Hawaii and the Lincoln Bicentennial: Remembering a Special Relationship





Mr. Horton is Benjamin Banneker Professor Emeritus of American Studies and History, George Washington University, and a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

With the opening of the new year of 2009, the United States embarks on the commemoration of the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s 16th president. Born February 12, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky, Lincoln remains one of the best known and most esteemed presidents in American history. Even in Hawaii, which was an independent kingdom during his time, Lincoln was greatly respected during his presidency and remembered well into the 20th century. As part of the celebration of his birthday on February 12, 1944, a statue of Lincoln, sculpted by Avard Tennyson Fairbanks, a professor of fine arts at the University of Michigan was unveiled at the Ewa Plantation School on Oahu. The sculpture depicted Lincoln as a frontiersman with an ax in hand.

Fairbanks’s work was in answer to the request of committee seeking to create a stature of Lincoln at the Ewa school at the bequest of former teacher and principal Katherine Burke. The committee initially approached him in 1939, while he was teaching summer school at the University of Hawaii.

The placement of this presidential statue at the Ewa Plantation School was an acknowledgment of Lincoln’s significance in Hawaiian history and of Hawaii’s historical link with the United States long before official annexation. Although few people in the islands or on mainland America understand the extent of this association, Lincoln and his presidency were well understood by many residents in mid-19th century Hawaii.

Decades before Lincoln’s presidency, American missionaries, largely from New England, arrived in Hawaii bringing American style Protestantism and opening schools for native Hawaiians, including members of the royal family. During the 1820s and 1830s they gained substantial spiritual and political influence among the Hawaiian royalty. Together with the American businessmen who settled in the islands during the mid-19th century, American missionaries gained a firm economic foothold that included the ownership of Hawaiian land. In his book, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, Gavin Daws speculates that “by the end of the nineteenth century white men owned four acres of land for every one owned by a native, and this included the chiefs’ lands.”1

During the 1850s, as sectional tensions within the United States increased, the 1860 election of Lincoln as President became a critical event that led to southern secession. In the field of four candidates, Lincoln carried the election with a mere 39 % of the popular vote. Significantly, American residents in Honolulu held a mock election on the same day as the U.S. election. The ballot contained the same slate of candidates and netted Lincoln 45% of the vote. The Honolulu newspaper, Polynesian interpreted the mock election results as evidence that island “Democrats [were] splitting themselves and destroying their party.” The vast majority of Americans in Honolulu supported Lincoln and favored the preservation of the Union.2

The presence of significant numbers of New Englanders in Hawaii created a profound awareness among Hawaiians of the grave regional American conflict giving rise to a war over the issue of slavery. Although slavery was prohibited by Hawaii’s Constitution of 1852, there was considerable debate comparing it to the contact labor system and the “coolie trade” that brought workers from Asia to fill the growing need for labor on the sugar plantations. This was a kind of indentured servitude, some in Hawaii argued, that was little better than American slavery, a position that tended to fuel opposition to the American slaveholding South.

The opening of the Civil War in the United States increased passions in the islands. Even though Hawaii declared its neutrality, popular sentiment, in the kingdom, especially among Americans and Hawaiians closely associated with them, remained strongly anti-Confederate. In Honolulu, a book store sold, red white and blue “Union Must be Preserved” envelopes and copies of the antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and when a southern-born woman living in the city flew a Confederate flag from her veranda, neighbors tore it down and ripped it to shreds.3

Meanwhile in the City of Hilo on the Island of Hawaii a merchant, Thomas Spencer, organized a pro-union militia unit of Hawaiians, which took the name, “Spencer’s Invincibles.” When he wrote to Lincoln offering its services the Hawaiian government informed him that he was in violation of the kingdom’s declared neutrality.4 Still, despite the official governmental position, some Hawaiians served in U.S. military units, many in African American army regiments and in the navy. One Union general, Samuel Chapman Armstrong, reported, “I found several [Hawaiian soldiers] among the Negro regiments.” Armstrong had been born in Hawaii, the son of a missionary. After the war he established Hampton Institute, a collage for African Americans in Virginia.5

As Hawaiians were involved in the military action of the Civil War, Lincoln also developed a personal relationship with the Hawaiian royalty. In a letter dated, March 16, 1863, Lincoln informed King Kamehameha IV of the appointment of James McBride, as US Minister to Hawaii, addressing the king as a “Great and Good Friend.” Lincoln then ended the letter, “Your Good Friend, Abraham Lincoln.” When the king died a few months later, Lincoln wrote again to express his condolences, this time to the king’s brother and successor Prince Lot Kamehameha who was soon declared Kamehameha V. Again he signed the letter “Your Good Friend.”6

This personal relationship with the royalty and the popularity of his issuance of the Emancipation in 1863, helped to make Lincoln extremely popular with the Hawaiian people. Evidence of his standing is found in an article that appeared in the May 11, 1865 edition of Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, the Honolulu Hawaiian language newspaper. Published in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination in mid-April, the article praised Lincoln as the “People’s friend.” “No words of ours can do justice to our grief,” the article explained. It then went on to claim that as Hawaiians, “We mingle our tears with those of that great nation beyond the sea, who are mourning as for a Father.” Finally it argued that because of “the great work which Abraham Lincoln commenced,” he was loved, and, regarding his assassination, “no parallel for this great crime can be found in the world's history since the Crucifixion.”7

As we commemorate this Lincoln Bicentennial year we would do well to remember Lincoln’s significance and his influence nationally and beyond the nation in places where people respected his efforts to bring American principles and ideals, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, to reality. Although future generations of Hawaiians found their relationship with the U.S. more vexed as American annexation of the Island nation led to the overthrough of Hawaiian independence, it is clear that during the Lincoln presidency relations between the two nations were congenial and mutually supportive. Thus, the Lincoln Bicentennial commemoration has a special meaning for Hawaiians. It commemorates a special relationship and events of great significance that long predate Hawaiian statehood.

1 Gavin Daws, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974), p. 128.

2 “A Mock Election for the Presidency of the United States,” Polynesian 10 November 1860.

3 Daws, Shoal of Time, p. 183.

4Ibid.

5 Gary Y. Okihiro, Island World: A History of Hawaii and the United States (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008), p. 162

6 Norris W. Potter, Lawrence M. Kasdon and Ann Rayson, History of the Hawaiian Kingdom (Honolulu, HI: Bess Press, 2003), 111-113; Gilder Lehrman Collection, New York Historical Society.

7Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, May 11, 1865.


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