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Honoring Hawaii's only President, Sanford B. Dole, on his 170th Birthday, April 23, 2014

Left: Sanford Ballard Dole. Right: Dole inaugurated as Territorial governor at annexation ceremony, Executive Office Building (Iolani Palace), 1898

In the history of Hawaii following Captain Cook's arrival in 1778, three chiefs of government tower far above all others. They each exercised leadership through a lengthy period of profound and turbulent change. The power and scope of their influence reverberates until today. In the past century nobody has come close to their importance in Hawaiian history.

Everyone knows about Kamehameha the Great. Using weapons and expertise brought by Europeans, he became the first chief in more than a thousand years who killed or intimidated all the chiefs on all the Hawaiian islands, thereby unifying the archipelago under a single sovereignty. He created the Kingdom of Hawaii, took numerous wives consolidating major chiefly lines, and ruled as a semi-benevolent dictator with absolute power.

Kauikeaouli, his second son by his sacred wife Keopuolani, became Kamehameha III while still a child. He ruled under the regency of his stepmother Ka'ahumanu, who had been his father's favorite wife. He gradually but firmly converted the Kingdom from an absolute monarchy to the rule of law, promulgating the first Constitution in 1840. He survived a foreign takeover by a rogue British warship in 1843, and obtained international recognition of Hawaii as a member of the family of nations. He made it possible for foreigners in Hawaii to take a loyalty oath to become naturalized subjects of the Kingdom; and he acknowledged that all persons born or naturalized in Hawaii, regardless of race, were subjects of the Kingdom fully equal to natives. He gave up sole ownership of all the lands of Hawaii in the Great Mahele beginning in 1848, creating a system of government lands, crown lands, and private deeds.

Sanford B. Dole was native-born at Punahou School on April 23, 1844. The school had been founded by his father Daniel Dole, who came to Hawaii in 1841 among the ninth company of missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Sanford spent eleven of his most formative years (ages 11-22) growing up Hawaiian-style, at Koloa, Kauai, where he became expert at konane (similar to checkers) and pahia (a special form of diving). After attending Williams College (Massachusetts) he became a lawyer, and included Asian and Hawaiian plantation laborers among his pro bono clients.

Dole actively participated in the social activities of the royal court. He adopted a light-skinned native girl Elizabeth Napoleon, who was probably his biological child. Lizzie married Ebenezer Low, grandson of John Parker (Parker Ranch). Lizzie's adoration for her father is shown by the fact that she named her first-born son Sanford Ballard Dole Low. And when that boy died in infancy, Lizzie once again named her last-born child Sanford Ballard Dole Low. Lizzie's descendants today are prominent Hawaiians with names including Napoleon, Low, Lucas, and Thompson. For example Nainoa Thompson, captain of the Hokule'a voyaging canoe and former trustee of Kamehameha School, is a great-great-grandson of Sanford Dole at least by hanai and probably by blood.

Sanford's ties to the place he grew up remained strong; and he was elected to two terms in the Kingdom Legislature from Koloa (1884-86). In 1887 he led the protest group that staged an armed revolution and forced King Kalakaua to sign the Reform Constitution, also known as the Bayonet Constitution. Later Kalakaua appointed him to be a Justice of the Kingdom's Supreme Court.

In 1893 he honorably resigned his judgeship before the revolution that overthrew the monarchy; and then led the Provisional Government afterward. U.S. President Grover Cleveland "ordered" him to undo the revolution and reinstate the Queen. President Dole wrote a lengthy and strongly-worded letter of refusal, confirming that Hawaii desired annexation but was not a puppet regime. Dole then helped transition Hawaii from a revolutionary Provisional Government ruling by decree, to the permanent Republic of Hawaii with a Constitution and elected legislature. In the Fall of 1894 he was pleased to receive letters in eleven languages officially recognizing the Republic as the rightful government of Hawaii and Dole as its President. The letters were personally signed by Emperors, Kings, Queens, and Presidents of at least 19 nations on four continents, including Britain, France, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia, Brazil, China, and even the U.S. With international recognition as the rightful government, the Republic of Hawaii had the right under international law to negotiate a Treaty of Annexation to the U.S. including the ceding of Hawaii's public lands.

