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The newest state

Many U.S. states have mottos in a classical or European language; many were once part of another country. Only one has a motto in its own language and only one can say that it was once its own kingdom.

That state, of course, is Hawaii, 50th of the 50 U.S. states, having been admitted to the Union only 53 years ago this past week.

And although it has had only one (often-amended) Constitution since it became a state, Hawaii has had some form of constitution since 1839.

The various islands that make up what is today Hawaii were independently ruled by kings, chiefs and clan leaders until the first Kamehameha — with help from western weaponry — united all of the Hawaiian islands into a single kingdom in 1810.1 He ruled as Kamehameha I of the Kingdom of Hawaii until his death in May 1819.2

Hawaii’s position in the Pacific, its small population, and the susceptibility of its people to western diseases left the islands constantly vulnerable to the interference of foreign powers.3 Its leaders sought to shore up its independence with a series of treaties.

The United States was the first to sign a treaty with the Kingdom of Hawaii — a 1826 agreement over trade, ship access to the islands and treatment of deserters from American ships.4 Although the treaty never mentioned the independence of the Kingdom, and although it was never ratified by Congress, entering into the treaty had the effect of “indirectly recognizing Hawaiian independence.”5

Both France and England secured trade treaties with Hawaii — “the negotiations being conducted under the guns of a man-of-war” in the case of England in 1836 and those of “a 60-gun frigate and the presentation of excessive demands by its commander” in the case of France in 1839.6

Both eventually signed a treaty recognizing Hawaiian independence, but not until after England had tried to claim the islands by force in 1843. It was when England backed down and the Hawaiian flag raised again on 31 July 1843 that King Kamehameha III is supposed to have said Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Âina i ka Pono — which translates as “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness,” and is today the Hawaiian state motto.7

In part to shore up Hawaii’s claims to independent sovereignty, King Kamehameha III first issued a five-paragraph “constitution” in June of 1839. It was more a declaration of rights, and provided in part:

in making laws for a nation it is by no means proper to enact laws for the protection of rulers only, without also providing protection for their subjects; neither is it proper to enact laws to enrich the chiefs only, without regard to the enriching of their subjects also; and hereafter, there shall by no means be any law enacted which is inconsistent with what is above expressed, neither shall any tax be assessed, nor any service or labor required of any man in a manner at variance with the above sentiments.8

That document was followed by five other constitutions — some ratified, some not, and at least one imposed on the ruler at what some thought was the point of a bayonet:

     • The Constitution of 1840, declared by King Kamehameha III, 8 October 1840, continuing the declaration of rights from 1839, but adding a House of Representatives as part of the government for the first time.9

     • The Constitution of 1852, declared by King Kamehameha III, with the advice and consent of the legislature, 14 Jun 1852, limiting the powers of the King and expanding those of the legislature, and “possibly the most democratic constitution of its time.”10

     • The Constitution of 1864, declared by King Kamehameha V, rolling back many of the reforms of 1852, increasing the power of the monarchy.11

     • The Constitution of 1887, called the Bayonet Constitution, because an armed militia was used to intimidate King Kalakaua into signing it, creating a constitutional monarchy with very limited power for the monarch.12

     • An unratified constitution drawn up by Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 but never formally presented, which nonetheless led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the eventual annexation of Hawaii by the United States.13

Hawaii Territory Announced, 1900
Image: Library of Congress

The annexation didn’t occur immediately on the overthrow of the Hawaiian government. An initial treaty was negotiated but the treaty of 1893 was withdrawn by President Cleveland. As a result, a provisional republican government was formed in Hawaii with its own short-lived constitution.

