An insurrectionist who fought to restore the Hawaiian monarchy, and who was sentenced to death for treason, Robert W. Wilcox eventually organized a potent home-rule movement, won election as the new territory’s first Delegate, and became the first Asian Pacific American elected to Congress. A symbolic figure who embodied the complexities of managing the United States’ growing empire in the Pacific, Wilcox exercised limited influence on Capitol Hill. His focus on territorial politics, devotion to Native-Hawaiian concerns, and strong preference for Hawaiian independence were all hallmarks of his brief U.S. House career.
Robert William Wilcox was born in Kahalu, Honuaula, on the island of Maui, in the Kingdom of Hawaii, on February 15, 1855. His parents were William S. Wilcox, an American sea captain, and Kalua Makoleokalani, said to be a direct descendant of Lonomakaihonua, brother to
King Kaulahea of Maui. His mother died when Wilcox was 10 years old, about the time his father became a rancher at Makawao, Maui. He attended the Haleakala Boarding School in Makawao before attending school in Wailuku, Maui. He taught school in Honuaula.1
Wilcox was elected to represent Maui in the Hawaiian legislature in 1880. In 1881 a legislature-sponsored program, Education of Hawaiian Youths Abroad, selected Wilcox as one of its beneficiaries and allowed him to continue his education. He was assigned to the Royal Military School in Turin, Italy, for military training, graduating in 1885 as a sublieutenant of artillery. Wilcox then attended the Royal Application School for Engineer and Artillery Officers, also in Turin. While attending these military institutes, Wilcox married Gina Sobrero of the House of Colonna di Stigliano. Unrest in Hawaii in 1887, the bloodless Bayonet Revolution in which haoles—white, often wealthy landholders—usurped power from the monarchy, led the government to recall its Education of Hawaiian Youths Abroad students.2
Upon his return to Hawaii, Wilcox found that, under the new status quo, no elected position and no army existed for him to serve in, and this experience fueled his anger and prejudice against the islands’ white elites. With the monarchy’s authority severely limited and Wilcox’s former mentors out of power, there was no direct route to power for the ambitious politician. Wilcox and his wife moved to San Francisco, California, where he was a surveyor, and his wife grudgingly taught French and Italian. The couple had a daughter, Victoria, but the marriage was an increasingly unhappy one. Wilcox returned to Hawaii alone in 1889, and his wife returned to Italy with their child shortly thereafter, requesting an annulment of their marriage. Tragically, Victoria died en route to Italy.3 In 1896 Wilcox married Princess Teresa Owana Kaohelelani, a distant descendant of Keona, the father of Kamehameha the Great. The couple had five children, Teresa Owana Kaohelelani, Robert, Virginia, Gideon, and Elizabeth; the latter two died as infants.4
Upon arriving in Honolulu in April 1889, Wilcox set himself up as a civil engineer and surveyor for hire. In mid-May, he hosted a meeting that resulted in the founding of the Kamehameha Rifle Association, an organization determined to undertake a hostile overturn of the Hawaiian government. Soon after, Wilcox founded the Liberal Patriotic Association, designed as the political arm of the revolt. The rebels plotted either to force King Kalakaua to sign a new constitution restoring monarchical power or to supplant him with his sister Liliuokalani with the same end in mind. Plans developed swiftly, and in the predawn hours of July 30 Wilcox led nearly 150 men to the palace as a display of force. The Royal Guard locked themselves in the palace and refused Wilcox an audience with the king, who had fled to safety. Wilcox stubbornly refused to abandon his plan and stationed his men in a bungalow on the grounds until bombardment from government soldiers forced their surrender in the late afternoon.5
Members of the reform government decried the destructive activities of “two or three men, on whom this Government has spent some twenty thousand dollars to give them a foreign military education—for what?”6 Wilcox was charged with treason, but the law dictated that he be judged by a jury of his peers of Native or part Hawaiians. Knowing no Hawaiian jury would convict him, the reform cabinet met with Wilcox’s attorney to suggest he plead guilty to conspiracy and serve one year in prison, but Wilcox, embittered at his failed revolt and news of his infant daughter’s recent death, refused that concession. Reluctantly, the government dropped the treason charge and tried Wilcox only for conspiracy. After two juries heard the case, Wilcox was found innocent and released, and became a native hero.
