|July 30, 2023
Elisha Hunt Allen was a longtime diplomat between the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii — but there is a twist: from 1850 to 1853 he was consul to Hawaii from the U.S., and then from 1856 to 1883 he was minister to the U.S. from Hawaii. In between 1853 and 1857 he served as Hawaii’s minister of finance. For two decades, from 1857 to 1877, Allen was also the chief justice of the Hawaiian Supreme Court. Yet when he died in 1883, the statesman and jurist was not laid to rest in the Kingdom of Hawaii, but rather in his birthplace of Massachusetts, USA. In Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, in the shade of a western white pine and a red oak at the intersection of Jonquil Path and Smilax Path, Allen is buried with his second wife, Mary Harrod Hobbs.
With fellow Whig Millard Fillmore in the White House in 1850, former Congressman Allen received an appointment to serve as the U.S. consul to Hawaii. A primary goal of Allen’s was to negotiate a trade treaty between the U.S. and the advantageously-situated Pacific kingdom. He was unable to facilitate such a deal before his service terminated with the start of Democrat Franklin Pierce’s administration in 1853. Allen soon accepted a position in the Hawaiian government as its minister of finance. With the support of King Kamehameha III, who sought governmental stability, Allen participated in the 1854 drafting of an annexation treaty with the U.S. An unsigned treaty was the culmination of the negotiators’ efforts, as talks ended with the death of Kamehameha that December. Allen’s efforts were then focused once again on a treaty of commercial reciprocity between the two nations. In his capacity as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the United States, he traveled several times over the next two decades from Hawaii to Washington, D.C. in an attempt to broker an economic deal that was satisfactory to both parties’ governments. Finally, on January 30, 1875, Allen and U.S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish signed a reciprocity treaty. According to the State Department website, “This treaty provided for duty-free import of Hawaiian agricultural products into the United States. Conversely, the Kingdom of Hawaii allowed U.S. agricultural products and manufactured goods to enter Hawaiian ports duty-free. This treaty was originally intended to last for a duration of seven years.” The work continued however, as the treaty still had to be approved by both chambers of U.S. Congress. It was not until the House of Representatives approved the document in August 1876 that its provisions went into effect.
The plaque affixed to the northern face of the Allen obelisk lists Elisha’s political and diplomatic achievements, starting with his election as speaker of Maine’s state legislature in 1838. The last key date on the timeline is from January 1, 1883. In a letter to her daughter Margaret, Harriet Stanwood Blaine — wife of former Senator James G. Blaine — described how Allen’s diplomatic service terminated that day. Mrs. Blaine was among the many people who were in attendance at the White House’s annual New Year’s Reception. “This morning at eleven, I went to the White House to receive,” Blaine wrote. “Many ladies there, and everything very brilliant, till just as the Diplomatic Corps were leaving, Judge Allen, the dean, was taken ill in the cloak room, where in a few minutes he died. This broke up the President’s [Chester A. Arthur’s] Reception, also Secretary Frelinghuysen’s, though I believe not till after the State Breakfast.”
My friends Greg, Rebecca, and I once had a bone to pick with Elisha Hunt Allen’s bones. On January 13, 2023, we were all contestants on the Jeopardy!-style “Dead History Trivia Part 3,” which streamed live on my pal TJ Fallon’s YouTube channel. For the Final Jeopardy clue of the first round, we were asked to name the first non-president-related person to die in the White House (the first five to expire in the Executive Mansion were a presidential child, a first lady, a presidential father-in-law, and two presidents themselves). None of the three of us — nor the other two first-round competitors — answered correctly with the Hawaiian minister. The two best (and only) guesses were Allen’s contemporary and political opponent from his Maine days, Hannibal Hamlin. With the correct answer revealed and Allen suddenly on my radar, I added him to my Google Sheets Grave List, with the idea of Rebecca, Greg, and myself taking a disapproving graveside photograph in mind. A little over six months later, our light-hearted revenge became a reality. Click here to watch us fall for this Dead History Doozy (as TJ calls his tough trivia clues).
Born: January 28, 1804 in New Salem, Massachusetts
Spouses: Sarah Elizabeth Fessenden Allen (m. 1828-1845); Mary Harrod Hobbs Allen (m. 1857-1880)
Political Affiliation: Whig Party
Maine House Speakership: 1838
Congressional Tenure: 1841-1843
U.S. Consul to Hawaii: 1850-1853
Hawaiian Minister to the U.S.: 1856-1883
Hawaiian Chief Justiceship: 1857-1877
Died: January 1, 1883 in Washington, D.C.
Cause of Death: Heart Attack
Interment: Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts
"It was a great mistake that the government declined to make the treaty which they could have made, when I was at home, but the Whigs, some of them, are afraid of the progressive idea, and instead of taking advantage of the flood tide, attempt to beat the ship of state against it, whereupon the crew mutiny, and all is lost but the peoples [sic] rights."
- Elisha Hunt Allen
January 16, 1853 in a letter to Mary Hobbs
Sources Consulted and Further Reading
Beale, Harriet S. Blaine, ed. Letters of Mrs. James G. Blaine. Vol. 2. New York: Duffield and Company, 1908.
Burlin, Paul T. Imperial Maine and Hawai’i: Interpretive Essays in the History of Nineteenth-Century American Expansion. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006. https://books.google.com/books?id=LRY8khcvxqEC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute. “A Guide to the United States’ History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, since 1776: Hawaii.” United States Department of State. Accessed August 29, 2023. https://history.state.gov/countries/hawaii.