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.

In 1900, Congress approved the Hawaii Organic Act which incorporated the independent Republic of Hawaii as an organized incorporated territory of the United States. This established a new relationship in which Hawaii would be governed under the authority of the U.S. Congress but still maintain some autonomy over local affairs.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: In 1900, Congress passed the Hawaii Organic Act which made Hawaii an incorporated U.S. territory with some degree of local self-governance while being under the authority of the federal government.

In this comprehensive article, we will explore the political and economic factors that led up to the Hawaii Organic Act, the key details of what the act established regarding Hawaii’s new territorial status, the rationale and debates in Congress around this issue, the short and long term impacts on Hawaii, and the legacy of this new political relationship.

Background: Events Leading to Hawaii Organic Act

Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy

In the late 19th century, American business interests in Hawaii were growing and wanted to annex Hawaii to the United States. In 1893, a group of American and European businessmen and sugar planters, with support from the U.S. minister to Hawaii and marines from American ships, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani, ending the Hawaiian monarchy.

Provisional Government and Republic of Hawaii

After the overthrow, the revolutionaries established a provisional government and then the Republic of Hawaii in 1894. The U.S. government officially recognized the Republic of Hawaii and aimed to annex Hawaii.

However, President Cleveland opposed annexation and tried unsuccessfully to restore the Hawaiian monarchy before leaving office.

U.S. Annexation Debates and Motivations

Debate continued in the late 1890s over whether the U.S. should annex Hawaii. Supporters wanted Hawaii for its strategic military value in the Pacific and its economic resources. In 1898, the Spanish-American War began, demonstrating Hawaii’s military significance and influencing Congress to pass a resolution annexing Hawaii.

With President McKinley’s support, Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1900.

What the Hawaii Organic Act Established

Territorial Status and Governance

The Hawaii Organic Act, passed by Congress in 1900, established territorial status for Hawaii and set up a territorial government. The act provided for a governor, secretary, attorney general, and other executives to be appointed by the President.

It also created a bicameral legislature made up of a House of Representatives and Senate elected by the people of Hawaii.

The Organic Act gave the territorial government jurisdiction over local affairs but reserved key areas like foreign policy, immigration, defense, and overseas commerce for the federal government. The territory remained under U.S. sovereignty but now had more local autonomy in governing day-to-day life.

Land Policies and Economic Implications

The Hawaii Organic Act also established land policies with major economic implications. It confirmed land claims of American businessmen who had received large land grants from the former Hawaiian monarch.

Much of this valuable agricultural land was retained under private ownership of elite non-native families.

At the same time, the act set aside homestead lands for Native Hawaiians to farm and live on. But the amount was limited. Only around 28,000 acres was designated as Hawaiian homelands compared to over 1 million acres claimed by large private landowners. This unequal distribution concentrated wealth and power in the hands of American settlers.

The sugar and pineapple industries now had an abundance of land to expand large-scale plantations and export crops to U.S. markets duty-free. Hawaii quickly transformed into a plantation economy dominated by a few major companies like Dole and run mostly by immigrant laborers from Asia.

Congressional Debates Over Hawaii Organic Act

Arguments Supporting Annexation

There were several key arguments made by supporters of annexing Hawaii as a U.S. territory in 1898. Some contended it was vital for military defense of the west coast. As the U.S. emerged as a global power after the Spanish-American War, having a naval base in Hawaii would project American power into Asia.

Others argued annexation would support economic growth by expanding trade. Sugar plantations in Hawaii also aggressively lobbied for annexation.

Opposition Viewpoints

However, many in Congress opposed annexation of Hawaii. Some saw it as an unjustified American imperialism infringing on the rights of Native Hawaiians. Several congressmen argued forcibly overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy and queen in 1893 made annexation unethical.

Others wanted a referendum to allow Hawaiians to vote. Some were simply isolationists who opposed expanding American influence abroad when domestic issues demanded attention.

Final Congressional Vote

In the final vote in 1898, the arguments for strategic military positioning and economic prospects won over most dissenters in Congress. The resolution approving annexation of Hawaii passed by a wide margin – 209 to 91 in the House and 42 to 21 in the Senate.

This Organic Act made Hawaii an incorporated U.S. territory with a government modeled after the constitution. While not granting full statehood, it put Hawaii firmly under American jurisdiction and control.

Consequences and Impacts on Hawaii

Short Term Changes and Reactions

The short term changes and reactions in Hawaii after the new relationship with Congress was approved were significant. When Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1900, there was an initial positive reaction among native Hawaiians who believed this relationship would bring more opportunities and economic prosperity (

However, they soon realized that the treaty limited native Hawaiian rights and land ownership, leading to tensions.

In the short term after statehood was granted in 1959, Hawaii saw an influx of tourists and investments contributing to rapid economic growth. The population grew quickly, infrastructure expanded across the islands, and standards of living improved.

However, some native Hawaiians continued protesting the loss of Hawaiian culture and land rights (Hawaii Magazine).

Long Term Cultural, Economic and Political Effects

In the long run, Hawaii’s relationship with the U.S. government led to major cultural, economic and political changes. Culturally, the native Hawaiian language was almost lost for a period as English became dominant in schools and governance.

However, a resurgence of Hawaiian culture and language preservation efforts began in the 1970s (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Economically, tourism and U.S. military spending continue driving Hawaii’s economy today. However, dependence on imports makes the economy vulnerable. Politically, Hawaii gained more self-governance rights over time, though some native Hawaiians still seek total sovereignty (Hawaii Guide).

In the 21st century, native Hawaiians’ average life expectancy and incomes still lag behind other ethnic groups highlighting ongoing social inequities (U.S. News). Solving these complex challenges stemming from Hawaii’s unique history will take more open dialogues and thoughtful policies aimed at social justice and cultural understanding in the years ahead.

The Complicated Legacy of Hawaii’s Territorial Status

Hawaii’s path to statehood was long and complex. After the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, Hawaii came under the control of American businessmen and was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898. For over 60 years, Hawaii existed in a colonial relationship with the United States.

As a territory, Hawaii lacked some basic rights. Its residents could not vote in presidential elections or have full representation in Congress. However, the territorial status also afforded economic privileges.

Hawaii exported goods to the mainland duty-free and received subsidies from the federal government.

The territorial years saw both progress and inequality. The plantation economy declined as tourism and the military expanded. New deal programs modernized infrastructure. However, Native Hawaiian culture and language were suppressed in the Americanization process.

Asian immigration also increased, leading to racial tensions.

After World War II, a movement for Hawaiian statehood grew. Supporters argued that Hawaii had proved its loyalty by supporting the war effort. But there was also opposition from those who wanted to regain independence or maintain territorial status.

After much debate, Hawaii finally became the 50th state in 1959.

Statehood helped resolve some long-standing issues. Residents gained full citizenship rights and representation in government. But the legacy of colonization continues to impact Hawaii today through land disputes, inequality, and debates over sovereignty.


The 1900 Hawaii Organic Act marked a pivotal transition for Hawaii, from an independent republic to an organized incorporated territory closely tied to the United States. While Congress approved this new political relationship for economic and military strategic reasons, it had lasting impacts on Hawaii that both benefited local business interests but also subordinated native Hawaiian self-governance.

The complex legacy of this relationship continues to spur disagreements and legal issues around native Hawaiian sovereignty claims. But the Hawaii territory set important precedents for governance that shaped later policies for Alaska, Puerto Rico and other U.S. island territories.

Sharing is caring!

Similar Posts