A few months out of jail, Wilcox embraced his newfound status and recognition. Along with political leader John E. Bush, Wilcox helped two of the opposition groups on the islands unite to form a new political party, the National Reform Party, a more moderate opposition party calling for democratic reforms and a return of some administrative duties to the monarchy. In 1890 Wilcox won election to represent Honolulu in the Hawaiian legislature. He won re-election in 1892.7
Wilcox and others who had grown impatient with the new queen, Liliuokalani, formed an alliance informally called the Equal Rights League, which favored annexation and the abolition of the monarchy coupled with empowerment of Native Hawaiians in politics. Their unstated goal was the removal of haole politicians from places of power in the government.8 For participation in that scheme, Wilcox and other group leaders were briefly jailed.
But Wilcox changed his tack again. In the revolution of 1893, pro-annexationist forces overthrew Queen Liliuokalani. Wilcox worked for a short time with the new provisional government under Sanford B. Dole but eventually broke with it when he did not receive a political appointment. Two years later, Wilcox joined a counterrevolution when it became apparent to him that the majority of Native Hawaiians supported the restoration of the monarchy under Liliuokalani. He joined the plot late as its commander in January 1895, but the effort was repulsed. Wilcox and the conspirators were rounded up, court-martialed, and sentenced to death.9 President Dole offered a conditional pardon in 1896, commuting the sentence to several decades of hard labor and a hefty fine; in 1898 Dole granted a full pardon.10
Shortly after the United States annexed Hawaii, the Hawaiian Organic Act went into effect in mid-June 1900, ensuring time enough to hold elections in the fall for the territorial senate (15 members), the territorial house of representatives (30 members), and the Territorial Delegate to Congress. Its greatest immediate effect was the re-expanded suffrage to the Native Hawaiian population, most of which had been disenfranchised under the republic.11 In preparation for the elections, the native patriotic leagues, Hui Aloha ‘Āina and the Hui Kalai ‘Āina, rallied behind the slogans of “Hawai‘i for the Hawaiians” and “Equal Rights for the People” and merged into the Hawaiian Independent Party (HIP). At the same time, the haole population divided itself between the two mainland political parties, Republicans and Democrats.12
As the Organic Act went into effect, HIP nominated its slate of candidates, all Native Hawaiians, for the territorial offices. Wilcox headed the ticket as the nominee for Territorial Delegate and began campaigning on Oahu. Because the two major local newspapers, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser and the Hawaiian Gazette, criticized the convention establishing HIP as anti-white and radical, Wilcox distanced himself from those candidates who conducted anti-haole campaigns.13 The other two parties chose not to nominate their candidates until the end of summer. The Republicans chose “the cowboy from Waimea,” Sam Parker, as their nominee for Territorial Delegate. Parker, who served with Theodore Roosevelt in Cuba during his Rough Rider days, ran a well-funded campaign that promised to use Parker’s pull with the new President to the territory’s advantage.14 The Democrats hoped to capitalize on the newly enfranchised Native Hawaiian vote by nominating in October Prince David Kawananakoa.15
When rumors circulated that Wilcox intended to withdraw his candidacy in favor of the prince, one of the founders of HIP, George Markham, switched to the Republican Party, charging Wilcox had been bribed by the Democrats.16 In response to these machinations, Wilcox’s rhetoric became harsher. He promised that, as Delegate, he would work to have Sanford Dole removed as territorial governor. On the day before the election, Wilcox spoke at a rally by the ruins of the Kaumakapili Church. “This is the work of these stinking haoles,” he said, pointing to the rubble. He predicted, “Tomorrow Wilcox will be a Napoleon and these other parties will be the Russians and Austrians who failed in their attempt to overwhelm him.” Honolulu merchants plastered their newspapers with ads warning their employees against voting for Wilcox and his party.17 On Election Day, November 6, Wilcox won both a term in the remaining months of the 56th Congress (1899–1901) and a full term in the 57th Congress (1901–1903), though the final results were not announced for two days. Wilcox won his seat in the 56th Congress with 4,083 votes to Parker’s 3,856; Kawananakoa finished third with 1,650. Results for the full term in the 57th Congress were virtually identical: Wilcox with 4,108, Parker with 3,845, and Kawananakoa with 1,656.18
In mid-November 1900, HIP changed its name to the Independent Home Rule Party, though it was commonly known as the Home Rule Party (HRP) or, simply, Home Rulers. As a result, both Hui Aloha ‘Āina and Hui Kalai ‘Āina were permanently dissolved just before Wilcox set out for Washington, DC. “We are like little calves feeding from the mother cow,” said party leader J. W. Kaulia at a farewell rally for Wilcox, “and America is the mother cow, and her milk constitutes all the benefits that are coming to us from her. We must let Americans know what we want, and she will let us have it.”19 On December 15, Wilcox was sworn in as the first Territorial Delegate from Hawaii at the start of the second session of the 56th Congress.20
