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Hawaii is the only state in less than 200 years whose government has sequentially progressed from feudal absolutism, through constitutional monarchy, independent Republic, territory of the United States, and lastly the FiftiethState of the Union. This paper will compare and contrast the policies of two ruling monarchs in Hawaiian history: Kamahameha I and Kamehameha III.


Before 1795, Hawaiians were living in a feudal system with several small kingdoms, each governed by a powerful chief (ali‘i). All legislative, executive, and judicial powers were placed in the top Chiefs. Furthermore, there existed a large body of unwritten legal custom, conveyed by oral tradition. Social, political, and religious system were closely linked and the largest body of law was the religious taboos (kapu). Kamehameha I (1758-1819) was well known as the founder of the kingdom and possessor of several lands from one end of the islands to the other that belonged to the chiefs and other people. He established a monarchy; his title and sovereignty were based on conquest. By 1795, Kamehameha I had conquered all islands, except Kaua‘i and Ni‘hau. Even though the attendant civilization was greatly superior, the king preserved his sovereign authority and prerogatives. Regardless of the fact that Kamehameha 1 had opened his kingdom to foreign trade and allowed outsiders to dwell in Hawaii, he was able to maintain Hawaiian sovereignty at a period of forceful colonial expansion on the side of western European nations. As western contact enhanced, Kamehameha I had both Western advisors in addition to an advisory councils of chiefs, however his ruling was still an absolute monarchy. As a result of the order his rule brought to Hawaii, the islands experience real prosperity for the first time, although he was firm on the significance of adhering to ancient customs and religious beliefs (Bendure and Friary 14).

In the light of these, his dynasty started to direct the country with a slight modern influences. Additionally, Kamehameha I is noted for bringing together the Hawaiian Islands under one government and creating friendships with westerners that would later result to social, religious, and commercial change to the Islands.  When he unified all the islands in 1810, Hawaii turned into a monarchy. This unified leadership helped Europeans since it enhanced stability in the islands by finishing warfare and it was additionally suitable for Europeans to manage the Hawaiian people through a single ruler than to settle with independent chiefs.  Kamehameha I did not wholly conquer and unite the islands under one kingdom individually. He gained external help through two English sailors, John Young and Isaac Davis, who acted as advisors on the operation of foreign weapons and on modern warfare, thus offering him an advantage over his rivals. Kamehameha the Great had managed to defeat one chief after another, gaining control of the island of Hawaii and then Maui, Molokai and Oahu. During this period, there was an increasing influence from contact with the world away from Hawaii’s shores. Traders and merchants, ship captains and sailors, rascals and scalawags came down upon the islands and made their contributions (Bendure and Friary 14).

On the other hand, Kamehameha III, the son of Kamehameha I and Keopuolani also well-known as Kaulkeaouli began his reign in 1814 to 1854. Kamehameha III started to rule in his individual right in 1833; he continued to share ruling powers with the council of chiefs and a succession of kuhina nui, Ka’ahumanu. Contrasted to the reign of Kamehameha I, Kamehameha III reign was not under the kapu system (a traditional system of laws) as it had been abolished by Kamehameha II. Throughout his reign, Kamehameha III witnessed Honolulu transform from a small village to a central trading center in the hub of the Pacific Ocean. Similar to Kamehameha I, he depended on the counsel of foreigners. Kamehameha III went further to appoint a number of them to ranks of power. In 1840, with the foreigners’ advice, he promulgated or openly declared Hawaii’s first constitution. In this period, the Kuhina nui along with the council of chiefs took serious measures by accepting to espouse a written constitution as the law of the land for the Kingdom of Hawaii. This was a momentous change since it was among the first constitution documented during the years of the Hawaiian monarchy.  Later in 1848, after the Western suggestion of land ownership, he initiated a new land division referred to as the Great Mahele, which was meant to change the ownership and division of land in Hawai’i for generations to come. Kamehameha III’s written constitution in 1840 incorporated a legislature comprising of a number of elected representatives as well as a supreme court. Besides the Hawaii’s first Constitution (1840), he is also well-known for promulgating various exemplary measures incorporating the Edict of Toleration (1839) and the Declaration of Rights (1839). He also contributed in attaining diplomatic recognition of the independence of his island nation by the United States (1842), France (1843), and England (1843) (Arnold-Baker 625).

