building beside shore

The United States has 50 states, and today I want to discuss why (and how) Hawaii became the most recent to join the union. An island chain in the Pacific, far from the contiguous United States, the story of how Hawaii became “American” is fascinating and controversial!

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  • State (n) – a part of a large country with its own government, such as in Germany, Australia, or the US.
    • Alaska is the largest state in the US.
  • Contiguous (adj) – next to or touching another, usually similar, thing.
    • The two states are contiguous to each other, but the laws are quite different.
  • Expansion (n) – the action of becoming larger or more extensive.
    • The expansion of the city is much needed.
  • Acquisition (n) – something that someone buys or gets, often to add to a collection of things.
    • The museum’s latest acquisition is a four-million-dollar sculpture.
  • Plantation (n) – a large farm, especially in a hot part of the world, on which a particular type of crop is grown.
    • The community now run their own coffee plantation.
  • To annex (v) – to take possession of an area of land or a country, usually by force or without permission.
    • The UK annexed this small island west of Scotland in 1955.
  • Restoration (n) – the act or process of returning something to its earlier good condition or position, or to its owner.
    • A large majority of the population is demanding the restoration of the former government.           
  • Territory (n) – (especially in Australia, Canada, and the United States) a large area that has some local government but fewer rights than a province or a state.
    • Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean Sea, has been a territory of the United States since 1898.

The United States

When you imagine the United States of America, what do you see? What is the iconic image in your mind?

Is it the giant skyscrapers of New York city? The Hollywood sign in the California sun? The bright lights of Las Vegas? The giant Grand Canyon? The Great Lakes of the north? The plains of the Midwest? The swamps of Florida? The deserts of New Mexico?

From the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States, there are 48 states with unique landscapes, communities, histories, and cultures. Now, you might be thinking “48 states?? There are 50 states… What is Tom talking about??”

And you’d be right, there are of course 50 states that make up the United States. However, the contiguous United States, from the East Coast to the West coast, contains 48 states. The other two, Alaska and Hawaii, are not attached to the “mainland” of the country. 

You’d be forgiven for forgetting these states. After all, when you look at a map of the country Alaska and Hawaii have their own special place because they don’t fit in the normal scale.

And the story of how these states became part of the US is fascinating and a little controversial!

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The Formation of the United States

Before we talk about that, let’s briefly recap the growth of the United States.

The initial 13 states were established through the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Over the next few years, the Articles of Confederation were adopted, forming a loose union of states.

However, recognizing the need for a stronger central government, the Founding Fathers drafted the United States Constitution in 1787. This document established a federal system and provided a framework for the country’s expansion. The Constitution also outlined the process for admitting new states into the Union.

The first significant expansion occurred in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. President Thomas Jefferson acquired a vast territory from France, doubling the size of the United States overnight. This acquisition opened up opportunities for westward expansion, as pioneers ventured into the newly acquired lands.


In the early 19th century, the United States embarked on a period of territorial expansion, driven by the belief in manifest destiny—the idea that it was the nation’s destiny to expand from coast to coast. This expansion led to the acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1819, the annexation of Texas in 1845, and the Mexican-American War, resulting in the acquisition of vast territories including California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah.

The discovery of gold in California accelerated settlement, leading to the establishment of new territories and eventual statehood for California in 1850.

During the mid-19th century, the United States also expanded its territory through diplomacy and purchase. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 resolved a longstanding dispute with Britain, securing the Pacific Northwest for the United States. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 added a strip of land in present-day Arizona and New Mexico, further solidifying the country’s southern borders.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States acquired overseas territories, expanding its influence beyond the mainland. The Spanish-American War of 1898 resulted in the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Additionally, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, adding vast territories to the northwest.


But how about Hawaii?

Hawaii became an official state on August 21st, 1959, the 50th and most recent state to be admitted to the union. Alaska had become a state 8 months earlier, and before that the most recent states were admitted in 1912.

But Hawaii is not the most obvious candidate to be a state. Like Alaska, it is not part of the contiguous United States. In fact, it is not really even in the American continent.