Shortly after Wilcox’s election, the Hawaiian Star reported on plans to contest his seating in the House. George D. Gear, leader of a Republican faction in Hawaii, organized a campaign founded on charges that the election proclamation was invalid and that Wilcox was unfit because he was a bigamist, alleging that Wilcox’s 1895 divorce was not made final. By the time Wilcox was sworn in, Gear had mustered additional materials against him. He produced an 1899 Wilcox letter offering his services to Filipino rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo and a letter from Celso C. Moreno, King Kalakaua’s prime minister, denouncing Wilcox. The Hawaiian Advertiser criticized Gear’s efforts to have Wilcox unseated.21 The effort to challenge Wilcox’s election received an initial hearing by the House in early February 1901 before being referred to the Committee on Elections. The Committee reported back to the House on the next-to-last day of the 56th Congress, dismissing the charges against Wilcox and letting his election stand.22
Wilcox participated in the House as best he could, but as with other Territorial Delegates, he was hampered by the lack of a vote. Wilcox’s problems were amplified, too, by belonging to a political party that lacked any affiliation with either of the two national political parties. As some critics had predicted, this deprived him of the chance to participate in either of the party caucuses and develop working relationships.23 “Thus, Wilcox remained throughout his Washington career a loner with little influence upon his congressional colleagues,” noted his biographer. Several other factors were at play, too, including his dark complexion and prevailing discrimination toward people of color in that era. Most decisive, perhaps, was his halting English, which compromised his ability to effectively communicate on behalf of his constituency. As his biographer also conjectured, this likely made it “simply too difficult and embarrassing to buttonhole colleagues to try and secure their support.”24
However, Wilcox did enjoy more privileges than other statutory representatives. Unlike the Resident Commissioners from the Philippines and Puerto Rico, he had immediate floor privileges and was entitled to address the House as a Member. But his grasp of spoken English, which in some transcripts was broken, may well have dissuaded him from speaking on the floor. The Congressional Record contains no speeches by him, not even inserted into the “Extensions of Remarks,” and lists only one instance in which he participated in floor debate. Language barriers aside, he enjoyed the advantage of being able to serve on House committees. He arrived too late in the 56th Congress to be assigned to any panel. But at the opening of the 57th Congress in December 1901, he was assigned to the Private Land Claims Committee and the Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures.25 These were middling assignments at best in terms of their influence and desirability, but they were relevant to several issues that mattered to him.
Unlike Resident Commissioners, Wilcox could introduce legislation. His major policy goal was to establish a homestead policy for Hawaii. This offered the chance for the haole estates to be redistributed to small Native Hawaiian farmers, a move that he and other Native Hawaiians saw as fundamentally egalitarian. Lands once under control of the Hawaiian monarchy, which had been seized by the provisional government and the oligarchs and now largely fell under federal oversight, might at least be returned to the people. Wilcox introduced H.R. 13906 on January 29, 1901, to achieve this goal. The bill called for the public land laws of the United States to be extended to the territory of Hawaii. It also empowered the Secretary of the Interior “to make rules and regulations for the entry of lands to be used for homestead purposes”; no land grant would exceed 100 acres.26 The bill was referred to the Committee on Territories, where it died when the session concluded about a month later.27
Still Wilcox did not relinquish the goal of redistributing both federal land and plantation acreage to promote small-scale homesteading. At the opening of the 57th Congress, he introduced another measure, H.R. 3090, to provide for the classification of public lands ceded to the United States into four categories: urban/residential; land then under cultivation; land capable of being cultivated but unused or uninhabited; and unusable lands, including reefs and small outlying islands. Of greatest interest were those in the second and third categories, with Wilcox pushing for timely surveys and distributions to homesteaders.28 That bill also was dispatched to the Territories Committee, where it eventually died. When Wilcox testified before a congressional commission visiting Honolulu in the summer of 1902, he offered a laundry list of initiatives, although this bill was not on that list. He concluded by telling the commissioners, “My great idea is to get this land system so all the people—native, white, and every American citizen of this country [Hawaii]—can have land, and not as it is now, in the hands of a few men.”29
