Bayonet Constitution

Bayonet Constitution

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King David Kalākaua (left) signed the 1887 Constitution under threat of force; Lorrin A. Thurston (right) was one of its writers.

The 1887 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii was a legal document by anti-monarchists to strip the Hawaiian monarchy of much of its authority, initiating a transfer of power to American, European and native Hawaiian elites. It became known as the Bayonet Constitution for the use of intimidation by the armed militia which forced King Kalākaua to sign it or be deposed.[1][2] The document created a constitutional monarchy like that of the United Kingdom, stripping the King of most of his personal authority, empowering the legislature and cabinet of the government.[3]

Rebellion of 1887

On June 30, 1887 a meeting of residents including the armed militia of the Honolulu Rifles and politicians who later formed the Reform Party of the Hawaiian Kingdom demanded King Kalākaua dismiss his cabinet headed by the controversial Walter M. Gibson. The meeting was called to order by Sanford B. Dole, and chaired by Peter Cushman Jones. Lorrin A. Thurston prepared a list of demands to the king. The meeting also insisted a new constitution be written.[4]:359–361

On the next morning, July 1, 1887, a shipment of arms was discovered (although later found to be smooth-bore hunting guns used to scare bird from farmers' fields). The Honolulu Rifles took control and arrested Gibson. Kalākaua called in US Minister George W. Merrill, and the British, French, Portuguese and Japanese representatives and requested help. They all suggested he comply with any demands, which he did.[4]:363–364 Thurston then became the powerful interior minister, although Englishman William Lowthian Green was nominally head of the cabinet as minister of finance.[5]

Over less than a week, the new constitution was drafted by a group of lawyers including Thurston, Dole, William Ansel Kinney, William Owen Smith, George Norton Wilcox, and Edward Griffin Hitchcock. Most were also associated with the Hawaiian League, which was actually in favor of ending the Kingdom and annexation by the United States.[1]

Kalākaua signed the document July 6, 1887, despite arguments over the scope of the changes. It created a constitutional monarchy like that of the United Kingdom, stripping the King of most of his personal authority, empowering the legislature and cabinet of the government. It has since become widely known as the "Bayonet Constitution" because of the threat of force used to gain Kalākaua's cooperation.[1] At the time Kalākaua had been forced to sign the constitution under threat of arms, military rifles were commonly fixed with bayonets.


The 1887 constitution replaced the previous absolute veto allowed to the king to one that two-thirds of the legislature of the Hawaiian Kingdom could override. It took away the power of the king to act without consent of his cabinet, and gave the legislature the power to dismiss the cabinet instead of the king (although this was amended later to allow Queen Liliʻuokalani to select new ministers). Language from the 1864 constitution that implied the king was above the law was removed. The cabinet was now allowed to vote in the legislature, but to reduce the king's influence, he was not allowed to appoint legislators to any other government post. The constitution also removed the monarch's power to appoint members of the House of Nobles (the upper house of the legislature), instead making it a body elected by the wealthy landowners to six-year terms and enlarging it to 40 members.[6]

The 1887 constitution made significant changes to voting requirements. It allowed foreign resident aliens to vote, not just naturalized citizens. Asians, including subjects who previously enjoyed the right to vote, were specifically denied suffrage. Only Hawaiian, American, and European males were granted full voting rights if they met the economic and literacy thresholds.[7]

The 1864 constitution required that voters generate annual income of at least 75 U.S. dollars, or own private property worth at least $150. The wealth requirements were removed during the short reign of Lunalilo in 1874.[2] This change extended voter eligibility to many more Hawaiians, and was kept for the lower house of representatives. By 1889, ethnic Hawaiians amounted to about two-thirds of the electorate for representatives and about one-third of the electorate for Nobles.[4]:453 However, the 1887 constitution required an income of $600 or taxable property of $3000 to vote for the upper house (or serve in it).


Further reading

External links

  • 1887 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii (scanned images)
  • 1887 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii (Full text, with access to the English translation, and other resources)

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