A Historical Look at King Kalakaua’s Visit to Washington D.C. in 1874

By Hawaii.com Team

Woodblock prints depict the gathering for King Kalakaua’s 1874 visit to Washington, D.C. During the king’s visit the first White House state dinner was held to welcome him to Washington, and included a reception at the White House. ARTWORK COURTESY FRANK LESLIE’S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER.

I caught a snippet of something on TV last week that intrigued me. It said the first White House state dinner was held in honor of our own King David Kalakaua.

I had never heard that before and decided to look into it.

King Kalakaua was the first head of state to make an around-the-world trip, but that was in 1881. This dinner took place on Dec. 12, 1874, and was hosted by President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant.

Previous presidents had held grand parties and soirees, but a state dinner was something else. It was and still is a formal banquet in recognition of a visiting foreign leader and is attended by the highest profile guests.

To get to Washington in the 19th century heads of state faced an arduous journey over 3,000 miles of ocean on one side or the American frontier on the other.

King Kalakaua was from a little-known Pacific island nation, but he was a bona fide king, the first to visit the District of Columbia. It was the first year of his reign, and the purpose of the goodwill trip to the U.S. was to lobby for better trade terms. At the time, exports from Hawaii were taxed, and sugar was not profitable.

Would the U.S. agree to a reciprocity treaty that lowered some export taxes between the two nations? That was his mission.

President Grant and King Kalakaua had a friend in common who made the introductions: Mark Twain.

The dinner party was small, only 36 people. It included Vice President Henry Wilson, members of the Cabinet and their wives, elected officials, Supreme Court Chief Justice Morrison Waite and members of the military.

Fine French wines accompanied 30 choices of soup, game, meats, fish, vegetables, relishes, coffee, pastries and deserts. The cost: a whopping $3,000.

The dinner was reported to “have been the most brilliant state reception that has ever taken place in Washington.”

Soon after becoming king, Kalakaua said that “the increase of the people; the advancement of agriculture and commerce; these are the objects which my government will mainly strive to accomplish.”

Historian Ralph Kuykendall wrote that Nov. 16 had been declared a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. At a service in Kawaiaha‘o Church, the king gave a farewell address preceding his departure for the United States.

He declared that he was making this journey “in the endeavor to forward the best interests of you, my people.” He referred to the need of a reciprocity treaty “to ensure our material prosperity, and I believe that if such a treaty can be secured, the beneficial effects will be soon apparent to all classes, and our nation, under its reviving influences, will grow again.”

With him on the trip were Gov. John O. Dominis of Oahu, Gov. John M. Kapena of Maui, Supreme Court Chief Justice Elisha Hunt Allen and another 20 ministers and advisers.

At San Francisco the royal party was ceremoniously received with salutes from the forts and vessels of war, and with a demonstration of high honor.

Kalakaua was greeted by Gen. John M. Schofield on behalf of the American government and by Mayor James Otis on behalf of the city.

For a week the king enjoyed the hospitality of the California metropolis, then continued his journey by railroad across the continent. The Transcontinental Railroad had opened just five years earlier.

The 38-year-old king arrived in Washington on Saturday, Dec. 12, and was met by members of the president’s Cabinet.

The Washington Evening Star reported that his train was adorned with American and Hawaiian flags.

The Cabinet secretaries boarded the train and were introduced to the king. They brought greetings from the president. Wine was served, and soon all were engaged in conversation.

At 11 a.m. four battalions of Marines and a band arrived. After a few songs the large entourage disembarked and threaded its way through a huge crowd of curious onlookers to carriages for the trip to the nearby Arlington hotel.

Woodblock prints depict the gathering for King Kalakaua’s 1874 visit to Washington, D.C. During the king’s visit the first White House state dinner was held to welcome him to Washington, and included a reception at the White House. ARTWORK COURTESY FRANK LESLIE’S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER.

“The king was the great object of attraction and thousands who had never before laid their eyes on royalty, took this opportunity,” the Evening Star wrote.

“The streets, sidewalks and house tops along the route were thronged with a curious multitude. Windows were jammed with on-lookers. His Majesty gracefully acknowledged the cheers of greeting.”

The Marine band created a lane at the hotel, and the king disembarked and removed his hat for the crowd. The Marines played Hawaii’s national anthem, and the entourage was shown to their rooms.

The paper went on to doubt whether the “Polynesian potentate’s” own Hawaii living quarters could possibly be as sumptuous as those provided him at the Arlington. The king himself was given Suites 6, 7, 8 and 9. His entourage took up another 14 rooms.

The parlor (Suite 7) was richly carpeted in blue. It had easy chairs, divans, sofas and lounges in blue satin. The windows were draped with damask curtains with white lace.

In the center of the room was a marble table with an exquisite flower arrangement and the banner “Welcome.” Additional vases with flowers adorned the parlor. A number of spittoons were strategically placed around the rooms because, the paper said, most kings expectorate.

Another suite was set up as the king’s office. Suite 8 was the king’s dining room with a fully stocked bar. A banner on the table said “Aloha.” Suite 9 was the royal bedchamber.

The paper said the king “presents the appearance of a gentleman of refinement and intelligence.” It also noted that the percentage of those in Hawaii who couldn’t read or write was less than in any state in the country.

The next 10 days were filled with a round of official and unofficial entertainment, highlighted by a state dinner given by Grant in the king’s honor, a presidential reception that was “conceded to have been the most brilliant state reception that has ever taken place in Washington,” and a reception by Congress in joint session.

Leaving the capital, Kalakaua visited New York, where he stayed for a week and was greeted by thousands of curious onlookers. He visited New Bedford, Mass. filled with memories of the whaling fleet of earlier years; Boston, center of missionary activity; and other cities of New England.

He returned to San Francisco by way of Niagara, N.Y.; Chicago; St. Louis; and Omaha, Neb. From San Francisco the USS Pensacola conveyed him and his party to Honolulu, where they arrived Feb. 15, 1875.

The treaty ran into strenuous opposition in Congress, but it managed to pass and went into effect in 1876. The effect was an immediate strengthening of Hawaii’s sugar industry, as land values and profits soared. Sugar would dominate Hawaii’s economy for the next 100 years. The trip had been a success.

This story is adapted from Kalakaua’s Washington visit full of pomp and circumstance by Bob Sigall, originally published by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Interested in more work by Bob Sigall?
Bob Sigall’s “The Companies We Keep 5” book has arrived, with stories from the last three years of Rearview Mirror. “The Companies We Keep 1 and 2” are also back in print. Email Sigall at Sigall@yahoo.com.

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