Saturday, May 1, 2010

Grover Cleveland, Hawaiian Hero

To most Americans, President Grover Cleveland is known (if he’s known at all) as the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office. But to a growing group of Hawaiian home-rule advocates, he’s becoming something of a folk hero; so much so that yesterday a delegation traveled from Hawaii to his birthplace in Caldwell, New Jersey for the first-ever “Presidential Luau” in his honor.

The reason for this love for a largely forgotten 19th century president is Cleveland’s decision immediately after taking office for a second time in 1893 to withdraw a bill before the Senate to annex Hawaii. Earlier in January 1893, a group of wealthy American businessmen and elite native Hawaiians led by Sanford Dole overthrew Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani and almost immediately petitioned for annexation by the United States, something President Benjamin Harrison was trying to push through Congress when his term ended. Cleveland was skeptical of the “revolution” and sent a delegation to investigate the matter. The delegation’s formal report found that a majority of the Hawaiian population was actually opposed to annexation by the United States. Cleveland said at the time:
“I suppose that right and justice should determine the path to be followed in treating this subject. If national honesty is to be disregarded and a desire for territorial expansion or dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own ought to regulate our conduct, I have entirely misapprehended the mission and character of our government and the behavior which the conscience of the people demands of their public servants.”

While Cleveland prevented the outright annexation of Hawaii, the United States also did not move to restore Queen Liliuokalani to the throne either; instead the short-lived Republic of Hawaii was established with Sanford Dole (big surprise there) serving as its one-and-only president. Hawaii was ultimately annexed by Cleveland’s successor, William McKinley in 1898. While Cleveland ultimately only delayed the inevitable, his stand on principle that it was an abuse of power for the United States to attempt to annex Hawaii has made him something of a cult hero today – a Grover Cleveland facebook page has more than 1,200 fans and calls him a “hero for Hawaii” (and “way cooler than any furry blue puppet.”).

Currently, there is a bill before Congress, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, which would grant native Hawaiians a "federally recognized government-to-government relationship" with the United States, much like many Native American tribes in the other 49 states enjoy. Grover Cleveland would likely approve.
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