Native Hawaiians Ha'aheo Guanson, center right, and Coochie Caya, right, placed leis yesterday on the tombstone of former President Grover Cleveland in Princeton, N.J. The Hawaiians traveled to New Jersey to honor Cleveland in his home state for championing Hawaiian rights and national sovereignty in the 1890s, even as sugar plantation owners were overthrowing Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani and seeking annexation to the United States.
A delegation travels to Grover Cleveland's native New Jersey to honor him for defending the monarchy in the 1890s
TRENTON, N.J. » When it comes to 19th-century President Grover Cleveland, many Americans, even residents of his home state of New Jersey, have trouble recalling anything remarkable about him.
But the former president is getting some respect from an unusual source: native Hawaiians who credit Cleveland with sticking up for their rights and national sovereignty in the 1890s, even as sugar plantation owners were overthrowing their queen and seeking annexation to the United States.
Last week, three native Hawaiians landed at New York's LaGuardia Airport, toting about 20 leis, and found themselves getting lost on northern New Jersey roads as they searched for Cleveland's birthplace in Caldwell and the town's First Presbyterian Church, where Cleveland's father was a pastor.
The Hawaiians were in New Jersey during the weekend to pay their respects to Cleveland in Caldwell -- about 25 miles west of Manhattan and 5,000 miles northeast of Honolulu -- and at his grave site in Princeton.
"We just wanted to come and visit and get a firsthand knowledge of the person and history of Cleveland," the Rev. Kaleo Patterson said after arriving in New Jersey.
The journey is part of the events leading to an April 30 national day of prayer for Hawaiian natives that groups on the islands have been organizing. Patterson, a United Church of Christ minister, is president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center helping to spearhead the effort.
The day of prayer, Patterson said, is meant to raise support for efforts to reduce poverty and crime among Hawaiian natives, as well as the granting of some form of self-government and self-determination.
"A lot of this is about ensuring that native people in Hawaii are going to be able to survive into the next generation, that they're going to be healthy and have what all people in America expect," Patterson said.
The day of prayer has a direct connection to New Jersey's only native son-turned-president, because it was Cleveland as president who set aside April 30, 1894, as a day of prayer and repentance over the U.S. role in the Hawaiian monarchy's overthrow.
For those who do not aspire to appear on "Jeopardy," Cleveland is the only U.S. president to have two terms that were not in a row -- in 1885-89 and 1893-97 -- and his face graced the $1,000 bills that used to circulate. His presidency was dominated by such subjects as tariffs on imported goods and preserving a gold standard backing U.S. currency.
"Hardworking, honest, and independent, Cleveland nevertheless had no real vision for the future," says a biography on a Web site run by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.
His caution extended to the United States flexing its power abroad.
When American businessmen overthrew Queen Liliuokalani in a January 1893 coup and declared a republic, they requested annexation to the United States. Cleveland investigated the situation and refused, saying the queen should be restored to power. It was not until 1898, when Cleveland was out of office, that Hawaii became part of the United States. It became a state in 1959.
Patterson said the group had already learned a little about Cleveland's early years and was impressed by his strong religious upbringing. Many Hawaiian natives have remembered over the years what Cleveland tried to do for them, but they have scant knowledge about who he was as a person, he said.
Patterson said they have a special flower lei just for the former president, a lei that is usually reserved for royalty.
"We just wanted to do this the right way," Patterson said.