William Little Lee

William Little Lee (February 25, 1821 – May 28, 1857) was an American lawyer who became the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for the Kingdom of Hawaii.

William Little Lee
Portrait of William Little Lee, Aliiolani Hale.png
Portrait of William Little Lee, Aliʻiōlani Hale
Born(1821-02-25)February 25, 1821
DiedMay 28, 1857(1857-05-28) (aged 36)
NationalityUnited States
Kingdom of Hawaii
Spouse(s)Catherine Elizabeth Newton
Parent(s)Stephen Lee
Mary Little


William Little Lee was born February 25, 1821 in Sandy Hill, New York. His father was Colonel Stephen Lee (1773–1856) and mother was Mary Little (1795–1881).[1] He graduated from Norwich University in 1842. He taught in a military school established by Alden Partridge in Portsmouth, Virginia, for one year, and then graduated from Harvard Law School.[2] One of his teachers at Harvard was Joseph Story, who was sitting on the Supreme Court of the United States at the time. He practiced law in Troy, New York, but convinced his boyhood friend Charles Reed Bishop to travel with him to the Oregon Territory in February 1846 on the ship Henry.

The ship was damaged while passing around Cape Horn, and needed to stop at the Hawaiian Islands for provisions and repairs on October 12. Lee was only the second person in Hawaii with any western-style law training. John Ricord had arrived just two years earlier, and was acting as Attorney General.[3] Ricord convinced Lee to stay, and Bishop was given the job of sorting out the defunct Ladd & Co. which was also the center of a long-lasting legal dispute. A related land dispute by Richard Charlton had caused a British military occupation a few years earlier called the Paulet Affair which was still being sorted out.[4]

On December 1, 1846 he was appointed judge of the island of Oʻahu, and served on the Privy Council of King Kamehameha III for the rest of his life. Ricord left in 1847 and Lee had to finish drafting legislation to formalize the court system. Called the "third organic act" or "act to Organize the Judiciary Department" it was passed September 7, 1847 activated January 10, 1848.[5] Starting in 1847 he became a member of a commission to quiet land titles that led to legislation known as the Great Mahele which formalized fee simple ownership of real estate. On January 16, 1848 he was named Chief Justice of the Superior Court. On March 11, 1849 he married Catherine Newton (c. 1819–1894), and became a boarder in Washington Place with John Owen Dominis and Dominis' mother. Lee had proposed by letter, and they were married aboard the Leland by Rev. Samuel C. Damon.[6]

Lee on left, with Charles Reed Bishop in 1846

On August 12, 1849, French admiral Louis Tromelin staged a French Invasion of Honolulu. On August 28 Lee and chief government minister Gerrit P. Judd went aboard the French ship for an attempted peace conference. However, Tromelin continued to sack the city before sailing off with the king's yacht and other plunder. Judd and two young princes were sent to Europe to negotiate treaties, stopping in the United States on the way. Judd advocated annexation by the United States to protect against further actions by British and French.[7] Lee was more in favor of a simple treaty of Reciprocity. Former Scottish physician, now Foreign Minister Robert Crichton Wyllie agreed, and former Hawaiian newspaper publisher James Jackson Jarves negotiated a treaty with John M. Clayton signed on December 20, 1849.[8]

In 1851 Lee was elected to the House of Representatives in the legislature of the Hawaiian Kingdom.[9] Lee helped draft the 1852 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii and a judiciary bill to implement its provisions. Lorrin Andrews and John Papa ʻĪʻī became associate justices and Lee chief justice of what was now called the Supreme Court.[10]

On December 15, 1854 Kamehameha III died; his nephew took the throne as Kamehameha IV. On January 15, 1855 Lee was named Chancellor, and in March 1855 to 1856 served as an envoy to the United States where he traveled for medical advice.[9] Lee and his wife first went to San Francisco where he met with California's first Senator William M. Gwin. On July 10, 1855 they arrived in Washington, D.C. and he met wirh William L. Marcy and then President Franklin Pierce. Marcy and Lee agreed on terms on July 20, 1855. He also met with representatives of other governments, but could not get them to sign on to a multi-party treaty. In September he returned to Hawaii.[11]: 40–41 

However, the treaty never went into effect, because it was never ratified by the Senate.[11]: 45  His health declined, and he returned to Honolulu. He had probably been suffering from tuberculosis. After his death May 28, 1857 fellow American Elisha Hunt Allen became Chief Justice, who would also try to push the treaty through. His widow Catherine Newton traveled back to New York and in 1861 married Edward L. Youmans, the founder of Popular Science. She used income from the sugarcane plantation to help support the magazine in its early years.[6]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Lee Families (5) 1100 - 1913". Rootsweb. Retrieved 2010-03-13.
  2. ^ William Arba Ellis (1898). "The Hon. William Little Lee, A.M.". Norwich university: Her history, her graduates, her roll of honor. The Rumford press. pp. 244–245.
  3. ^ Jane L. Silverman (1982). "Imposition of a Western Judicial System in the Hawaiian Monarchy". Hawaiian Journal of History. Hawaiian Historical Society, Honolulu. 16: 48–64. hdl:10524/197.
  4. ^ John Ricord, Stephen H. Williams, James F. B. Marshall (1846). Report of the proceedings and evidence in the arbitration between the King and Government of the Hawaiian Islands and Messrs. Ladd & Co., before Messrs. Stephen H. Williams & James F. B. Marshall, arbitrators under compact. C.E. Hitchcock, printer, Hawaiian Government press.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Ralph Simpson Kuykendall (1965) [1938]. Hawaiian Kingdom 1778-1854, foundation and transformation. Vol. 1. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-87022-431-X.
  6. ^ a b Barbara E. Dunn (2004). "William Little Lee and Catherine Lee, Letters from Hawai'i, 1848-1855". Hawaiian Journal of History. Hawaiian Historical Society. 38: 61. hdl:10524/147.
  7. ^ William De Witt Alexander (1891). A brief history of the Hawaiian people. Board of Education of the Hawaiian Kingdom. ISBN 978-0-89875-324-0.
  8. ^ "Treaty with the Hawaiian Islands". December 20, 1849. Retrieved 2010-03-13.
  9. ^ a b "Lee, William L. office record". state archives digital collections. state of Hawaii. Retrieved 2010-03-11.
  10. ^ Frear, Walter F. (1894). "Evolution of the Hawaiian Judiciary". Papers of the Hawaiian Historical Society. Honolulu: Hawaiian Historical Society (7). hdl:10524/966.
  11. ^ a b Ralph Simpson Kuykendall (1953). Hawaiian Kingdom 1854-1874, twenty critical years. Vol. 2. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-87022-432-4.
Government offices
Preceded by
Kingdom of Hawaii Chief Justice
Succeeded by