Samuel Wilder King dedicated his life to Hawaiian statehood, but he died shortly before his dream was realized. King had long advocated for his home to become an equal and vital part of the American nation, consistently characterizing the Hawaiian people as being quintessential American citizens. A veteran of both World Wars and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he fought both literally and figuratively for Hawaiians’ democratic freedoms for more than 40 years. In a 1937 congressional hearing for statehood, King proudly noted that the “agitation for statehood is more my responsibility than that of any other individual.”1
Samuel Wilder King was born in Honolulu on the island of Oahu, in the Kingdom of Hawaii, on December 17, 1886. He was the son of James A. King, a shipping magnate and minister of the interior for the Republic of Hawaii, and Charlotte Holmes Davis, part-Hawaiian descendant of Oliver Holmes, chief and governor of the island of Oahu. Samuel attended St. Louis School in Honolulu and graduated from Honolulu High School. King’s generation came of age during the turbulent period in Hawaiian history that saw the overthrow of the Native Hawaiian monarchy and the establishment of the white-dominated republic that preceded American annexation. King embraced his new nation. In 1905 he was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy by Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, one of the earliest Native Hawaiians to enter the academy after Victor S. (Kaleoaloha) Houston.2 After graduation in 1910, King entered the Navy and served in World War I. In 1912 he married Pauline Evans, and together they had five children, Charlotte, Samuel P., Davis, Evans, and Pauline.3 He retired from the Navy in 1924 as a lieutenant commander, remaining in the Navy Reserve until 1928. After his retirement, King settled into the real estate business in Hawaii.
King began speaking out for Native Hawaiians nationally as early as 1924, when he wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times titled “Lo, the Poor Nordic,” passionately defending them against mainland stereotypes and lifting up his former patron, the late “Prince Kuhio,” for his support of the Hawaiian Homes Act, designed to encourage modern farming on the island.4 King campaigned actively for the Republican Party, serving as a precinct worker in Oahu for several years. In 1932 he was appointed to fill an unexpired term on the Honolulu board of supervisors, now the city council, and later that year won election to a three-year term. He also served on the three-member Home Rule Commission, which visited Washington, DC, in 1933 to blunt any efforts to revise the Organic Act of the territory to replace government officers with nonresidents.5
Following his 1932 re-election loss to Democrat Lincoln McCandless, respected Republican Delegate Victor Houston mulled his political future, leaving the party in limbo heading into the 1934 elections. Houston refused to officially comment on his future plans until the summer of 1934. In the meantime, King returned from Washington, DC, disheartened by Congress’s casual response to Hawaiian concerns. In an action that seemingly sidelined Houston, King immediately declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination. “Upon my return from Washington last November, I felt so deeply the false position Hawaii had been put into in Washington,” he said, “that I expressed my willingness to be a candidate for delegate from Hawaii.”6
Running unopposed in the Republican primary freed King to campaign almost exclusively on the cause nearest his heart: achieving statehood for the islands.7 Meanwhile, McCandless narrowly won the Democratic primary, fending off charges that he had placed personal ambition before the needs of the electorate.8 On the campaign stump, King pointed to congressional Republicans’ support for the sugar industry and recent opposition to a 1933 bill seeking to supplant the territorial governor with a mainland appointee as proof that the GOP was friendlier to Hawaiian interests.9 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser endorsed the Republican and his argument that islanders owed a debt to the GOP. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser also hastened to point out King’s naval service and his relative youth compared to the 75-year-old McCandless.10
In the November election, King won 51 percent of the vote, defeating McCandless by fewer than 2,000 votes out of the roughly 61,000 cast. McCandless contested the election, but his protest did not prevent King’s seating at the opening of the session. Ultimately, the House committee overseeing the election found no evidence of the fraud and voter intimidation that McCandless had alleged. The committee faulted King for failing to file timely reports of his campaign expenditures, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the Corrupt Practices Act. The Elections Committee, however, decided “that a strict interpretation of the requirements of the law … might result in a wrong and injustice to the contestee and cloud a distinguished and honorable career.” McCandless’s case was dismissed in May 1936.11
King arrived in the capital in late December 1934 to the welcome of many former Navy friends.12 He prioritized securing important territorial rights for Hawaii, with the ultimate goal of statehood. To that end, King requested to be placed on eight committees, all, he explained, “which have matters of vital interests to the Territory of Hawaii before them.”13 In the 74th Congress (1935–1937), leadership granted his request and he took seats on all eight committees: Agriculture; Immigration and Naturalization; Merchant Marine and Fisheries; Military Affairs; Naval Affairs; Post Office and Post Roads; Public Lands; and Territories. He later joined the Committee on Rivers and Harbors in the 75th Congress (1937–1939) and the Committee on Insular Affairs in the 76th Congress (1939–1941).
