There’s a pair of 1878 telephones sitting behind plexiglass at Honolulu Museum of Art’s new exhibit, “Hoʻoulu Hawaiʻi: The King Kalākaua Era.” The gadgetry, built of varnished maple boxes and fitted with horned vocal-audio transmitters, are one of the earliest examples of Bell’s invention, having arrived in the islands just one year after debuting in Scientific American.

Along with hundreds of artifacts and pieces of art from the period, the telephones help to tell the story of Kalākaua’s push toward modernity during the restlessness of the late 19th century, and of his effort to infuse a national kanaka identity with once-banned traditions, such as hula and mele.

The maple boxes flank a Hawaiian Bell Telephone Co. broadside that lists hundreds of 1885 Kingdom subscribers. The document can be read as a roll of the island nation’s industry, government, clergy, and high society in the years between the Reciprocity Treaty (1875) and the Bayonet Constitution (1887), defining moments that led to the overthrow of the Hawaiian government.

One standout, listed in the third column under “Dole SB” and “Dole SB res,” is Sanford B. Dole. Though he is recognized as one of the principals in the push for annexation, and as the inaugural governor of the Territory of Hawaii, what’s less discussed is Dole’s work on Hawaii’s first Republican constitution.

A New Constitution

On March 26, 1894, one year after leading the successful overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii government, Sanford B. Dole penned a letter to John W. Burgess, a renowned political science professor at Columbia University. Dole needed advice about constitutions. Hawaii’s first Republican constitutional convention loomed less than two months away, and as Dole dug through the corpus of the late monarchy’s governing document, he wondered what needed to go, what needed to stay, and what needed to be altered.

He’d read Burgess’s 1890 book, “Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law,” and generally agreed with the Ivy League professor’s position on the executive branch’s role in a republic. Like Burgess, Dole felt an independent executive performs best when it has sufficient veto, military, and ordinance powers.

Sanford B. Dole, the author says, was deeply involved with Hawaii’s first Republican constitution.


But Dole wondered if there might be a better design for Hawaii. Did executive power need to be held within a single office whose cabinet was merely an advisory body, as it was in the U.S. federal government? What if real power were instead diffused among the men who composed the cabinet, as “Political Science” seemed to suggest might be possible on pages 118–119.

Additionally, might not allowing cabinet members to also serve in the legislature expedite government administration, and assuming this to be the case, wouldn’t government run more efficiently if the cabinet leader were also the leader of the party in power?

“We are at work upon a new constitution,” Dole wrote just before his closing remarks. “Your book has been a great help to me.”

Fixing The Legislature

Less than a week after sending that first letter, and without receiving a response from Professor Burgess, Dole penned a second letter, this time on the topic of creating a legislature. How should the Republic of Hawaii’s legislature be structured, and from whom should it derive its electoral power?

“Under the monarchy,” he explained, “there were two classes of legislators who sat together and who were elected by voters having different qualifications.”

Those qualifications had been set by the 1887 “Bayonet” Constitution. When Dole and the sugar oligarchs compelled Kalākaua to sign the Bayonet Constitution, Kalākaua’s signature not only shifted power from the king to the cabinet, it stripped voting rights from poor and Asian male citizens. Meanwhile, monied, non-Asian, nonresident male aliens gained the right to vote. Still, Dole worried that his five percent of the population, those who understood the burden of Republican democracy, would be outnumbered at the ballot box.

There are many natives (kanaka) and Portuguese who have had the vote hitherto,” Dole confided to Burgess, “who are comparatively ignorant of the principles of government, and whose vote from its numerical strength as well as from the ignorance referred to will be a menace to good government.”

Burgess would certainly be sympathetic to Dole’s people problem. In his Columbia lectures, he taught that politics are shaped by racial or “ethnic” factors, that a nation’s racial ancestry determines appropriate state and constitutional pursuits. The recently-arrived Portuguese, while European, were southern European, and lacked the political capacities of northern “Teutonic” Europeans, such as the English, Germans, Scandinavians, and Americans of Teutonic stock. And the natives (kanaka) were much too collectivist to manage a government that would adequately promote freedom and individualism. A nonbeliever of natural law and equal rights, Burgess once wrote of Northern Europeans that “no other peoples or population have ever given the slightest evidence of the ability to create democratic states.”

“There are many natives (kanaka) and Portuguese who have had the vote hitherto who are comparatively ignorant of the principles of government, and whose vote from its numerical strength as well as from the ignorance referred to will be a menace to good government.” — Sanford B. Dole

Dole’s plan was to keep political power in the hands of the Teutons: make it easy to vote for seats in the lower house but difficult to vote for them in the upper house. Educational requirements and an increase in financial and property qualifications could be used to further refine the electorate. Of course, giving the upper house the power to introduce money bills (taxation and appropriation), a privilege usually reserved for the lower house, would really give it that new-government shine.