Although U.S. President Grover Cleveland (Democrat and friend of Lili'uokalani) reluctantly signed a tersely worded letter recognizing the Republic as Hawaii's rightful government, he refused to allow annexation for the remainder of his term and continued trying to destabilize the Republic. Dole's strong leadership allowed the Republic of Hawaii not only to defy President Cleveland but also to crush the attempted counter-revolution in January 1895 which made use of rifles and bombs shipped from California which the U.S. Navy permitted to be smuggled to Robert Wilcox.

Following the election of William McKinley (Republican) as U.S. President, Dole once again negotiated a Treaty of Annexation, got it approved by the Hawaii legislature in 1897 and offered it to the U.S. Dole drove a hard bargain. Under the Treaty the U.S. paid off the accumulated national debt of the Kingdom and Republic (including the enormous costs of Kalakaua's trip around the world and construction of Iolani Palace). The U.S. in effect purchased the ceded lands, paying more than their market value at that time. Dole's Treaty also required the U.S. to hold the ceded lands not as U.S. property but in trust for the benefit of all the residents of Hawaii "for education and other public purposes." Congress passed a joint resolution approving the Treaty of Annexation in 1898 and McKinley signed it.

In 1900 Congress passed the Organic Act for governance of the Territory of Hawaii, with Sanford Dole as the first Territorial governor. In 1903 he was appointed judge of the U.S. District Court (Honolulu). Following many years of charitable works, he died in 1926.

Dole and Lili'uokalani were friends. He protected her safety and civil rights during the 1893 revolution. Unlike monarchs beheaded and shot during the French and Russian revolutions, Lili'uokalani was simply escorted a block from the Palace to her private home (Washington Place). Responding to credible threats she might be assassinated, President Dole paid the former Royal Guard who had served under the Queen to once again guard her. Two years later rifles and bombs were found hidden in her flower bed during the Wilcox attempted counter-revolution of 1895. A search of her home discovered letters she had signed appointing the cabinet ministers for the new government she expected to appoint, thus proving she knew about the attempted counterrevolution. She was put on trial and convicted of misprision of treason (knowing about plans for the counter-revolution and failing to report it). She spent seven months in a genteel "imprisonment" in a huge private room at Iolani Palace (with full-time maidservant, and sewing and writing supplies). President Dole pardoned her, allowing her to speak, write, and travel freely. She was allowed to organize a petition drive opposing the Republic's most cherished goal of annexation, and to go to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress against the treaty proposed by Dole. But in the end President Dole's patience and perseverance paid off, and the Republic's treaty of annexation was approved by a joint resolution of Congress signed by President McKinley in 1898.

Sanford B. Dole was Hawaii's longest-ruling chief executive at Iolani Palace (1893-1903), where his firm hand guided Hawaii through a decade of extraordinarily turbulent times. His spirit remains there, and his statue belongs there. He was the last chief of government of an independent nation of Hawaii.

Happy 170th birthday, Mr. President.


For a political biography of Sanford B. Dole, including his official positions; an indication of some of his ethnic Hawaiian descendants focusing on the line including Nainoa Thompson; a description of how Dole Intermediate School fails to celebrate his birthday; and some contents of a hostile biographical forum held in 2002 at the Hawaii Supreme Court; see this webpage produced for Dole's 160th birthday in 2004:

For the letter from the U.S. government to President Dole on December 19, 1893 demanding that Liliuokalani be restored to the throne, see:

For President Dole's powerful letter of Dec. 23, 1893 refusing the U.S. demand to restore Liliuokalani to the throne, see:

For details about President Cleveland's very strong diplomatic and military efforts to destabilize the Provisional Government, see Book Review of William M. Morgan Ph.D., PACIFIC GIBRALTAR: U.S. - JAPANESE RIVALRY OVER THE ANNEXATION OF HAWAII, 1885-1898 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011), especially the material about "Black Week" of December 1893 in Chapter 9: "The Restoration Fiasco", pp. 124-135.

For photographs of the original letters recognizing the Republic as the rightful government of Hawaii and Sanford Dole as its President, personally signed by Emperors, Kings, Queens, and Presidents of 19 nations on four continents in eleven languages, plus the letter of abdication and loyalty oath personally signed by ex-queen Lili'uokalani; see:


Published April 23, 2014 by Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D.

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