One of the first bills King submitted sought to grant Hawaii a constitution, state government, and admission to the Union. The bill quietly died after field hearings in Honolulu in October 1935. Frustrated, King took a different tack. In conjunction with Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland, who submitted S. Con. Res 18, King introduced a concurrent resolution (H. Con. Res. 20) to form a joint committee on Hawaii primarily to investigate the possibility of Hawaiian statehood. In debate over the resolution, King insisted, “There is no argument against Hawaii as to size, as to numbers, as to wealth, as to its capacity to maintain a republican form of government, nor as to the historical obligation of the United States to at some time grant it statehood.”14 The committee, chaired by Utah Senator William H. King, organized in the fall of 1937 aboard the USS Malolo headed towards Honolulu. During the month of October, the committee held 17 hearings on the islands on Hawaii’s potential for statehood.15 Despite King’s personal popularity and his continued lobbying as a member of the committee, it ultimately recommended in early 1938 that the question of statehood be deferred until the “sentiment of the people” could be decided.16 King was critical of the process. “A period of 16 days is really not enough time in which to get the whole picture of Hawaii,” he lamented on the final day of hearings.17
In response to the joint committee’s report, King waged a two-front campaign for statehood. The statehood plebiscite that he had urged at home on the islands eventually reached the ballot in 1940. Fearing the sudden ascendant militarism in Japan, Hawaii avoided the question of “immediate” statehood on the ballot. Many politicians viewed the sizable population of Japanese immigrants on the island as a security threat. Intolerance simmered in the months prior to the plebiscite as Japanese-American citizens were terminated from defense jobs and rumors spread of the immigrant community’s support for the Japanese military. In the last push before the plebiscite, King returned home to personally campaign for statehood in an attempt to distract from the narrative of barely contained racial conflict. The plebiscite ultimately succeeded with 67 percent of voters confirming a preference for statehood. However, the vague wording scuttled any momentum King had hoped to wrest from its passage.18
In Washington, at the beginning of the 76th Congress, he once more reintroduced a bill for Hawaiian statehood. Addressing concerns that Hawaii was populated by a large number of noncitizens, King sponsored measures designed to create pathways to citizenship for these inhabitants. Both of his immigration bills were reported out of the Immigration and Naturalization Committee without amendment, and King’s bill (H.R. 159) to naturalize all Hawaiian women born prior to Hawaiian annexation passed both chambers by unanimous consent and became law in July 1940. King continued to offer bills expanding citizenship for inhabitants of Hawaii, viewing each bill as a stepping stone to statehood.