Hawaii is a chain of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean. It is 2000 miles, or 3200 kilometres, from the coast of the contiguous US. While politically North American, Hawaii is part of the Oceania region – it is geographically far from most other major population centres.

In fact, at the time of the foundation of the United States, Hawaii had not even been visited by any European explorers, let alone an American. It was an independent kingdom, with a royal family and unique culture.

So how did these islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean become part of the United States?  

History of Hawaii

For centuries, the Hawaiian Islands were home to a vibrant Polynesian culture. If you listened to my episode on “Who Discovered the Americas?” you will know a little about the Polynesian explorers. The islands were ruled by a line of powerful monarchs who governed over the society. Native Hawaiians developed a unique language, customs, and traditions.

In the late 18th century, European explorers, most famously Captain James Cook (who was also killed by Hawaiians), made contact with the Hawaiian Islands. This was the beginning of increased foreign influence in the islands. Western traders, missionaries, and whalers arrived, introducing new technologies, beliefs, and diseases to the islands.

King Kamehameha the Great, perhaps the most influential leader in the island’s history, successfully united the Hawaiian Islands under his rule in 1810. However, the arrival of foreign influences also brought political and economic changes to the islands – these foreigners realised Hawaii was a great place to grow sugar and create ports.


By the mid-19th century, the United States sought to establish a stronger presence in the Pacific region. American sugar plantation owners began to acquire land and establish commercial enterprises in Hawaii. The United States signed a treaty of friendship, commerce, and navigation with Hawaii in 1826, marking the beginning of formal diplomatic relations.

As more treaties were signed, and more Americans moved to the islands, a powerful class of white American sugar plantation owners grew. At the same time, Hawaii’s economy became increasingly tied to the US economy.

In 1887, this group of American businessmen, backed by the presence of American warships, forced King Kalakaua to sign the “Bayonet Constitution.” This constitution limited the monarch’s power and granted more authority to foreign residents, particularly those of American descent. The right to vote, for example, was now only available for the island’s white population and not the native islanders.  This event signalled a significant shift in the balance of power and set the stage for future political developments.

In 1891, Queen Liliʻuokalani ascended to the throne after the death of her brother, King Kalakaua. She sought to restore power to the monarchy and the native Hawaiians, challenging the influence of foreign interests. However, her attempts to create a new constitution faced opposition from the sugar plantation owners, who feared the loss of their privileged status.


In 1893, a group of American planters and businessmen, supported by elements of the United States military, staged a coup d’état against Queen Liliʻuokalani. This event, known as the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, led to the establishment of a provisional government led by Sanford B. Dole. The United States recognized this government, but President Grover Cleveland expressed concerns about the legitimacy of the coup and called for the restoration of the queen.

Despite President Cleveland’s efforts, the provisional government refused to step down. The subsequent years witnessed political negotiations and debates in both Hawaii and the United States.

Hawaii was seen as a valuable gateway to Asia for the US, giving them a convenient place for military and trade ships to stopover. However, there were a lot of concerns from the US that the annexation of Hawaii could have actually been illegal (as the internationally recognised independent country was basically overthrown by sugar planation owners). And other Americans were worried about the islands majority Polynesian and Asian population becoming US citizens.

 Finally, in 1898, during the administration of President William McKinley, the United States formally annexed Hawaii, making it a territory of the United States. This was during the Spanish-American War, in which the government realised Hawaii’s usefulness as a military base while fighting in the Philippines.

Becoming a State

Following annexation, Hawaii became a U.S. territory, subject to American governance. Almost immediately, the new leaders of Hawaii were suggesting that the islands could apply to become a state.

In the early 20th century, Hawaii experienced significant demographic changes. Immigrants from various countries, such as Japan, the Philippines, China, and Portugal, arrived to work in Hawaii’s plantations and labour industries. These immigrant communities brought their cultures and traditions, changing the island.

The economic growth of Hawaii was primarily driven by the sugarcane and pineapple industries. Plantations owned by American corporations dominated the economy, employing a large portion of the population. However, labour disputes and working conditions led to social tensions, with workers advocating for fair treatment and improved rights.