As previously noted, King Kamehameha 1 reign was ruled as an absolute monarchy. On the other hand, the reign of Kamehameha III, is differentiated as it characterized the birth of the constitutional monarchy. Under King Kamehameha III regime, the two adopted constitution both in 1840 and 1852 included limitations on royal power to which he voluntarily granted. It was influenced by Western ideas and more particularly by the result of foreigners to the application of absolute rule. The Constitution of 1840, utilizing a revised version of the Declaration of Rights as its overture, inaugurated an era of constitutional monarchy.  The first documented constitution under Kamehameha III somewhat divided the legislative, executive, and judicial powers and created a process for constitutional change. The document was particularly noteworthy since it formed a bicameral legislative branch by appending an elected house of representatives and entailing a supreme court for adjudicating legal questions. The foremost major step outside of absolute rule was absorbed in 1839 when Kamehameha III publicized the Declaration of Rights. Also known as Hawaiian Magna Chart, it was a special concession freely approved by the king to his people (Andrade 78).

Under Kamehameha III, a notable effect was Hawaii’s second constitution which stemmed from legislative actions demanding for a commission to evaluate the earlier document. On the contrary, under Kamehameha I, the first constitution was documented by the king and his chiefs. The Constitution of 1852 under Kamehameha III is noteworthy because it developed the Declaration of Rights, awarded universal (adult male) suffrage for the first time, and amended the house of nobles from a hereditary body to the permanently appointing members. Furthermore, it institutionalized a government of three branches by dividing and describing the legislative executive, and judicial functions more beside the lines of the American Constitution, hence introducing additional checks on the monarch. This differs with Kamehameha III reign where all legislative, executive, and judicial powers were placed in the top Chiefs (Andrade 78).

Kamehameha I preserved Hawaii’s independence from colonial control and supported cultural customs and the indigenous religious until his death in 1819. On the other hand, Kamehameha III embraced modernity from western culture and Christianity from American missionaries. Under the reign of Kamehameha III, Christianity had been introduced by missionaries to the Hawaiian people who had been disenchanted with their own ancient gods. Religion under Kamehameha I demanded human sacrifices and the breaking of taboos, which were often trivial. For instance, women were not permitted to eat pork, coconuts, bananas, turtle, and certain types of fish, failure to adhere to such rules resulted to death. Their faith was on four prime gods besides many smaller ones. Since it was an absolute monarchy, it was prohibited for a common man to call out the king’s name. Under Kamehameha III reign, the kapu system and idolatry had been abolished by Kamehameha II. With regards to societal changes, the traditional Hawaiian culture went through a fast revolution attributed to the political consolidation of Hawaii under Kamehameha III and the impact of the foreign influence. During Kamehameha II, Hawaii had been categorized in chiefdoms ruled by moi (highest of the high chiefs). The reign of Kamehameha III was different as the Hawaiians themselves were changing, cultural mores were gradually collapsing, the old system of governing ali‘i with control over commoners was breaking and the previous religious beliefs in supernatural gods was beginning to disintegrate. It was a time of social turmoil among the Hawaiians, who found themselves and their systems under assault by an external world they scarcely understood (McMullin 39).

Both Kamehameha I and II encouraged foreign trade even though the latter king sought to expand commercial agriculture as an export industry. The sugar cane industry continued to grow during the century. Under Kamehameha I regime, trade with Europeans enhanced and foreigners specifically esteemed Hawaii’s sandalwood. In addition, the King permitted the exportation of the precious wood to China. Under Kamehameha III, western migrations paved the way of Hawaii becoming a haven for trading vessels. Regarding trade, ranching was the only type of economic activity that developed during Kamehameha III reign to substitute the ceasing sandalwood trade and the reducing whaling industry. The Kingdom of Hawaii increased in stature and was well-known by the world’s great powers, Britain, France, and the United States. In addition, the westerners saw Honolulu changed from a small village to a significant and strategic trading and naval port and thus showed their interest in its control (Potter, Kasdon, and Rayson 28).

