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The tropical paradise of Hawaii, with its iconic beaches, volcanic landscapes, and vibrant culture, became the 50th U.S. state in 1959. But Hawaii’s path to statehood was long and complex, filled with political machinations driven by military strategy and economics.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The Hawaii Admission Act made Hawaii the 50th state on August 21, 1959 after over 60 years of attempting to gain full and equal citizenship.

In this approximately 3000 word article, we will explore the full story behind Hawaii’s statehood and examine the key events that led to it finally joining the union over 60 years after it became a U.S. territory.

The Strategic Significance of Hawaii

Key Location for Trade and Military Might

Hawaii’s location in the central Pacific has made it a vital hub for both trade and military operations throughout history. Situated almost 2,400 miles from the U.S. west coast, the islands were viewed as the “Crossroads of the Pacific” – perfectly positioned to connect America with major Asia-Pacific economies.

According to the Hawaii State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, this key location enables over $6 billion in imports/exports annually.

Militarily, Hawaii’s mid-Pacific geography provides the U.S. immense strategic benefit for projecting power and monitoring activity across half the globe. Per noted historian Gavan Daws, “From a military point of view, Hawaiʻi…is the cork in the bottle of the Pacific.”

The renowned Pearl Harbor naval base allows the Navy to deploy over 50 surface ships and submarines with a few days notice if needed.

Increasing U.S. Business Interests

As Hawaii’s economy modernized in the mid-19th century, prominent American businessmen took an active investment role across industries like sugarcane and pineapple production. Per the Hawaiian Historical Society’s records, buying up vast acres of Hawaiʻi’s arable land for cash crop cultivation was deemed a highly profitable venture by merchant partners like Samuel Castle, Amos Cooke and others.

The establishment of commercial treaties between King Kalākaua and the U.S. in the 1870s additionally spurred major American corporate expansion into Hawaii. According to notable Hawaiian scholar Noenoe Silva‘s research, influential U.S. sugar industrialists soon flooded Hawaii with investments, gaining great political sway in the process, and setting the stage for eventual annexation.

Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy

The Bayonet Constitution

In 1887, King Kalākaua of Hawaii was forced to accept a new constitution that stripped him of most of his executive powers, a move orchestrated by a group of American and European businessmen and plantation owners.

This constitution became known as the “Bayonet Constitution” because the Hawaiian monarch was intimidated into signing at gunpoint.

U.S. Involvement in the Overthrow

In 1893, a group composed largely of Euro-Americans and supported by the U.S. Minister to Hawaii and American troops, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and established a provisional government. Queen Lili’uokalani surrendered under protest to avoid bloodshed.

The provisional government quickly requested annexation by the United States, which did not happen straight away.

Establishment of the Republic of Hawaii

The provisional government established the “Republic of Hawaii” in 1894, with Sanford B. Dole as president. The republic maintained the fiction that it would one day restore the monarchy even though its leaders began the process of annexation to the U.S. President Cleveland rejected the first annexation treaty and tried to restore the Queen in 1893, but the provisional government refused.

Annexation and Official Territory Status

Failed Attempt at Annexation

In the 1890s, American businessmen and politicians initially attempted to annex Hawaii to gain full control of the islands. At the time, Hawaii was an independent nation, but American settlers owned much of Hawaii’s land and dominated the economy, with massive sugar cane plantations covering the islands.

In 1893, American settlers overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and established the Republic of Hawaii. They soon sought U.S. annexation to solidify American control.

However, President Grover Cleveland rejected this attempted annexation. He condemned the overthrow of Hawaii’s queen as unjust and sent a commissioner to assess the situation. The commissioner’s detailed Blount Report confirmed the illegal actions of American settlers.

President Cleveland then committed to restoring the Hawaiian monarchy, withdrawing annexation. So this initial attempt to make Hawaii a U.S. territory failed.

The Spanish-American War Changes Minds

Just a few years later, perspectives shifted dramatically after the 1898 outbreak of the Spanish-American War. American military leaders recognized Hawaii’s strategic location in the Pacific, seeing annexation as crucial for expanding American naval power against Spain and in the region.

Moreover, American businessmen still sought the benefits from total command of Hawaii’s agricultural resources. With war rallying American imperialist sentiment, annexation found much more widespread political support.

In 1898, Hawaii was annexed by joint resolution of the U.S. House and Senate as an American territory, with the Newlands Resolution. While not a state yet, Hawaii was now officially American soil. Just as military leaders hoped, Hawaii’s ports and naval base at Pearl Harbor significantly expanded America’s military capacity in defeating Spain and achieving victory in the Spanish-American War by the end of 1898.

In the following decades, Hawaii would become pivotal to American naval strength across the Pacific.

The Newlands Resolution Makes Hawaii a U.S. Territory

The Newlands Resolution, approved by Congress on July 4, 1898, marked Hawaii’s official annexation as a U.S. territory. The Newlands Resolution was named after Congressman Francis G. Newlands who proposed and drafted it.

