Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Sentenced to Death

Robert W. Wilcox/tiles/non-collection/3/3-31-text-wilcox.xml Collection of U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Prior to his election as the first Delegate to the United States Congress from Hawaii, Robert W. Wilcox led two failed revolutions, was convicted of treason, sentenced to death, and eventually pardoned before annexation. 
Successful candidates to the House of Representatives usually tout their devotion to their constituents. Few, however, prove their commitment to the people by being sentenced to death like Robert W. Wilcox, the first Delegate from the Territory of Hawaii.

Born in 1855 under the Kingdom of Hawai’i, Wilcox was sponsored by a Royal program to be educated in Italy. The program sent promising Hawaiian students abroad to be trained in skills deemed vital to modernizing Hawaiian society in the arts and sciences. But the Bayonet Revolution of 1887 which forced King Kalakaua to share power with an all-white executive council brought Wilcox home. He joined native Hawaiians in a plot to restore the monarchy.

In July 1889 Wilcox led 250 armed Hawaiians against the figurehead King with the intention of bringing Kalakaua’s sister, Lili’uokalani, to the throne. The rebels seized the vacant palace grounds from the Royal Guards, and called on the King to join them. Kalakaua, suspecting the rebels wanted him deposed, refused. The rebellion fell apart and the planners were arrested and tried. Wilcox defended himself in court, using his oratorical skills to win an acquittal from a Hawaiian jury.

In 1895, Wilcox participated in another attempted coup against the new Provisional Government that had deposed Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893 and disenfranchised the native Hawaiian population. (Lili’uokalani succeeded Kalakaua upon his death in 1891.) Hawai’i was now governed by the white-planter minority, and Wilcox’s group wanted a native Hawaiian republic. An unsuccessful attempt to occupy Oahu’s Diamond Head left one man dead and the plotters scattered through the countryside. Eventually the rebels surrendered and a series of military trials were held. Wilcox and two other defendants were convicted and sentenced to death, though all of the death sentences were later commuted to 35 years' hard labor. As the prospects for U.S. annexation of the islands grew, Hawaiian President Sanford Dole paroled all political prisoners, among them Wilcox.

Wilcox returned to freedom a hero to the native Hawaiian population, but he now eschewed political violence and rebellion. He got his chance to enter the political arena when the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898. The passage of the Hawaiian Organic Act of 1900 (31 Stat. 141–162) re-enfranchised the native population with the establishment of the territorial government. Wilcox’s popularity as an early rebel suddenly made him into a political force and ensured his election as the territory’s first Delegate in 1900.

Sources: Ernest Andrade, Jr., Unconquerable Rebel: Robert W. Wilcox and Hawaiian Politics, 1880–1903 (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1996); Helena G. Allen, Sanford Ballard Dole: Hawaii’s Only President, 1844–1926 (Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1988); and Merze Tate, The United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom: A Political History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965).