The congressman from Southwest Virginia on Thursday will turn his attention from Hiwasse and Hurley to Hawaii.
More specifically, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, will chair a congressional hearing into “what role, if any” electric utilities played in the deadly fires that swept the Lahaina community on the island of Maui last month, killing at least 97 people with 31 still unaccounted for. Hawaiian Electric Company said one of the fires appears to have been caused by power lines that fell during high winds, but also blamed the local government for a poor response that made things worse.
Griffith’s role in the Hawaiian inquiry comes because he’s chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, so this serves to illustrate how a lawmaker elected locally has national responsibilities. This hearing into the Hawaiian wildfires is also an opportunity for us to look into history at the role that Virginians played in both making Hawaii a state — and trying to prevent that outcome.
We begin with John Tyler, our first “accidental president,” following the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841. He set an important precedent; a vice president succeeding to the presidency wasn’t merely an acting president as some insisted, he was the president. (The vagueness of our original constitution on that point was clarified by the 25th Amendment in 1965, of which Rep. Richard Poff, R-Radford, was a principal author, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.) However, Tyler’s presidency was a contentious one. Technically, he was a member of the Whig Party but he also disagreed with much of what Whigs wanted to do. He effectively became a president without a party and both parties at the time were glad to see him go. He went back home to Charles City County, where neighbors — mostly Whigs who considered him a traitor to their party — thought they would mock him by making him “overseer” of the local road. Tyler had the last laugh: He took the position seriously and, even worse from his neighbors’ point of view, requisitioned their enslaved laborers to do roadwork. When neighbors begged Tyler to stop his enthusiastic road projects, he refused, perhaps out of spite. Tyler went on to further ignominy: In his later years he joined the Confederate Congress. When he died in 1862, his coffin was draped with the flag of the Confederacy, a secessionist movement making war on the nation he once led.
Tyler comes across in history as a small-minded man but on one point he had an expansive view of things — one that included Hawaii. The United States in Tyler’s time only tentatively reached the Pacific. California still belonged to Mexico and the American presence in the Pacific Northwest was unsettled by a treaty calling for an awkward “joint occupancy” with the British and disputes over where a final boundary should be drawn. Tyler, though, looked well beyond the horizon. The British and French had set their eyes on Hawaii — never mind that Hawaii had its own native government. Americans of various sorts — Protestant missionaries, New England whalers and sharp-eyed businessmen who saw a fortune to be made in sugarcane — also had an interest in Hawaii. In 1842, Tyler sent a special message to Congress detailing what would become known as the Tyler Doctrine: He declared Hawaii to be within the American sphere of influence and told other powers to keep their hands off. This was essentially the Pacific version of the better-known Monroe Doctrine that an earlier Virginian president had proclaimed for Latin America. History is complicated.
Through the rest of the 1800s, American interest in — and influence over — Hawaii grew. The growing U.S. Navy was particularly interested in Pu’uloa, what we know today as Pearl Harbor. In 1887, American immigrants to Hawaii staged a rebellion and stripped the king of much of his power. In 1893, the descendents of American settlers rose up and overthrew the Hawaiian monarch — by then a queen — altogether. Conveniently, a ship full of U.S. Marines just happened to be waiting offshore. Imagine that! This is not a pretty part of American history. Not long afterwards, the U.S. formally annexed Hawaii as a territory. In 1993, Congress formally apologized for helping overthrow the Hawaiian government, but didn’t exactly give Hawaii back either.
Fast forward from the late 19th century to the events of Dec. 7, 1941: At the time, Hawaii was still a distant concept to many Americans, some foreign island way out in the Pacific where we just happened to fly our flag. There was also a strong isolationist movement in the United States. The Japanese bombing of the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor shook Americans out of that but in the hours that followed, President Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t be sure of that. Recent polls, still in their infancy, had shown that Americans weren’t particularly interested in Japanese threats to American-controlled islands in the Pacific, such as Guam and the Philippines. What about Hawaii? No one really knew. Historian David Immerwarhr’s book “How To Hide an Empire” details the wordsmithing that went into Roosevelt’s famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech. The original draft referred to Japanese “bombing in Oahu and the Philippines.” Roosevelt scratched that out. When he delivered the speech, the Philippines and Guam and other U.S. possessions in the Pacific were relegated to a section that also mentioned the Japanese attacks on Hong Kong and Malaysia, with no mention of the American claims to some of those places. Instead, Roosvelt focused his speech on the Japanese attack on “the American island of Oahu.” Legally, Oahu had been American since 1897, but Pearl Harbor — and Roosevelt’s stylistic choices — made it American in the popular imagination.