Wilcox found himself drawn into considering legislation associated with converting Hawaii from an independent republic to a U.S. territory. For example, other Members turned to Wilcox as they considered the process of converting Hawaiian currency to that of the United States. “Our country being annexed to the United States,” he told his colleagues, “we might as well have the same kind of dollars as the United States, rather than different dollars.”30 Wilcox may have been ambivalent because he saw the issue of retiring Hawaiian silver currency as affecting primarily financiers in Honolulu rather than his core constituents. This legislation, which had already passed the Senate, was amended by the House. But the Congress ended before any further action could be taken. At the opening of the 57th Congress in December 1901, Wilcox introduced H.R. 4343, a bill that retired Hawaiian coin currency.31 A similar version of this legislation passed at the very end of that same Congress, though Wilcox, ill and a lame duck by that point, had ceased to advocate for it. The measure set out terms that placed each Hawaiian silver piece at face value on par with U.S. coins even though the Hawaiian coins were not minted at a silver weight ratio equal to U.S. coins. The federal government absorbed the cost difference.32
Wilcox also supported an effort to transfer over to the federal government administrative control of a community on the island of Molokai where people with leprosy had been quarantined, arguing that the local board of health administered it poorly and had lost the trust of Native Hawaiians. Just weeks after the opening of the 57th Congress, he introduced H.R. 6561, a bill to convert the colony into a federal reservation controlled by the Secretary of the Treasury. It was referred to the Committee on Territories. By transferring control, Wilcox believed the deplorable living conditions of the current colony would be improved. “They will build a hospital there, and the United States is a big Government, not like the one-horse concern here,” he noted in the summer of 1902 while testifying before a congressional commission that was visiting Honolulu, “and they will see that the poor leper is well taken care of. This is my belief. I know all the natives are scared of that place, scared of these people, scared of the board of health.”33 He also supported bringing people suffering from leprosy from the United States—he estimated as many as 300—for resettlement at the new facility. Republican opponents latched onto this proposal to stir a backlash against Wilcox, arguing that Hawaiians of all stripes did not want the islands to become a “dumping ground” for Americans with leprosy. Though the commission backed the proposal, Congress never acted on it. Still the political consequences were serious. Wilcox had underestimated Hawaiians’ fears of the disease despite their long history with it and, according to his biographer, “unquestionably made” his biggest political misstep as Delegate as Republicans would use the issue against him in the 1902 election.34
In spite of the distance between Washington, DC, and Hawaii, Wilcox continued to exert his influence over the territorial legislature’s actions. “One blast upon the Wilcox bugle is worth a thousand men,” proclaimed the Hawaiian Advertiser.35 The truth of this characterization was demonstrated when the Wilcoxes returned to the islands from Washington in April 1901. Wilcox quickly began meeting with Home Rule Party territorial legislators to catch up on all that had taken place while he was gone, facilitating agreements and mending political fences. Among his first steps was to lobby the party to change its name to the Home Rule Republican Party to allow him the chance to caucus with the majority Republican Conference at the next session.36
Thereafter, Wilcox instructed legislators in his party and the Independents to end their obstruction of Territorial Governor Sanford Dole’s nominations because their efforts at blocking all business had begun to have an adverse impact in Washington on Hawaii’s capacity for self-government. By the time Wilcox prepared to return to Washington, his leadership over the ruling opposition had spread throughout the territorial legislature.37
In fact, the only Wilcox bill that was enacted into law was a measure that set the terms of some of the Hawaiian territorial senators, the lengths of which varied according to their share of the popular vote. The HRP controlled a majority of the 15 seats, but Republicans were floating a proposal to divide the longer four-year terms evenly between themselves and the Home Rulers. Initially, Wilcox responded by introducing a bill that would have provided four-year terms to all 15 Senators until the 1904 election, essentially ensuring Home Rule control for several more years. That bill was quickly shunted aside by the Territories Committee. But a month later Wilcox introduced H.R. 13076, a more politically feasible bill, which set the terms of seven of the Senators (four Home Rule, three Republican) at two years, based on their having received the lowest popular vote totals. Wilcox’s biographer described this as a victory for the Delegate, in part, because, of the four Home Rulers, three had proven disappointing to Wilcox in the territorial legislature’s inaugural term.38 The bill passed the House on April 26, 1902, and shortly afterward passed the Senate. President Roosevelt signed it into law on May 19, 1902.39
In early 1902, Wilcox’s health kept him from his congressional duties and largely confined him to home for several months. He suffered from severe stomach ulcers. His recurring health issues, coupled with the coming elections, shifted his attention away from Washington, where he had never fully been engaged, to back home, where his true interests were.