When President McKinley was elected in 1896, a new annexation treaty was negotiated and presented to Congress, but failed to win the necessary votes in the Senate.14

In 1898, McKinley chose to proceed by way of a joint resolution instead of treaty ratification, and he succeeded in getting the resolution through both houses of Congress.15 Hawaiian sovereignty was then officially transferred to the United States on 12 August 1898.16

The Territory of Hawaii was officially formed in 1900.17 As early as 1903, efforts began in Hawaii to garner support — both among the population there and in Congress — for its admission as a state.18 In 1949, the Hawaii Legislature called for a Constitutional Convention, which drew up and presented a constitution to the people of Hawaii at the November 1950 general election.19

It still took more than eight more years before Congress passed the Hawaii statehood bill on 18 March 1959.20 Hawaiian voters then went to the polls in June 1959 to accept statehood — and did so by more than 90% of the vote. The new state officially came into being — and the new constitution into force — on 21 August 1959.21

A full text of the original constitution as adopted couldn’t be located online though there is a “Coming Soon” link on the website of the Native Hawaiian Genealogy Society website. Copies are available at the Law Library of the University of Hawaii, and because of the notes at the version of the Constitution at the Hawaii Legislative Reference Bureau website, it’s possible to see what portions of the present constitution persist from the original.

A constitutional convention in 1968 rewrote portions of the constitution. It was called specifically to deal with the problem of legislative reapportionment, but other matters included were liberalized voter qualifications, judicial terms, local government charters and the rights of union workers.22

Another major set of amendments occurred at a Constitutional Convention in 1978. Among other changes, the constitution was amended to establish term limits for state office holders, require a balanced budget, and establish the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. It also made the Hawaiian language the official state language of Hawaii.23

The voters rejected proposals for Constitutional Conventions in 1998 and 2008 by wide margins.24

The full text of today’s Hawaii Constitution is online at the Hawaii Legislative Reference Bureau website and also at


  1. King Kamehameha I,” ( : accessed 23 Aug 2012).
  2. Kamehameha I,” Architect of the Capitol ( : accessed 23 Aug 2012).
  3. U.S. Tariff Commission, “Reciprocity with Hawaii,” Reciprocity and Commercial Treaties (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1919), 103; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 23 Aug 2012).
  4. Hawaii-United States Treaty – 1826,” html version, ( : accessed 23 Aug 2012).
  5. A Guide to the United States’ History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, since 1776: Hawaii,” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State ( : accessed 23 Aug 2012).
  6. U.S. Tariff Commission, “Reciprocity with Hawaii,” Reciprocity and Commercial Treaties, 103.
  7. Hawaii Motto,” USA Factbook ( : accessed 23 Aug 2012).
  8. The 1839 Constitution, PDF version, The Hawaiian Electronic Library ( : accessed 23 Aug 2012).
  9. Ibid., The 1840 Constitution, at PDF p.3.
  10. Ibid., The 1852 Constitution.
  11. Ibid., The 1864 Constitution.
  12. Ibid., The 1887 Constitution.
  13. Wikipedia (, “1893 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii,” rev. 22 Jan 2012.
  14. U.S. Tariff Commission, “Reciprocity with Hawaii,” Reciprocity and Commercial Treaties, 117-118.
  15. “Joint Resolution To provide for annexing the Hawaiian Islands to the United States,” 30 Stat. 750 (1898).
  16. U.S. Tariff Commission, “Reciprocity with Hawaii,” Reciprocity and Commercial Treaties, 118.
  17. An Act to Provide a Government for the Territory of Hawaii, 31 Stat. 141 (1900).
  18. See J. Res. 1 of the Legislature of the Territory of Hawaii, August 15, 1903; digital image, Hawaii Statehood, featured documents, ( : accessed 23 Aug 2012).
  19. Introduction, The Constitution Of The State Of Hawaii, Hawaii Legislative Reference Bureau ( : accessed 23 Aug 2012).
  20. “An Act to Provide for the Admission of the State of Hawaii into the Union,” 73 Stat. 4 (1959).
  21. Introduction, The Constitution Of The State Of Hawaii.
  22. Richard H. Kosaki, “Constitutions and Constitutional Conventions of Hawaii,” The
    Hawaiian Journal of History
    12 (1978): 120, 125-126; PDF version, University of Hawaii, eVols Digital Library ( : accessed 23 Aug 2012).
  23. Wikipedia (, “1978 Hawaii State Constitutional Convention,” rev. 26 May 2012.
  24. Ballotpedia (, “Hawaii Constitutional Convention, Question 1 (2008),” rev. 4 Jun 2012.
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