The plan was straightforward, if not utopian.

However, Dole knew that these proposals would raise considerable opposition, ending with “permanent discontent.” After all, a year had just lapsed since the overthrow of the Hawaiian Government. Still, it was the only conceivable way Hawaii could be “kept out of the control of the irresponsible element, and consequently of the professional politicians.”

It must have been hard for Dole, a local boy whose kanaka wet nurse is said to have been the only constant in his early life, after his mother died and his father remarried. He once wrote of himself, “I am of American blood but Hawaiian milk.”

He’d witnessed the monarchy squander power while the “professional politicians” failed to manage the government efficiently. In any case, the science of politics taught that a Teutonic republic at the center of the Pacific would be a net benefit for civilization. Yet, here he was with pen and paper for the second time in a week, knowing very well how to build a favorable constitution and having the support of the oligarchs to ratify and enforce it.

“Asking your indulgence for these inroads on your time,” Dole wrote, closing the second letter. “I remain very sincerely yours.”

The Professor Writes Back

In his second letter, Dole had encouraged Burgess to respond quickly, as the constitutional convention delegates would be voting in May of that year. Finally, in a letter dated April 13, 1894, Burgess responded.

Columbia College in the City of New York
School of Political Science

April 13/94

MY DEAR SIR: Your letter of March 31st is just received. If I understand your situation it is as follows: You have a population of nearly 100,000 persons, of whom about 5,000 are Teutons . . . about 9,000 are Portuguese, about 30,000 are Chinese and Japanese, about 8,000 are native born with foreign parents, and the rest are natives (kanaka) . . .

With this situation, I understand your problem to be the construction of a constitution which will place the government in the hands of the Teutons, and preserve it there, at least for the present. I think you can accomplish this with the existing material at your hand provided the Teutons are substantial [sic] united in purpose and will act harmoniously.

Burgess went on to elaborate upon other constitutional configurations that might bring better results. Before signing off, he reminded Dole of two things: “that judges be appointed for life or during good behavior . . . and appoint only Teutons to military office.”

Voting for convention delegates took place on May 2, 1894. In December, the “Constitution of the Republic of Hawaii” was published in the Yale Law Journal. That same month, Dole sent his final letter, asking if Burgess had received the copy of the constitution he’d mailed, and thanking him most heartily for his scholarship on the science of government.

“I would not have you think that the first draft of our constitution was my sole work,” Dole wrote. “Mr. [Lorrin A.] Thurston aided me largely and our draft was carefully scrutinized by a dozen or more thoughtful men which were called together for that purpose, and who gave many days to it, going over every sentence with great deliberation.”

List Of Subscribers

On the 1885 Official List of Subscribers to the Hawaiian Bell Telephone Co., “Dole, SB” and “Dole, SB res” are listed at 311 and 312. A few lines below, “Her Majesty” Queen Kapiʻolani can be reached at 319, and Liliʻuokalani’s Waikīkī home at 320. There is an intimacy in seeing Kalākaua and his cohort closely gridded and contained on a single broadside, its listings pressed in black ink, a few others looping in cursive, graphite lines. The names are the names of Hawaiʻi’s public and private spaces — Wilson (223); Smith (63); Castle (97); King (404), Thurston (394), etc. Yet, Hawaii folks can live a lifetime without ever thinking about the men behind these namesakes.

The “Kalākaua Era” mostly feels long ago and faraway, as do the sorts of ideas that underwrote Western global expansion throughout the nineteenth century. However, such theses and theories are coded into the very DNA of charters and constitutions across the world, living in language long after their authors have gone and their historical moment has passed.

In light of this version of history, perhaps Hawaii’s controversial king deserves to be pardoned. Perhaps future generations will learn of Kalākaua, not as a “career politician,” but as one among countless kanaka leaders who made difficult choices during a precarious time. Unlike earlier generations, perhaps future ones won’t feel compelled to reduce the man to a tragic character whose avarice and materialism could only lead to his downfall. And when future generations get a look at a pair of kingdom telephones, perhaps they’ll know Kalākaua as much more than an object lesson in dramatic irony.

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About the Author

  • Spencer Yim Kealamakia
    Spencer Yim Kealamakia grew up in Hilo but now lives in Honolulu. He’s also lived in Wisconsin, Spain, South Korea and North Carolina. He has a B.A. in English from the University of Hawaii Manoa and an M.F.A. from the Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is working on a novel. One day he will stop mentioning the novel he’s working on and actually finish it. Meanwhile, follow him on Twitter: @SpencerYK.