King often pointed to the obstructive nature of the Organic Act in managing Hawaiian affairs when the territorial government found its progress stymied by federal law. He submitted bills to allow for the reapportionment of Hawaii’s legislature in 1939 and 1940, insisting that reapportionment had “lagged behind” the population shifts on the islands. He cajoled the House to release the bills from the Committee on Territories, where they languished, in order that Hawaiian citizens of “each economic
group” would receive “proportionate membership in the legislature” rather than be controlled by the more densely populated island of Oahu.19
King also prioritized the needs of the key Hawaiian agriculture industry. He criticized a provision in the 1937 sugar bill (H.R. 7667) that prohibited Hawaii from refining sugar and placed a quota on the importation of the islands’ sugar, the primary crop in the territory. President Franklin D. Roosevelt initially promised to veto the measure unless the provisions limiting Hawaiian imports were stripped from the bill. When challenged on the quota, the bill’s proponents cited poor working conditions in Hawaii, which King rejected out of hand. The Members making these claims “have never been to the islands and have never seen the community,” he insisted. He leaned on the Texas delegation, many of whom were longtime allies of Hawaiian Delegates in Congress. Backed by Majority Leader Sam Rayburn, Agriculture Committee Chairman John Marvin Jones submitted a cursory amendment to remove the offending quotas, but they confined their speeches largely to praise of the Roosevelt administration for the expected veto. The amendment predictably failed, and, worse, Roosevelt’s promised veto never came. Attempting to make the best of a frustrating law, King admitted that the bill at least offered “recognition of our status as a domestic producer.”20
King ran unopposed in the 1936 primary and went on to win the general election against Democrat Bertram Rivenburgh with nearly 70 percent of the vote.21 In 1938 he defeated Democrat David Trask with 59 percent of the vote. King then ran unopposed in 1940, the same year he shepherded a plebiscite on statehood to passage by a margin of 2 to 1. King declared himself “deeply gratified” with Hawaiian voters heading into the 77th Congress (1941–1943), hoping to generate support in Congress off the strength of the vote.22
In the wake of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Oahu, King urged full-scale war on Japan to “destroy her as a military power.”23 The Delegate spent much of his time traveling to and from his home territory to report on the situation and aftereffects of martial law. He praised the Hawaiian people who helped fight off the Japanese assault and assisted in the rebuilding. Japanese aggression had
inspired “a deep anger and unity of purpose,” King remarked, “which might otherwise have been more slowly acquired.”24
On October 8, 1942, King abandoned his candidacy for a fifth term, despite receiving more votes in the primary than any Hawaiian candidate of either party combined, and instead re-entered the Navy Reserve as a lieutenant commander. “I cannot remain in civil life when the training I received as a naval officer may better serve our country’s present needs in active service,” King declared in a radio address to the islands, announcing his decision.25 “Now, with a war on,” he remarked in the closing days of his final term, “I feel that Uncle Sam deserves to realize something on the four year investment he made in me many years ago.”26
King joined a select group of Representatives who left the House for military service.27 During World War II, he was stationed in the Pacific, where he helped coordinate the attack on Saipan. He retired from the Navy permanently in 1946, having attained the rank of captain. Returning home, he once again took up the banner of statehood, serving as a charter member of the Hawaii Statehood Commission from 1947 to 1953 and as chairman beginning in 1949.28 In 1950 delegates to the Hawaiian constitutional convention unanimously voted him president of the proceedings.29
In 1953 King was nominated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to serve as territorial governor of Hawaii. In his nomination hearing before the Committee on the Interior and Insular Affairs, he was enthusiastically recommended by his longtime friend and ally, Delegate Joseph Farrington. “The people of Hawaii believe,” said Farrington, “that Samuel Wilder King is better equipped than any other man in the Territory to meet the unique responsibilities of that office at the present time.”30 The committee unanimously approved his nomination, making him the first territorial governor of Hawaiian ancestry. His appointment coincided with the Democratic revolution of 1954 that swept Republicans out of elected office in the territory. During his governorship, King made liberal use of his veto, which prompted Democrats in the legislature to propose a more gradual approach to statehood, beginning with the right for Hawaiians to elect their own governor.31 King served as governor until his abrupt resignation on July 31, 1957, when he was passed over for a second term.32 Afterwards, King resumed his real estate business. He then won election as a Republican to the territorial house of representatives in 1958.
Though King long stated he hoped to be the first governor of the state of Hawaii as soon as statehood was achieved, he fell ill and died of a heart attack on March 24, 1959, following major surgery. Only a week prior President Eisenhower had signed the Hawaii Admission Act, and Hawaii entered the Union as the 50th state on August 21, 1959.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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