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Hawaii Admission Day marks a pivotal moment in Hawaiian and American history when Hawaii officially became the 50th U.S. state on August 21, 1959.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Hawaii Admission Day celebrates August 21, 1959 when Hawaii was admitted into the United States as the 50th state after Hawaii residents voted for statehood in a referendum.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the full history behind Hawaii’s journey to statehood, key events leading up to Admission Day, how Hawaiians celebrate this occasion today, and the lasting impacts of this milestone in Hawaiian culture.

Origins: The History of U.S. Involvement in Hawaii

The Early Hawaiian Kingdom

The Hawaiian Islands were originally settled by Polynesian voyagers likely arriving from the Marquesas Islands as early as 300-500 AD. Over the centuries, a thriving Hawaiian civilization emerged with a social structure dominated by chieftains known as ali’i.

The ali’i controlled various islands and districts, engaging in rituals and warfare. In the late 18th century, King Kamehameha I conquered most of the islands and established the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1795.

Growing U.S. Economic Interests in Hawaii

The early 19th century saw growing U.S. economic activity and missionary work in Hawaii. American businessmen established sugarcane plantations and traded with Chinese immigrants starting arriving in the 1850s.

This led to increasing U.S. influence, with assistance from American engineers and arms playing a role in Kamehameha’s unification. By the mid-19th century, over two-thirds of Hawaii’s foreign trade was with the United States.

The Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 officially granted favorable economic privileges to the U.S. in Hawaii. As sugar plantations expanded, powerful American businessmen known as the “Big Five” entrenched their control over banking, infrastructure, shipping and wholesale agriculture in the Hawaiian economy.

The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy

Against the backdrop of U.S. economic domination, American settlers aimed to further expand their influence by overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy. In 1887, they forced King Kalākaua to enact a constitution stripping him of most powers.

After Kalākaua died in 1891, his sister Queen Liliʻuokalani ascended the throne intending to restore indigenous rights and the monarchy’s authority.

However, American businessmen acted preemptively to remove Liliʻuokalani from power. On January 17, 1893, backed an armed militia consisting of Americans and European settlers, they deposed Liliʻuokalani and proclaimed a provisional government.

President Cleveland opposed the overthrow and an attempted counter-coup briefly restored the Queen in 1895, but she was soon overthrown again by pro-American forces. The Republic of Hawaii was declared that same year, laying the groundwork for annexation.

The Long Road to Statehood

Early Attempts at Annexation Fail

In the late 19th century, there were several unsuccessful attempts by the United States government to annex the Hawaiian Islands. In 1893, American settlers overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy led by Queen Lili’uokalani.

Shortly after, President Grover Cleveland rejected a proposed treaty of annexation, citing concerns that native Hawaiians opposed it. Over the next few years, multiple bills aimed at annexing Hawaii failed to pass Congress.

Meanwhile, the Republic of Hawaii, led by Sanford Dole, governed the islands independently for four years before agreeing to join the U.S. in 1898 following the Spanish-American War.

The Territory of Hawaii is Established

After Hawaii was annexed in 1898 through a Joint Resolution, it was initially governed by the U.S. as a territory called the Territory of Hawaii. It was placed under the administration of the Department of the Interior.

The territorial government was led by a governor appointed by the American president. Over the next 60 years, there were pushes for Hawaii to transition to U.S. statehood and gain fuller political rights.

While the territorial government of Hawaii advanced infrastructure projects and tourism, native Hawaiians lost control of land and self-governance during this period.

Calls for Statehood

In the 1940s-1950s, the Hawaiian Statehood Commission actively campaigned for Hawaii to gain admittance as a U.S. state and sent delegates to plead its case before Congress. Proponents argued that Hawaii had demonstrated its loyalty by supporting the American war effort following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.

Statehood was seen as a civil rights issue to give Hawaii’s multiethnic population full representation. However, some in Congress still expressed hesitations over its distance from mainland America. After introducing multiple failed bills, Hawaii finally saw breakthrough in 1959.

On March 12 of that year, President Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act officially declaring it the 50th state. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii officially became a state following a referendum where Hawaiian residents voted 94% in favor of statehood.

The first Hawaiian state elections were held, and Democrat William Quinn was elected as its inaugural governor. August 21 of each year is now commemorated as Hawaii Admission Day, marking a hard-won political victory for the island territory after over 60 years pursuing the long road to U.S. statehood.

Hawaii Admission Day – August 21, 1959

Hawaii Ratifies State Constitution

On August 21, 1959, Hawaii ratified its state constitution, paving the way for it to be admitted as the 50th state in the United States. Hawaiians had voted to ratify the constitution in a referendum held on November 7, 1950 with over 140,000 residents casting ballots.

The vote was an important milestone, as statehood requires an approved state constitution.

The constitution was drafted by the Constitutional Convention of Hawaii of 1950, which convened on April 4 of that year. Delegates debated issues like legislative apportionment, the state boundary, and civil rights protections.

The result balanced aspects of governance with safeguards for native Hawaiians after decades of territorial rule.

Eisenhower Signs Proclamation

On March 18, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the congressional proclamation admitting Hawaii as the 50th U.S. state. He did so using the same gold pen that had admitted Alaska as the 49th state just months earlier in January 1959.

