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The illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and eventual annexation of the Hawaiian islands is a complex and controversial story.

At the center of it all was John L. Stevens, a diplomat and minister to Hawaii who conspired with American business interests to orchestrate the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893.

If you’re short on time, here is the quick answer: John L. Stevens, as U.S. Minister to Hawaii in the 1890s, actively supported the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and establishment of a provisional government that sought annexation by the United States.

John Stevens’ Background and Appointment to Hawaii

Stevens’ previous diplomatic experience

John L. Stevens had previously served as a diplomat in Sweden, Norway, and Paraguay before being appointed as the U.S. Minister to Hawaii in 1889.

He had over 20 years of diplomatic experience abroad. Stevens was known as an expansionist and supported the annexation of Hawaii into the United States.

He believed it was the “manifest destiny” of the U.S. to expand its territory and influence.

Political and economic situation in Hawaii prior to Stevens’ appointment

In the years leading up to Stevens’ appointment, Hawaii was undergoing political turmoil and unrest. Native Hawaiians were increasingly unhappy with the erosion of their rights under the Western-influenced government.

At the same time, American business interests, particularly sugar plantations, had gained huge economic influence. The white American plantation owners wanted to pursue annexation to promote their businesses.

There had been an unsuccessful rebellion attempt by native Hawaiians in 1887. The turmoil worried the American plantation owners and government about the stability and future of their Hawaiian assets and influence.

Appointing an annexationist minister like Stevens was seen as a way to protect American political and economic interests in Hawaii.

Stevens’ secret plan to pursue annexation

Unbeknownst to the official U.S. government policy at the time, Stevens went to Hawaii with a secret plan to bring about the islands’ annexation. He worked closely with American businessmen and pro-American Hawaiian locals to push annexation along. According to historians, Stevens:

  • Actively promoted and supported the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893
  • Pledged U.S. military forces would protect the new provisional Hawaiian government
  • Refused requests to have U.S. armed forces land Marines to restore the Queen
  • Recognized the new government promptly, giving it legitimacy

Stevens’ behind-the-scenes orchestration was pivotal in the eventual overthrow of the Hawaiian Queen and establishment of the Republic of Hawaii in 1894, which paved the way for annexation. His appointment set the stage for the U.S. to closely direct Hawaiian affairs towards its own strategic and economic interests.

Also read: Who Was The Last King Of Hawaii?

Stevens’ Role in the Overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani

Support for the Committee of Safety opposition group

As the U.S. Minister to Hawaii, Stevens provided crucial support to the Committee of Safety, a group opposed to Queen Liliuokalani that was organizing to overthrow her monarchy.

Stevens met secretly with Committee members and gave them verbal assurances that the U.S. government would back their cause. This emboldened the Committee to move forward with its plans

Implicit approval of U.S. troop deployment

When the Committee of Safety launched its coup in January 1893, Stevens requested and received permission from Washington D.C. to deploy over 160 U.S. Marines and sailors around government buildings and assets in Hawaii.

Although Stevens maintained that the troops were strictly there to protect American property, their prominent presence sent an unmistakable signal of U.S. approval of the overthrow. This show of military might deterred royalist counter-actions.

Diplomatic recognition of the provisional government

Immediately after the coup succeeded, Stevens was the first to extend formal diplomatic recognition to the newly declared provisional government of Hawaii led by Sanford Dole.

This conferred legitimacy and forestalled other countries from disputing power with the new regime.

Coming so swiftly, Stevens’ recognition signaled that the U.S. had sanctioned the entire operation to depose Liliuokalani.

Also read: When Was Hawaii Made A State: A Detailed History

Stevens’ Advocacy for Annexation After the Overthrow

Lobbying for a treaty of annexation

After the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, John Stevens continued to strongly advocate for the annexation of Hawaii to the United States.

As the former American Minister to Hawaii who orchestrated the overthrow along with American business interests, Stevens used his influence in Washington D.C. to lobby the Harrison and later Cleveland administrations for a treaty of annexation.

However, President Cleveland was reluctant about moving forward with annexation, as he launched an investigation into the overthrow and concluded it was improper.

But Stevens persisted in his lobbying efforts, teaming up with Lorrin Thurston, the Hawaiian Minister to the U.S., to put diplomatic pressure on the administration.

Working with provisional government to engineer annexation vote

With the treaty stalled in the Senate, Stevens next worked closely with the provisional government in Hawaii to orchestrate a referendum vote demonstrating popular support for annexation.

The provisional government organized the vote on June 27, 1898, which unsurprisingly resulted in an overwhelming majority in favor of becoming part of the United States.

Stevens used his political connections to ensure the McKinley administration recognized the legitimacy of this referendum. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898, Hawaii’s strategic location in the Pacific took on new urgency.

This helped convince President McKinley and the Senate to move ahead with annexation despite the irregularities surrounding the overthrow.

Resignation once annexation was assured

On August 12, 1898, the formal ceremony for the annexation of Hawaii to the United States took place in Honolulu.

After playing such a pivotal role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and advocating tirelessly for annexation, Stevens likely felt a sense of satisfaction seeing Hawaii become an American territory. However, the circumstances surrounding the annexation would remain controversial.

But Stevens departed having left an indelible impact on Hawaii’s history.

Also read: Was The Annexation Of Hawaii Justified?


In conclusion, as American Minister to Hawaii, John L. Stevens actively conspired to overthrow Queen Liliuokalani and worked tirelessly behind the scenes to deliver Hawaii to the United States through annexation.

His meddling and disregard for the right of the Native Hawaiian people to self-governance set the stage for the loss of Hawaiian sovereignty and over a century of colonial rule.

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