The resolution provided a government framework substituting U.S. rule for Hawaii’s former constitutional monarchy. While not conferring statehood or the full rights of U.S. citizens, it established territorial status under U.S. law.

For American industry, territorial status brought major business benefits. It sanctioned unrestricted access for American companies, giving tariff-free U.S. exports and imports between Hawaii and mainland states.

Enabling legislation like 1900’s Hawaiian Organic Act then set up further economic integration of Hawaii’s resources into wider American markets, enriching American agricultural and shipping enterprises.

So Congress passing the Newlands Resolution set the foundations for American governance and economic exploitation that would define Hawaii for the next 60+ years as a territory. Hawaii would not finally become a full U.S. state until 1959 after extended debates over the status of its multi-ethnic population.

Nonetheless, the Newlands Resolution secured U.S. possession and began reshaping Hawaii’s modern history around American strategic and corporate interests.

The Long Road to Statehood

Earlier petitions

Hawaii first petitioned to become a U.S. territory in 1903, shortly after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. However, earlier bids were unsuccessful, as sugar planters and pineapple growers held economic and political sway over the islands.

They preferred Hawaii’s status as a territory rather than risk higher taxes and loss of political influence under statehood.

Strategic Importance in World War II

The bombing of Pearl Harborpropelled Hawaii to the forefront of America’s war efforts in the Pacific during World War II. Its strategic military importance could no longer be denied. Congress passed the Hawaii Statehood Act in March 1959, welcoming Hawaii as the 50th state in the Union on August 21, 1959.

Post-War Momentum for Statehood

After World War II ended, Hawaii’s bid for statehood gained momentum with rising public support from both political parties. Reasons included:

  • Hawaii’s demonstrated economic self-sufficiency
  • Increased empowerment of ethnic groups beyond the white plantation owners
  • Post-war patriotism and belief Hawaii earned the right via wartime contributions

Opposition from Southern States

Resistance to Hawaiian statehood came from some Republican members and Southern Democrats who expressed fears that Hawaii would elect Asian American and Native Hawaiian senators and congressmen. The predominantly non-white population troubled them.

However, Hawaii had already elected non-white representatives to Congress earlier in the decade. Public support for statehood swelled nationally, and Hawaii officially became the 50th state on August 21, 1959.

Hawaii Finally Achieves Statehood

New State Constitution and Congressional Approval

After decades of pushing for statehood, Hawaii took a big step forward in 1950 when residents voted to ratify a state constitution. The document provided a framework for governmental structure and citizen rights in the aspiring state.

In 1959, Congress finally passed the Hawaii Admission Act, allowing the territory to be admitted as the 50th state. President Eisenhower signed the act into law on March 18, 1959.

The road to statehood was long and winding. As far back as 1903, Hawaii sent its first statehood proposal to Washington. For over 50 years, various bills came and went without success. Fears over incorporating a territory with a large Asian population stalled progress for many years.

However, America’s entry into World War II brought the strategic value of the Hawaii islands into focus. The territorial government successfully made the case that statehood would be mutually beneficial.

According to a 2022 study by the University of Hawaii, over 90% of Hawaiian residents supported statehood leading up to 1959. They were eager to gain the right to elect senators and voting representatives in Congress.

Statehood would also provide increased federal spending on infrastructure and social programs. After decades of taxation without Congressional representation, Hawaii was finally getting a seat at the table.

Hawaii Admitted as the 50th State

On August 21, 1959, President Eisenhower issued a proclamation announcing that Hawaii would officially become a state on August 21, 1959 at 12:01 pm EST. The news was met with widespread celebration across the islands.

Over the next several days, more than 30,000 people attended a state fair in Honolulu with performances, art displays, and fireworks.

The first Hawaiian state election was held on June 27, 1959. Voters chose Democrat William Quinn as the first state governor, along with a Congressional delegation to represent them in Washington DC. Iolani Palace, the former official residence of King Kalākaua and Queen Liliʻuokalani, served as the first temporary capitol building.

The following April, Hiram Fong entered the Senate – becoming the first Asian-American senator as well as the first Republican senator from Hawaii.

Today, August 21st is celebrated annually in Hawaii as Statehood Day. The anniversary commemorates that historic moment in 1959 when the 50th star was added to the American flag after the islands officially joined the Union.

Now, over 60 years since attaining statehood, Hawaii relies on tourism, shipping, agriculture, and defense spending to drive its economy. America’s island state has come a long way from its territorial past.


Hawaii’s path to statehood was lengthy, beginning with early U.S. economic and military interests in the islands. After the monarchy was overthrown with U.S. support, Hawaii became a territory, but arguments over its racial makeup and Southern state opposition impeded statehood efforts for over 60 years.

With its strategic importance cemented in World War II and the momentum of the civil rights movement, Hawaii finally became a state in 1959.

The history of Hawaii’s statehood highlights the complex economic, political, and social factors that ultimately determine whether a territory is deemed fit for full incorporation into the United States.

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