In 1919, the first bill for Hawaiian statehood was introduced to the US Congress – but it quickly failed. Hawaiian residents, despite technically being Americans, were not able to vote for President or their governor and lacked funding from the American government.


World War II played a pivotal role in Hawaii’s journey to statehood. The attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 put Hawaii at the forefront of the war, bringing the United States directly into the conflict. The war effort transformed the islands into a strategic military hub, leading to increased federal investment in infrastructure, military installations, and economic diversification.

The experiences of the war fostered a sense of unity and patriotism among the people of Hawaii, strengthening their ties to the United States. After the war, the veterans who had served in the Pacific returned to Hawaii, becoming advocates for statehood and contributing to the islands’ political landscape.

By the 1940s, most Hawaiians actively wanted to be a state and 5 bills were introduced to Congress asking for statehood in the years after WW2.

In 1959, Hawaii finally achieved a significant milestone by becoming the 50th state of the United States. The overwhelming majority of Hawaii’s residents voted in favour of statehood, demonstrating a desire for full integration into the United States.


 Hawaii Today

That is Hawaii’s journey to becoming a state. From an illegal coup by plantation owners to becoming a US territory to eventual statehood.

What about Hawaii today?

Its economy has completely changed. The last fruit companies and growers moved to cheaper countries and regions, with tourism largely becoming the islands major industry.

However, tourism has long been a double-edged sword for Hawaii. On one hand, it fuels the economy, providing jobs and revenue. The picturesque landscapes, beautiful beaches, and warm climate attract millions of visitors each year.

On the other hand, the rapid growth of tourism has raised concerns about its impact on the environment, local communities, and Hawaiian culture. Balancing the economic benefits with sustainable practices and preserving the authenticity of the islands remains an ongoing challenge.


Issues surrounding Hawaiian land and sovereignty continue to be significant. The history of land ownership in Hawaii is complex, involving a mix of private, government, and native Hawaiian land. Native Hawaiians have advocated for the protection and return of ancestral lands, asserting their rights and connection to the land.

In recent years, Hawaii has seen a rise in billionaires and mega-rich Americans purchasing significant amounts of land. This has raised concerns about housing affordability, local control, and the impact on Hawaiian communities. Rising real estate prices make it difficult for locals to find affordable housing. There are also worries about the commodification of the islands and the potential damage to Hawaiian culture.

Preserving and revitalizing native Hawaiian culture is a priority for many in Hawaii. Native Hawaiians strive to maintain their language, traditions, and customs in the face of outside influences. Cultural practices such as hula, language revitalization efforts, and the continuation of traditional knowledge are integral to preserving the unique identity of Hawaii.

The idea of Hawaiian independence remains a topic of discussion and debate. Some Native Hawaiians and activists argue for self-determination and the restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom, which was overthrown in 1893.

Many other Hawaiians believe that the United States should compensate the native population, who had their land illegally taken over 100 years ago. While it is unlikely, maybe impossible, that Hawaii will ever become a kingdom again, there are strong arguments that the island’s land and culture should be protected (just as many Native American tribes on the mainland have).

In 1993, the US governemnt formally apologised for overthrowing the monarchy and acknowledged that the Hawaiian people’s land was taken without permission. But importantly, it offered no compensation, reparations, or return of land!

Hawaii’s journey from a Polynesian kingdom has been long, controversial, and fascinating – and we still don’t know what the future holds!

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Final Thought

From the early Polynesian settlers to the establishment of an independent kingdom, to the overthrow of the monarchy, annexation by the US, and eventually becoming an official state, Hawaii has had an eventful history.

Hopefully today you now understand why, and how, Hawaii became part of the United States of America. Will Hawaii stay as a state? Yes. Should Native Hawaiians be compensated for the loss of their lands? I would also say yes.

Today the islands are dominated by billionaires buying up massive amounts of land and thousands of Hawaiians are being forced to move or leave as they can no longer afford to live there.

What do you think?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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