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What Is the State Motto of Hawaii?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

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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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for America Explained. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By Feryll — On May 31, 2014

I like the Hawaiian state motto. We should all respect the land and our traditions more. However, I think there are many Hawaiians who are more concerned with commercialism and making money than with whether they are sovereign or not.

One of the great things about Hawaii is that the islands readily accommodate different lifestyles. If you want a fast-paced, contemporary lifestyle then there is a Hawaiian island that will meet your needs. If you want a slower pace that allows you to live closer to nature then there is also a Hawaiian island for you.

By Sporkasia — On May 30, 2014

@Drentel - While I agree that its association with the United States has brought more money to Hawaii, I cannot say this a universally accepted positive occurrence. There are many Hawaiians who support the words of Hawaii's state motto, and who do not covet the money created by tourism, and these residents would gladly vote for independence from the United States given the option.

Furthermore, I do not think there is any reason to think that a sovereign Hawaii would necessarily decrease the number of tourists who visit the islands each year. After all, Hawaii is the island paradise regardless of the politics surrounding it.

By Drentel — On May 29, 2014

While Hawaii's desire to remain independent in the past may have been understandable, and independence may have been the best option for the islands back when the British were there, but I don't understand why any significant percentage of the population of the state would want to regain sovereignty.

Money put into the islands by the United States government and the wealth gained from the increase in tourism since Hawaii became a state should be proof enough that the area has benefited greatly from its inclusion in the U.S. Of course, there is always a small faction that wants everything to remain the same in the name of tradition, even when many aspects of that tradition are negative.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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