The Annexation of Hawaii

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13564

How did sugar lead to Hawaii becoming the 50th state? Should the U.S. have interfered with its monarchy? What does this mean for other territories like Puerto Rico? Find the answers here!


Social Studies, United States, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

  • How did an American lawyer, named Sanford B. Dole, become President of the Hawaiian Republic in 1894? 

Stanford Ballard Dole, 1902

Image from the US Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

  • How did the United States help this man become the leader of an island of native Hawaiians?


Sugar originated in East Asia, and the ancient Polynesian descendants of the Hawaiian people brought the crop with them those thousands of miles.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the western world became infatuated with the crop. The demand for the sweetener skyrocketed in Europe and America, where people were able to afford sugar in mass quantities.

The Hawaiians consumed it as well, but the emerging global economy encouraged the production of sugar at a much higher scale than previously seen.

To see just how integral this industry became to Hawaii, watch a portion of Paradise found: A history of pineapple, sugar, and seeds in Hawaii from PBS NewsHour:

During this transitioning economy, Kamehameha I unified the island chain into a kingdom in 1795.

Kingdom of Hawaii

Kamehameha I united the Hawaiian islands and became the nation's first ruler in 1810.

Tamaahamaah, King of Sandwich Islands

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Kamehameha I encouraged trade with the United States and England. As the kingdom became more involved in the world economy, it relied upon trade for income.

The exportation of sugar brought U.S. influence to the island as American investors established plantations there. Many politicians on the mainland took a vital interest in the island nation and its sugar crop.

Honolulu statue of King Kamehameha

After the death of Kamehameha I, missionaries came to convert the kingdom into a Christian one...something that was largely successful within only a few decades.

By the 1880s, the government was heavily influenced by by American business owners.

The Bayonet Constitution

In 1887, American business owners in Hawaii managed to force the monarch, Kal'kaua, to sign a new constitution that voluntarily reduced his power.

King David Kalkaua, 1882

Image by James J. Williams, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

  • How did these American businessmen have enough power to do this?

The missionaries, who first came to convert the islands, stayed and slowly became part of the government. Many of their descendants became wealthy plantation owners, who were also elected to parliament. However, they had a financial stake in maintaining lenient trade policies with the United States.

Politicians like Lorrin Thurston, who was a grandson of early missionaries, rose to great positions of power.

Lorrin Andrews Thurston, 1892

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Using this power, Thurston forced the king to agree to a reduction in his power as well as adding a land-ownership qualification to the right to vote. The only land owners were plantation owners, thereby revoking the ability of tens of thousands of native Hawaiians to vote in elections.

These measures weakened the Hawaiian monarchy forever.


The last monarch, and only queen of the Hawaiian kingdom, was Lili'uokalani.

Princess Liliuokalani of Hawaii, 1887

Image by Stanislaw Julian Ostrorog, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

As sister to the last king, she saw the power white members of government held in the country and sought to re-establish sovereignty over her country.

To see how she responded to the Bayonet Constitution, watch a clip from Queen Lili'uokalani - The First and Last Queen of Hawai'i | Unladylike2020 | American Masters | PBS:

During her short time ruling Hawaii, she tried to overturn this constitution. However, with the support of the United States, Sanford Dole managed to stage a coup d'etat, and Lili'uokalani fled to Washington, D.C.

  • How did this happen so easily?

Republic of Hawaii

Soon into her reign, it became clear that Queen Lili'uokalani would not allow the plantation owners to gain more power. The non-native members of parliament decided they would need to completely overthrow the government.

In January of 1893, President Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) sent the USS Boston to Hawaii with the plan to annex (add) the kingdom into the United States.

USS Boston, 1891

Image from the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

With the help of the Marines, 1,000 people backed by wealthy Hawaiians locked the Queen in the royal palace and established Sanford B. Dole as the new president of the Hawaiian Republic.

While Hawaii had favorable trading terms with the United States before this coup, trade of sugar and other produce like pineapples became even more profitable once the Reform Party, led by the plantation politicians, became the only political party on the islands.

Dole remained the president of this new single-party republic for the rest of Harrison's administration.

Grover Cleveland

For decades after the Civil War ended in 1865, only Republicans were elected to the presidency, except for Grover Cleveland. He served as the 22nd (1885-1889) and the 24th (1893-1897) president.

Grover Cleveland

As the only Democratic president in this period, he was heavily committed to non-intervention in foreign affairs.

The overthrow of Hawaii in 1893 was immediately met with a treaty to annex Hawaii as a territory to the United States. However, Harrison's presidency ended just two months later in March 1893. This meant that the Senate could not approve the annexation before Grover Cleveland took office.

Once Cleveland became president, he refused the Republic of Hawaii's attempts to be incorporated into the United States of America.

Cleveland was staunchly opposed to the imperialism he saw the European powers practicing. He attempted to help Queen Lili'uokalani, who was exiled in Washington, D.C., regain control of Hawaii.

While many Republican leaders were worried about staying competitive on the world stage, Cleveland was more interested in maintaining the sovereignty of smaller nations abroad.

These attempts were in vain, however. William McKinley was elected in 1897, and Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory the following year.


After Hawaii became a territory, tariffs were eliminated, and the wealthy plantation owners made even more money. This made investment more attractive, and the island plantations grew.

Hawaii became an exclusively agricultural territory, exporting the sugar, pineapples, and coffee that could not be grown elsewhere in the United States.

After decades of being a territory, the island chain was formally made a state on August 21, 1959.

Both Alaska and Hawaii were admitted into the Union after serving as incredibly strategic positions in the Pacific during World War II and growing significantly enough in population to merit entry into statehood.

The United States does not have requirements for when territories can enter statehood, and there are few incentives to cross a territory over to state status, especially if it is believed the state will go against the ruling political party at the time.

Move on to the Got It? section to dig a little deeper into the politics of Hawaiian statehood.

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