As 1902 opened, the first rumors about the upcoming election for Territorial Delegate appeared. Hawaiian newspapers reported a possible effort to merge the Home Rule Party with the Democrats, replacing Wilcox with Democrat John Wise.40 In early spring, Territorial Governor Sanford Dole predicted to California reporters that the Republican Party would do quite well in the fall since Wilcox had fulfilled none of his campaign promises, especially that of getting Dole removed as governor.41 The Evening Bulletin ran a story on Wilcox’s record as Territorial Delegate in June, just before the HRP convention would be held. “The impression Wilcox has created in national circles has cast no credit upon the people he was elected to represent,” the paper reported. Wilcox “has aided those who have sought to represent Hawaiian Americans as unable to govern themselves.”42
Wilcox opened the HRP convention on July 8 with a rousing speech calling upon all Hawaiians to accept annexation as a fact and embracing the Hawaiian Organic Act for bringing suffrage back to Native Hawaiians. He defended his record in Washington, blaming “missionaries” in Congress with thwarting his efforts. Wilcox also proposed that the party replace “Republican” in its name with “Democratic” in an effort to allow him to affiliate himself with the national party.43 As the convention began its work, it was evident that Wilcox had laid the groundwork carefully, blocking a floor amendment demanding expanded federal spending on Hawaii. Wilcox had also managed to keep one of the most popular members of the Hawaiian royal family, Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, participating in the party despite his growing unease with the party’s direction and tactics. Kuhio had been appointed chairman of a reorganization committee that drafted proposals to make the party more effective, but when Kuhio’s report was presented, Wilcox and his followers tabled it, preventing any further consideration
of its proposals. This action enraged Kuhio, who led a walkout, taking 40 of the 100 delegates with him. Wilcox immediately took the floor denouncing the walkout, but urged tolerance towards Kuhio and his followers.44 Nevertheless, the damage was done. The Hawaiian Star reported that Wilcox’s political prospects were fading “not in the glory of the brilliant colors of the west, but sinking into a bank of clouds upon which can be read the gloomy word ‘Failure.’”45
Rumors flew that Wilcox had lost the favor of the former queen, and both mainland parties hastened to recruit Kuhio as their candidate, with Republicans succeeding. Kuhio’s nomination quickly gained support. The Portuguese community of workers as well as the Evening Bulletin and the Pacific Commercial Advertiser endorsed Kuhio.46 Governor Dole reversed his opposition to Native Hawaiians having the vote and quickly cracked down on government corruption, minimizing criticism against him.47 The single most important campaign issue, which Republicans eagerly seized upon, was Wilcox’s plan to introduce federal control of the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Molokai, reported the Washington Post.48 On Election Day, November 4, Wilcox lost to Kuhio, 4,696 to 6,636.49 The pattern of voting made clear that Wilcox had lost the haole vote and a substantial bloc of Native Hawaiians shocked at his proposal to hand over Molokai to the federal government.50
But the damage was not confined to Wilcox’s personal political fortunes: the HRP also lost seats and control of the house of representatives and senate. Many in Hawaii believed that HRP had been broken. One historian suggests it was a “watershed” moment in Hawaiian politics, marking the ascendancy of the Republican Party and the declining influence of native politicians.51
In 1903 Home Rulers implored Wilcox to run as their candidate for sheriff of Oahu. Against the strenuous objections of his wife and the advice of his doctors, he accepted. His declining health, combined with the grueling schedule of a campaign, contributed to his further deterioration just weeks before the election. With his wife and young children at his side, Wilcox died at his home at the foot of the Punchbowl volcanic crater in Honolulu from a massive hemorrhage caused by what news accounts called “consumption,” likely tuberculosis, on October 23, 1903.52 His career, opined the San Francisco Chronicle, was a “romantic and adventurous one.”
Though government officials refused to give Wilcox a state funeral, throngs of mourners paid their respects to the late leader at the family estate, which led to the decision to postpone his funeral until after the elections. On November 8, after a funeral mass at the Catholic cathedral in Honolulu, Wilcox’s casket was placed on a hearse and drawn through the streets by 200 Native Hawaiians to his grave site, where a crowd witnessed his interment.53 The Pacific Commercial Advertiser eulogized Wilcox as a faithful voice for the people. “It may be justly said that no other Hawaiian, not of Royal blood, has ever exerted such a powerful influence on Hawaii as Robert W. Wilcox,” the editors judged. “We may condemn the nature of that influence as we please; but the fact remains that it made history and gave Wilcox rank as a tribune of his people, a man stronger in the elements of leadership than all but one of his native kings.”54
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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