Last Wednesday night before his lecture on the “meaning and memory of emancipation” and the “paradoxical legacies of Lincoln,” David Blight, an award winning scholar on slavery and the Civil War, speaking before a capacity crowd on the campus of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa said: “I know Lincoln played well out West, but not this far West.” Although said in jest, Blight was right on the money.
Almost no one writing or speaking about Lincoln thinks about making a connection to Hawaiʻi. Usually the first mention of Hawaiʻi in US history books is the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the annexation of Hawaiʻi (or prolonged military occupation, as Keanu Sai has recently argued in his dissertation and forthcoming book) by the United States. The Lincoln nexus to Hawaiʻi is certainly not as robust as it was with the Western states and territories of the United States (Richard Etulain intriguingly suggests in an April 2009 issue of Wild West that Lincoln could be seen as a “Founding Father of the Political West”). Nevertheless, Lincoln and Hawaiʻi is a topic worth looking into.
Lincoln was not the first US President to make contact with the Hawaiian Kingdom. That honor instead went to John Tyler (1841-1845) who recognized Hawaiian independence. It was also Tyler who extended the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaiʻi, noting among other things, the extent to which American vessels were involved in whaling in the Pacific. This industry would become directly affected by the Civil War. The CSS Shenandoah sunk many of the New England whaling ships in the Pacific and also the Harvest, a Hawaiian whaling vessel.
Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward had been advocating for the annexation of Hawaiʻi as early as 1852 (which also had some favor in the islands and with King Kamehameha III) and he continued to push for annexation after Lincoln’s Presidency. Lincoln for his part never seemed interested in this Pacific expansionism. In 1863, his nonchalant manner of appointing a new US commissioner to Hawaiʻi had been followed by the ineffectiveness of the man appointed and the problem of a possible French intervention in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi because of a lack of religious freedom for Catholics—this situation had already resulted in tensions with the French in 1839 and 1849. Luckily for Lincoln and Hawaiʻi, the French only intervened in Mexico.
Lincoln did not have an opportunity to negotiate a reciprocity treaty with Hawaiʻi in 1864 (Seward advised against it). He did however write to King Kamehameha V (pictured above), addressing him as Lincoln did with other monarchs whom he had never met, “Great and Good Friend,” to express his condolences about the death of King Kamehameha IV who died in November 1863. Lincoln’s interest in the islands had clearly grown by the middle of 1864 when he met the Hawaiian envoy, Elisha H. Allen. Lincoln stated:
“In every light in which the state of the Hawaiian Islands can be contemplated, it is an object of profound interest to the United States. Virtually it was once a colony.
It is now a near and intimate neighbor. It is a haven of shelter and refreshment for our merchant fishermen, seamen, and other citizens, when on their lawful occasions they are navigating the eastern seas and oceans. Its people are free, and its laws, language and religion are largely the fruits of our own teaching and example.
The distinguished part which you, Mr. Minister, have acted in the history of that interesting country is well known here. It gives me pleasure to assure you of my sincere desire to do what I can to render now your sojourn in the United States agreeable to yourself, satisfactory to your sovereign, and beneficial to the Hawaiian people.”
As James Horton, historian and Lincoln Bicentennial Commission member, pointed out in a Hawaiʻi and Lincoln article, Americans living in Hawaiʻi had great interest in Lincoln and the Civil War—most supported the Union. After Lincoln’s assassination this engagement continued. The May 11, 1865, issue of the Ka Nupepa Kūʻokoʻa (The Independent Newspaper), an American missionary organ which printed articles in Hawaiian and English, was dominated by Lincoln articles. A letter to the editor written in English reported a “Jubilee in Wailuku” after learning about the surrender of Lee at Appomattox. The festivities in Wailuku were attended by 500 people including Native Hawaiians in attendance. Some of the legacies of Lincoln which David Blight talked about (and some he didn’t) could already be found in the Ka Nupepa Kūʻokoʻa. Lincoln as savior of the Union, as emancipator, as martyr, as man of the people, as a healer and so on. The newspaper’s brief statement about Lincoln’s assassination, for example, participated in the deification of Lincoln which was occurring in the United States by stating: “No parallel for this great crime can be found in the world's history since the Crucifixion.” To top this, a short piece which consisted mostly of an unattributed excerpt from an Isaac E. Carey sermon (which in turn was based on an apocryphal story from “a gentleman having recently visited Washington”) attempted to prove that after visiting Gettysburg, “Lincoln loved Jesus.” This is one of the less outlandish posthumous baptizing efforts. In covering some of the details of Lincoln’s religious life and a supposed secret baptism in the Sangamon River, Edward Steers, Jr., in his book Lincoln Legends describes some of the holes in the story: “a dead minister, a frozen river, a train connection that did not exist, and too many ministers with their hands in the water” (p. 78).
Various reasons can be given about the motivations for going to such lengths to baptize Lincoln following his death (it was needed for apotheosis, for ars moriendi, for identifying with Lincoln, etc.), but he has lived on in Hawaiʻi, especially for school children. There is an annual Lincoln Day at ʻEwa Elementary which was first held February 12, 1944, to unveil a Lincoln statute on the campus which depicts Lincoln as a frontiersman. There is also a President Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Honolulu. Lincoln even appears on the cover of a US history text assigned at a Honolulu high school.
It is this last legacy of Lincoln, President of Hawaiʻi, which could not be conjured up by a newspaper or even Lincoln himself in 1865, which gives pause here. When Lincoln said in 1864 that Hawaiʻi’s “laws, language and religion are largely the fruits of our own teaching and example,” he could have never imagined that on the 200th year after his birth that Hawaiʻi would be operating under US laws and that a Governor in Hawaiʻi could refer to him as the “greatest President” of a nation he never even visited.