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What Is the State Motto of Hawaii?

Hawaii's motto has more to do with sovereignty than with tourism.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 April 2014
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Perhaps no other motto can compete with the dramatic and historic events leading up to the first utterance of the state motto of Hawaii: Ua Mau ke Ea o Aina ai ka Pono, or “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Born of a time of great strife in Hawaiian history, the state motto of Hawaii remains representative of the controversial issue of sovereignty in the 50th US state. Believed to be spoken by King Kamehameha III, the later-adopted motto serves as a reminder of the importance of freedom and justice to survival.

In the 19th century, the independent island kingdom of Hawaii proved supremely tempting for many governments. The importance of the island chain for shipping, whaling, and agriculture made it highly desirable in a world bent on imperialism. The history of the state motto of Hawaii begins against this tense background, when a rash British sea captain, Lord Paulet, seized Honolulu and claimed British sovereignty of the islands. On 10 February 1843, a day long remembered for its infamy, Paulet demanded the surrender of King Kamehameha III, and ordered that the flag of the Hawaiian kingdom be removed and replaced with the British flag.

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While Lord Paulet had been sent to the region to oversee British interests, his actions were neither authorized nor particularly well-advised. Though Paulet claimed to be acting as a result of claims of abuse and harassment by the resident British Consul, Queen Victoria and her government acted quickly to dispute his claims. The British Admiral Richard Darton Thomas was dispatched to the island within five months, restoring sovereignty to the King on 31 July 1843. To celebrate the return of the Hawaiian flag over Honolulu, King Kamehameha III made an impassioned speech, which included the phrase that would grow to become the state motto of Hawaii.

After the Paulet affair, Ua Mau ke Ea o Aina ai ka Pono became a symbolic phrase denoting the islands' resistance to takeover. King Kamehameha III included the phrase on an updated coat of arms, and the term was later included in the seal of the Republic of Hawaii in 1895. In 1900, when the islands were annexed by the United States, the phrase became part of the territorial seal. When Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, the term became the state motto of Hawaii. Though Hawaii continues to exist as a US state in the 21st century, those in favor of eventual sovereignty continue to cite this historic phrase as a cry for independence.

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