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“You shall not make coups d’etat, & afterwards explain & pay…”

March 10, 2012

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Too feckless or busy (or both) to keep house here lately, I’ll simply copy out a few remarks Ralph Waldo Emerson set down in his journals in the summer of 1866:

America should affirm & establish that in no instance should the guns go in advance of the perfect right. You shall not make coups d’etat, & afterwards explain & pay, but shall proceed like William Penn, or whatever other Christian or humane person who treats with the Indian or foreigner on principles of honest trade & mutual advantage. Let us wait a thousand years for the Sandwich islands before we seize them by violence.

Captain James Cook, in his attempt to find the northwest passage, lit upon what he called the “Sandwich Islands” in January 1778. Some 16th century Spanish maps feature what may be the same islands, but Cook gave them the name by which they were known, to speakers of English, in Emerson’s day. The islands are, of course, Hawai’i. The Russians, the French, and the British all had their stake in the archipelago during the first half of the 19th century. How long did America wait for the Sandwich Islands? Not a thousand years, as per Emerson; instead, nine.

I refer to the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875. The major signatories to that treaty were King Kalākaua of Hawai’i, United States Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, and President Ulysses S. Grant. The treaty opened markets in the United States to Hawaiian sugar (American sugar growers duly arrived). The treaty also granted, to the United States, the land later used to build a naval station called Pearl Harbor.

When King Kalākaua died in San Francisco in 1891, his sister, Queen Lili’uokalani, assumed the throne. Prompted, in part, by a native Hawaiian political party named Hui Kalai’aina, she undertook the drafting of a new constitution. This would have restored certain rights alienated by the so-called Bayonet Constitution of 1887, which had disenfranchised Asian inhabitants of the islands.

I am looking all of this up, needless to say. What I don’t need to go to a book (or to the Web) to recall is that the United States didn’t fancy the Queen’s move, and didn’t, as Emerson would have it, “proceed like William Penn.”

In 1893, white inhabitants of the islands formed a Committee of Safety, as these things are often called; and in came the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines. The Queen abdicated, if “abdication” may encompass an action more or less involuntary. The Committee of Safety and its allies established the Provisional Government of Hawai’i. This entity controlled the islands for a year until, in 1894, the U.S. Congress passed the Newlands Resolution (named for Nevada Congressman Francis Griffith Newlands). That resolution annexed the Territory of Hawaii to the United States. And so affairs remained—with the exception of a 4-year interregnum of martial law during the Pacific War—until Hawaii came into the union as a state in 1959.

We made our coup d’etat and, afterwards, explained and paid.

I note also another entry Emerson made in his journals, this time in 1847: “I hate vulnerable people,” it reads. The man certainly had his facets.

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N.B.: I paste in below an image, available at Wikipedia, of a letter protesting annexation, addressed to President William McKinley and signed by fifty members of the Hawai’ian Patriotic League.

Petition Against Annexation, addressed to President McKinley.

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