Under the reign of Kamehameha I, all land belonged to the people and the chiefs in common; the king was only the leader and manager of the land.  The land tenure system retained its basic structure. He subdivided the lands according to ancient custom, although he gave the largest districts to the highest ali‘i. The heirs of deceased chiefs were frequently allowed to retain possession of the ahupua'a or ili kupono (divisions of the island). Kamehameha policy of requiring the higher chiefs to remain with him continuously somewhat altered the land system. Additionally, foreigners were not permitted to become naturalized citizens. The law referred to “na kanaka a pau” or the entire people, limited possession of the land to the native people belonging to Hawaiian Islands, the Native Hawaiians. It did not include the foreigners dwelling in Hawaii, but it considered the supreme kings and separated the chiefs and the common people. In addition, it also guaranteed the security of the rights of the natives. The constitution under the reign of Kamehameha I, the responsibilities of the king, the chiefs, and the people were vested jointly in common, in the land, during a period, when local Hawaiians were the only citizens of the islands. During this period the foreigners were not permitted to be in possession of land in Hawaii until the passage of the law in 1850. Despite of restricting foreign people to own land, Kamehameha I had English explorers as friends and advisers (Campbell 41).

On the other hand, when Kamehameha III became the successor of Kamehameha 1 and ruling monarchy of the Hawaiian Islands, he started a process to set up private property in the Hawaiian private property in the Hawaiian Islands due to unmanageable demands of European and American Settlers and their own governments. The political structure and land tenure system attracted Western liberal ideas on protecting individual rights, which benefitted both foreigners and the chiefs, who were able to offer their land to the Europeans with the aim of paying their mounting debts. Kamehameha III retained private land also known as crown lands. He had war and treaty control, and was the absolute charge. As previously noted, before the consolidation of power in the kingdom of Kamehameha I, amendments in property tenure had been normal, with each new conquering ali'i nui sharing property rights to his subordinate chiefs. This regular change in land tenure ceased, and there was no sharing of land when Kamehameha II or Kamehameha III became king (Campbell 41).

With regards to the same, the 29 years of kingship under Kamehameha III was marked by a number of landmark events. The first resulted in 1843, when the Hawaiian kingdom fell to British control for a short time. As previously noted, The Great Mahele was a document that was promulgated under Kamehameha III with unexpected effects for Hawaii’s political and constitutional growth through the present day. More notably, in 1848 the king issued the Great Mahele, which separated Hawaii’s lands among monarchy, government, and common people. For the first time, the working class was permitted to own land. Specifically two years later, foreigners were also allowed to own land, and 40 years following the decree of the Great Mahele, 2/3 of the entire government lands belonged to foreigners (Campbell 41). According to Menton and Tamura, the foreign pressure placed against the traditional system gave rise to the Great Mahele or Great Division which was stated publicly by the monarch in 1848. As a result, for the first time, the royal action granted private ownership of land in fee .Previously under Kamehameha I regime all land was in possession by the monarchy and usage by others was through sufferance. The western ideas had initiated a new concept of private ownership of land into the Hawaii islands (108).

In general, Since Kamehameha 1 did not change Hawaiian land tenure, his economic dependence on Europeans and the rising attachment of Hawaiian chiefs in European trade was the opening wedge for later legal changes initiating a Western system of private land ownership.  One of his notable contributions during his 24 years of reigning was adding a governor over each island. On the other hand, King Kamehameha 111 sovereignty was for 30 years longer than any other Hawaiian monarch. It was a period of amazing change, a time when Westerners came to fill up key positions in the Hawaiian government. During Kamehameha III reign, Hawaii was flooded with Western missionaries and developed from a feudal society into a constitutional monarchy. He is noted for proclaiming a new constitution that restored the monarch and defeated foreign missionaries. Kamehameha III’s government deliberately implemented changes to incorporate a written constitution, religious toleration, universal male suffrage, a declaration of rights, a representative government with a national legislature, and a public education. During his kingship, the government was managed, crime was curbed, native religion was made less rigorous and foreign traders were allowed to settle. As a result, European economic and political influence in Hawaii increased significantly. Except for the overthrows of the monarchy in 1893, it is clearly that no event in the nineteenth century had a huge negative impact on Hawaiians than the Great Mahele (Campbell 41).


The age of Kamehameha I was characterized by peace and unity after he reduced the islands from a state of anarchy and continuous warfare to a unified island. On the other hand, the age of Kamehameha III was characterized by growth and liberty. Kamehameha I and III had a huge political, social and economic influence in Hawaii as their contributions left an indelible mark on the Hawaiians.

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