A privy council is a body that advises the head of state of a nation, typically, but not always, in the context of a monarchic government.
The word “privy” means “private” or “secret”; thus, a privy council was originally a committee of the monarch’s closest advisors to give confidential advice on affairs of state.
As a private council, the Privy Council is distinguished from a modern cabinet of the executive; in the monarchical tradition, a Privy Council lent legislative powers to the monarch and served judicial functions.
The Privy Council is an institution of European monarchies. The English Privy Council developed out of the royal court of ecclesiastics and high officials that advised the Crown.
The Hawaiian government was a constitutional monarchy comprised of three branches: Executive (Monarch and Privy Council), Legislative (House of Nobles and Representatives) and Judicial (Supreme Court and lower courts).
During the Hawaiian monarchy, local affairs were administered through the Privy Council, the Minister of the Interior and the governors appointed by the king for each island.
The adoption of this western institution by the Kingdom of Hawai‘i reflected the effort of the time to conform the organization of the government to the norms of the community of nations with which Hawai‘i was having increasing economic and diplomatic relations.
Every member of the Privy Council of State, before entering upon the discharge of his/her duties as such, takes an oath to support the Constitution, to advise the Monarch honestly, and to observe strict secrecy in regard to matters coming to his/her knowledge as a Privy Counselor.
While the first official record of the Privy Council began in July 1845, the body existed previously as the council of chiefs (the House of Nobles similarly comprised of the members of the council of chiefs.)
Under the leadership of King Kamehameha III, the Privy Council was authorized by the Act to Organize the Executive Ministries on October 29, 1845.
The Kingdom of Hawai‘i’s Privy Council was a body comprised of five ministers and the four governors along with other appointed members that served to advise the King.
With the King in Council, it received foreign policy documents and approved the declaration of embargoes, orders of nobility, cutting of timber and use of coral reefs, prices for the sale and leases of government land, audit of internal taxes, the budget, assessment and minting of coins, regulations, compensation of teachers and diplomatic agents, granting of patents and appointments of the local officials.
The Cabinet Council, by Act I of Kamehameha III in 1845, acted as a consulting body for policies of the executive ministries. It also received and directed the publication of diplomatic correspondence, directed the accreditation of Hawaiian diplomatic agents and commission of consular agents, approved departmental seals.
Kingdom of Hawai‘i Constitution of 1852, Article 49 noted, “There shall continue to be a Council of State for advising the King in the Executive part of the Government, and in directing the affairs of the Kingdom, according to the Constitution and laws of the land, to be called the King’s Privy Council of State.”
Article 41 of the 1864 Constitution, issued during the reign of Kamehameha V, reasserts the continuing need for a Council of State “…for advising the King in all matters for the good of the State …”
“… and for assisting him in administering the Executive affairs of the Government, … which Council shall be called the King’s Privy Council of State, and the members thereof shall be appointed by the King …”
Article 42 of the 1864 Constitution further specifies that the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, the Interior, and Finance and the Attorney General would be ex officio members of the Privy Council.
The duties of the Privy Council lapsed when the monarchical government was repealed by the Proclamation of the Committee of Safety on January 17, 1893.
Act 1 of the Executive and Advisory Councils of the Provisional Government of the Hawaiian Islands (approved on January 20, 1893,) vested the powers and duties of the Cabinet of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the Executive Council of the Provisional Government.