There had long been chatter about making Alaska and Hawaii states but talk never turned into action. After World War II, when the strategic importance of both territories became clearer, the push for statehood intensified. The main opposition came from Southern segregationists (at the time mostly Democrats). They feared two things: Two new states from the West (really far west!) would have no interest in helping the South preserve Jim Crow and would diminish Southern influence. They were particularly concerned about Hawaii’s demographics, where whites accounted for only a quarter of the population and those of Asian or native ancestry constituted a majority. In November 1950, President Harry Truman wrote in his diary that two Southern senators — Allen Ellender of Louisiana and Jim Eastland of Mississippi — “have decided against Statehood for Alaska and Hawaii — color and power!”
In that same entry, Truman also fumed about Harry Byrd Sr. of Virginia. “My ‘friend’ Harry Byrd says he has the professional southerners lined up against Yugoslav Aid. Wonder if he’d like being branded Stalin’s No. 2 helper in the Senate. McCarthy of Wisconsin is No. 1.” Truman may as well have complained about Byrd’s views on Alaska and Hawaii, because he was a staunch opponent of both.
Conrad Wirth, a former administrator of the National Park Service, wrote a history of his time with the agency. One section deals with Byrd’s opposition to Hawaiian statehood. “One time Senator Byrd called me and said he would like to see the parks in Hawaii, but he had a problem,” Wirth wrote. Byrd was a great lover of parks — he’d been a big proponent of the Blue Ridge Parkway — and very much wanted to see the parks in Hawaii. He also didn’t want to be caught visiting the place.
“He was sure the people there would be after him and that this would spoil his trip,” Wirth wrote. “Yet, he needed a change and wanted to see Hawaii. He always traveled at his own expense, but in this case he needed some guidance. One of our fine naturalists, Dr. George Ruhle, was stationed on the big island of Hawaii, and we supplied the senator with a fictitious name and asked Ruhle to give him an educational tour of the islands. We told Ruhle his guest was interested in plants, geography, and history and did not want to meet people or be entertained in any way. We also told him that he would learn the visitor’s true identity when he met him and that his guest would take care of all expenses. Ruhle took annual leave and met his guest, and he and the senator had a very enjoyable time.”
A pesky reporter spoiled Byrd’s secret trip.
“The day after the senator left Washington with destination supposedly unknown, however, some newspaper reporter called up his home in Berryville, Virginia, and the maid who answered the telephone told him that Senator Byrd was on a trip to Hawaii,” Wirth wrote. “It didn’t take long for that information to get to Hawaii, and the newspapers, the politicians, and the military began looking for him. The papers printed notices asking anybody who saw Senator Harry Flood Byrd to please notify the military and the governor. But they never found him.”
There was yet another reason why Southern Democrats opposed Hawaii’s admission as a state: At the time, it was assumed that Hawaii would be a Republican state. It was also assumed that Alaska would be a Democratic one. Today, of course, we know just the opposite to be true: Alaska is strongly Republican, Hawaii strongly Democratic. That’s why we shouldn’t assume we know what Puerto Rico’s politics would be if it ever became a state — things change.
Eventually, Congress moved toward a compromise: Admit both territories. Adding one Democratic state and one Republican state would keep the balance of power between the two parties even. Southern Democrats didn’t like that (they were often a third force in American politics at the time), but by the late 1950s the politics had moved against them. Alaska joined the Union in 1958, Hawaii in 1959. Both times, most of the “no” votes came from Southern Democrats. Only one member of Virginia’s congressional delegation voted to admit Hawaii (or Alaska, too, for that matter): Democrat Pat Jennings of Smyth County, one of Griffith’s predecessors representing the 9th District.
Griffith is a keen student of history: Perhaps today, before he delves into the business at hand, he can pay homage to Jennings’ role in Hawaii becoming a state. His wasn’t the deciding vote, by any means, but he did stand out as a rare Southern voice for both a 49th and 50th state.
The latest early voting numbers and what they mean
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