds in 1875 to 244 million pounds by 1891. U.S. merchants and shippers reaped huge profits transporting this sugar cargo across the Pacific Ocean.

American plantation owners and wealthy Western businessmen came to dominate Hawaii’s economy and political arena in the coming decades. By 1890, over 80% of Hawaii’s exports went to the U.S. American business dynasties like the Big Five effectively controlled Hawaii’s economy, demonstrating the extent of U.S. commercial influence on the island kingdom.

The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy

The Bayonet Constitution

In 1887, King Kalākaua of Hawaii was forced under threat of violence to sign a new constitution that stripped him of most of his authority, giving more power to the legislature dominated by American business interests.

This became known as the “Bayonet Constitution” because Kalākaua signed it under duress.

The Coup of 1893

In 1893, a group composed mainly of Euro-American business leaders and residents, with support from the U.S. military, overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani. They established a temporary government under Sanford B. Dole.

The coup organizers were mainly Americans and subjects of European nations other than Britain or France. They sought to annex Hawaii to the U.S. to further their business interests.

President Cleveland’s Attempts to Reinstate the Monarchy

When President Cleveland took office, he withdrew the annexation treaty and sent investigator James Blount to Hawaii to assess the situation. Blount’s report found the overthrow was illegal, and Cleveland tried to reinstate the Queen.

However, the temporary government in Hawaii refused to yield power back to the Queen. They declared Hawaii an independent republic in 1894 led by Dole. Despite Cleveland’s efforts, Hawaii remained under control of the coup government.

Annexation and Beyond

William McKinley and Calls for Annexation

In 1897, President William McKinley took office with a strong belief that annexing Hawaii would benefit American business interests. At the time, the Hawaiian islands were seen as an important strategic location and coaling station for American ships crossing the Pacific.

The U.S. already had valuable sugar plantations and other business investments in Hawaii.

Calls for annexation grew louder under President McKinley. In June 1897, McKinley and the U.S. Congress passed a resolution supporting annexation of the islands. However, they still needed to get approval from the Hawaiian government.

The effort stalled when Hawaiian President William Richards refused to cooperate on annexation without a referendum to let the Hawaiian people decide.

Hawaii Becomes a US Territory

In 1898, McKinley replaced Richards with annexation supporter Sanford B. Dole as the appointed president of Hawaii. With Dole’s cooperation, McKinley then put together a formal treaty of annexation in 1897. The treaty easily passed the U.S. Senate.

However, it faced greater opposition in the House of Representatives and did not pass. As an alternative, McKinley signed a Joint Resolution in 1898 to annex Hawaii through Congressional law rather than by treaty.

The Newlands Resolution, as the law was called, successfully annexed Hawaii as a U.S. territory. Hawaii remained a U.S. territory for over 60 years although various efforts pushed for statehood during that time.

On March 18, 1959, Hawaii officially became the 50th state following passage of the Hawaii Admission Act.

Statehood in 1959

Hawaii’s road to statehood was filled with bumps along the way. Initially annexed as a strategic military asset with a profitable export economy, racist notions of Hawaii as uncivilized prevented serious consideration of statehood.

However, the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated Hawaii’s loyalty while spotlighting the need to fully integrate its people and economy into the nation.

Momentum began swinging toward statehood in 1950 after the territory elected the Hawaii Democratic Party, which made statehood its central focus. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act removing race-based restrictions from naturalization law further boosted Hawaii’s case.

Multiple statehood bills passed in the House yet narrowly failed in the Senate due to lingering Southern Democrat opposition.

The final successful push combined grassroots campaigning and backroom political negotiations. Hawaii Senator Lyndon B. Johnson persuaded Texas Senate colleagues to approve statehood, while Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower convinced conservative Republicans.

Eisenhower signed Hawaii’s statehood proclamation on March 18, 1959 with great fanfare, proudly welcoming the 50th star on the American flag.


In conclusion, Hawaii’s path from independent kingdom to US state was driven by American economic and political interests in the 19th century. After overthrowing the Hawaiian queen, US businessmen pushed hard for annexation of the strategically located islands.

Despite attempts to maintain Hawaiian sovereignty, the islands were firmly incorporated into the United States within five years, becoming an important naval base and later thriving state.

The complex history of America’s annexation of these islands reveals much about the projection of US power abroad during the pivotal era of the 1890s – setting the stage for the nation’s emergence as a global superpower in the 20th century.

Sharing is caring!

Similar Posts