When King William Charles Lunalilo died on February 3, 1874, Kalākaua was elected to replace him, supported by the legislature although many of the populace, mainly the native Hawaiian and British subjects in the kingdom, preferred Queen Dowager Emma, who stood against him. His election provoked the Honolulu Courthouse riots in which supporters of Queen Emma targeted legislators who supported Kalākaua; thirteen legislators were injured. During the early part of Kalākaua’s reign, the king made full use of his power to appoint and dismiss cabinets. King Kalākaua believed in the hereditary right of the aliʻi to rule. Kalākaua continually dismissed cabinets and appointed new ones. This drew criticism from people of the “Missionary Party” who wanted to reform Hawaiian government based on the model of the United Kingdom’s constitutional monarchy where the monarch had very little real power over the government but had a position of great dignity and was the head of state. The party believed the legislature should control the cabinet ministers rather than the king. This struggle continued throughout Kalākaua’s reign.
Kalākaua also built ʻIolani Palace, the only royal palace that exists on American soil today, at a cost of $300,000—a sum unheard of at the time. Many of the furnishings in the palace were ordered by Kalākaua while he was in Europe. Kalākaua decided to erect the Kamehameha Statue in recognition of Kamehameha I, the first king of the whole Hawaiian Islands. The original statue was lost when the ship carrying it sank near the Falkland Islands, so a replacement was ordered and unveiled by the king in 1883. The original statue was later salvaged, repaired and sent to Hawaii in 1912. A third statue was erected in 1969 and is currently the only statue in the United States Capitol that commemorates a native Hawaiian. King Kalākaua is said to have wanted to build a Polynesian Empire. In 1886, legislature granted the government $30,000 ($791,000 today) for the formation of a Polynesian confederation. The king sent representatives to Sāmoa, where Malietoa Laupepa agreed to a confederation between the two kingdoms. This confederation did not last very long, however, since King Kalākaua lost power the next year to the Bayonet Constitution, and thus a reformist party came into power that ended the alliance.
By 1887, the Missionary party had grown very frustrated with Kalākaua. They blamed him for the kingdom’s growing debt and accused him of being a spendthrift. Some foreigners wanted to force King Kalākaua to abdicate and put his sister Liliʻuokalani onto the throne, while others wanted to end the monarchy altogether and annex the islands to the United States. The people who favored annexation formed a group called the Hawaiian League. In 1887, members of the league, armed with guns, assembled together. The members of the league forced him at gunpoint to sign the new constitution. This new constitution, nicknamed the Bayonet Constitution of 1887, removed much of the king’s executive power and deprived most native Hawaiians of their voting rights. 75% of ethnic Hawaiians could not vote at all, because of the gender, literacy, property, and age requirements. With the new requirements, ethnic Hawaiians now amounted to about two-thirds of the electorate for representatives and about one-third of the electorate for Nobles. The rest of the voters were male residents of European or American ancestry.
While historically voting rights were not granted to all citizens in the kingdom, not unlike other countries at the time, the new constitution served to greatly disenfranchise the native Hawaiians and consolidated a major power shift. It even inserted a provision that allowed non-Hawaiian citizens to vote. Moreover, the legislature was now able to override a veto by the king, and the king was no longer allowed to take action without approval of the cabinet. The House of Nobles, the house of legislature appointed by the king, was to be elected.