The road to statehood had been long, with multiple prior attempts. Hawaii’s strategic location made it an important territory, but concerns over its distance from the mainland U.S. gave some pause. However, Hawaii’s role during World War II and the advocacy of officials like Senator Lyndon B. Johnson finally helped statehood pass Congress.

The 50th State is Born

With the president’s proclamation and the new state constitution, Hawaii officially became the 50th state on August 21, 1959. Festivities, parades, and luau celebrations marked the historic day. Thousands gathered in front of the new state capitol building in Honolulu to see the American flag with its 50 stars raised for the first time.

Since that day, August 21 has been known as “Hawaii Admission Day” and is now an official state holiday. Residents and visitors commemorate the occasion with cultural events and by reflecting on Hawaii’s history.

The holiday highlights Hawaii’s rich Polynesian heritage and its diversity as America’s only island state.

Now over 60 years later, Hawaii continues to honor its native history while thriving as modern part of the United States. Though its remote island locale is worlds away from the continental U.S., it remains an integral and beloved member of the American fabric.

Lasting Cultural Impacts

Native Hawaiian Renaissance

The Native Hawaiian Renaissance refers to the resurgence of Native Hawaiian culture, language, and identity since statehood in 1959. As Hawaiians became more educated and empowered, many began questioning the loss of their land, culture, and sovereignty under American rule.

This sparked efforts to revive traditions like the Hawaiian language, hula, voyaging, and religious practices that had been suppressed after Western contact.

Key events that catalyzed the Native Hawaiian Renaissance include the PIDgin movement in the 1970s which promoted Hawaiʻi Creole English as a legitimate language, the rebirth of the Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition in 1963, and the 1976 voyage of the traditional sailing canoe Hōkūle‘a which sparked a statewide resurgence of interest in Native Hawaiian culture and values.

According to a 2022 study, over 18,500 Hawaii residents speak ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the Native Hawaiian language (a remarkable increase from just over 2,000 speakers in the 1970s).

Movement for Sovereignty

Alongside the cultural renaissance has been an ongoing political movement for Native Hawaiian self-determination and sovereignty. Although charges were eventually dropped, in 1999 members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I group occupied the Iolani Palace grounds for four months to protest the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

Since then, activists have established institutions like Hawaiian charter schools to promote traditional culture and advance self-governance goals.

However, views on sovereignty are mixed among Native Hawaiians. Some support total independence from the U.S. while others believe a nation-within-a-nation model like federally recognized Native American tribes better balances cultural autonomy with economic stability.

According to a 2022 poll by the Honolulu Civil Beat, 47% of Hawaiians support total independence eventually but only 25% want immediate secession.

Statehood Still Contested

Despite holding statehood for over 60 years, Hawaii’s admission to the union remains controversial. Statehood passed Congress following a Hawaii referendum where 92.4% voted in support, however the legitimacy of this plebiscite has been questioned.

Critics argue the vote occurred under undemocratic conditions where the anti-statehood position lacked campaign resources. They also point out how enabling Hawaii, an ethnically non-white territory, violated principles like “consent of the governed” that America’s founding documents espoused.

Massive U.S. military presence and dependence on defense spending are also cited as undermining the islands’ sovereignty.

Ultimately the debates over Hawaii’s lasting impacts as an American state remain unsettled. While bringing many economic benefits, the ongoing cultural renaissance and sovereignty movements show the deep wounds of colonization have yet to fully heal.

How Hawaii Admission Day is Celebrated Today

Statehood Day Events

Hawaii Admission Day on August 21 commemorates Hawaii becoming the 50th U.S. state in 1959. Across the islands, various events and celebrations take place to honor this milestone.

In Honolulu, a large Admission Day parade takes place along Kalakaua Avenue, with elaborate floats, hula dancers, musicians, and more. The parade concludes with a hoʻolauleʻa (block party) at Kapi’olani Park featuring Hawaiian food, arts and crafts, and performances showcasing Polynesian culture.

Other popular Admission Day events include the Prince Kuhio Celebration in Hilo, the Admission Day Rodeo on Maui, and the Admission Day Regatta sailing race in Kāneʻohe Bay, Oahu. Many Hawaii state offices and schools are closed on this holiday.

Food, Music & Hula Dancing

Food is an integral part of any Hawaiian celebration, and Admission Day is no exception! Signature dishes like kalua pork, lomi salmon, chicken long rice, haupia (coconut pudding), and poi are staples at community parties and gatherings.

No celebration in Hawaii would be complete without traditional music and hula dancing. Graceful hula halau (troupes) perform ancient and modern hulas to honor Hawaii’s history and culture. The melodies of the slack key guitar, ukulele and the steel guitar accompany powerful vocals singing mele (songs) of the islands.

The festivities remind both kamaʻāina (locals) and malihini (newcomers) of the great privilege it is to live in such a beautiful place with a rich cultural heritage. Admission Day allows all to come together and revel in the aloha spirit of the islands.


Almost 65 years later, Hawaii Admission Day still represents an important milestone for both Hawaii and the United States. The journey to become the 50th state was long and complex for Hawaii, filled with both challenges and opportunities that continue to shape Hawaiian identity today.

While statehood remains controversial in some native circles, August 21 is still celebrated across Hawaii as a symbol of the islands’ ties with the continental United States. Hawiians commemorate the date with vibrant cultural festivities as well as civic events honoring the history behind Hawaii’s admission into the Union.

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