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The Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 gave the United States a solid diplomatic claim on the territory abutting the Pacific Ocean. Many in the Democratic Party, such as James K. Polk (1795–1849), sought further continental expansion by diplomacy or conquest; but the rival Whig Party, especially Daniel Webster (1782–1852) and later William Seward (1801–1872), feared this would exacerbate the national division over slavery. They preferred economic rather than territorial expansion, notably by extending U.S. commercial opportunities in the Pacific. To reach these markets and fish these seas the United States needed to secure a maritime route to Asia. One key to this route was the Hawaiian, or Sandwich, Islands—the “Malta of the Pacific”—which already had considerable economic value. Hawaii was governed by an independent native monarchy, but New England whaling vessels had long made use of the islands, Protestant missionaries had been present there for several decades, and American merchants were engaged in the sugar trade.
The geographic location and economic importance of the islands also attracted the attention of Britain and France. Webster, then secretary of state, persuaded President John Tyler (1790–1862) to extend the Monroe Doctrine’s opposition to European interference in Western Hemispheric to include Hawaii, which Tyler did in his Special Message to Congress in December 1842. Although the United States did not engage in a proposed tripartite agreement with London and Paris to guarantee the islands’ independence, the Tyler Doctrine did claim special U.S. interests based on proximity and trade, and made clear that if other powers threatened Hawaii’s independence the United States would be justified in “making a decided remonstrance.” Seeking to protect U.S. interests at minimum cost, the doctrine claimed Hawaii as a U.S. sphere of influence and firmly supported its independence, establishing a policy that would last until annexation in 1898.
Source: The Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States, Inaugural, Annual, and Special, from 1789 to 1849, vol. 2 (New York: Edward Walker, 1849), 1316–1317.
To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States:
I communicate herewith to Congress copies of a correspondence which has recently taken place between certain agents of the government of the Hawaiian or Sandwich Islands and the secretary of state.
The condition of those islands has excited a good deal of interest, which is increasing by every successive proof that their inhabitants are making progress in civilization and becoming more and more competent to maintain regular and orderly civil government. They lie in the Pacific Ocean, much nearer to this continent than the other, and have become an important place for the refitment and provisioning of American and European vessels.
Owing to their locality and to the course of the winds which prevail in this quarter of the world, the Sandwich Islands are the stopping place for almost all vessels passing from continent to continent across the Pacific Ocean. They are especially resorted to by the great number of vessels of the United States which are engaged in the whale fishery in those seas. The number of vessels of all sorts and the amount of property owned by citizens of the United States which are found in those islands in the course of the year are stated probably with sufficient accuracy in the letter of the agents.
Just emerging from a state of barbarism, the government of the islands is as yet feeble, but its dispositions appear to be just and pacific, and it seems anxious to improve the condition of its people by the introduction of knowledge, of religious and moral institutions, means of education, and the arts of civilized life.
It cannot but be in conformity with the interest and wishes of the Government and the people of the United States that this community, thus existing in the midst of a vast expanse of ocean, should be respected and all its rights strictly and conscientiously regarded; and this must also be the true interest of all other commercial states. Far remote from the dominions of European powers, its growth and prosperity as an independent state may yet be in a high degree useful to all whose trade is extended to those regions; while its near approach to this continent and the intercourse which American vessels have with it, such vessels constituting five-sixths of all which annually visit it, could not but create dissatisfaction on the part of the United States at any attempt by another power, should such attempt be threatened or feared, to take possession of the islands, colonize them, and subvert the native government.
Considering, therefore, that the United States possesses so large a share of the intercourse with those islands, it is deemed not unfit to make the declaration that their government seeks, nevertheless, no peculiar advantages, no exclusive control over the Hawaiian government, but is content with its independent existence and anxiously wishes for its security and prosperity.
Its forbearance in this respect under the circumstances of the very large intercourse of their citizens with the islands would justify this government, should events hereafter arise to require it, in making a decided remonstrance against the adoption of an opposite policy by any other power. Under the circumstances I recommend to Congress to provide for a moderate allowance to be made out of the Treasury to the consul residing there, that in a government so new and a country so remote American citizens may have respectable authority to which to apply for redress in case of injury to their persons and property, and to whom the government of the country may also make known any acts committed by American citizens of which it may think it has a right to complain. . . .