William Little Lee did not plan to go to Hawaiʻi, let alone spend his life there. (Dunn)
Lee had received the best legal education available for an American of his time. He had been a law student at Harvard under US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story and the renowned law teacher Samuel Greenleaf. After a year’s practice in Troy, New York, his recurring illness caused him to leave. (Silverman)
In February 1846, he sailed for the Oregon Territory with his friend and fellow adventurer, Charles Reed Bishop. After a long and stormy voyage, their ship (the Henry,) after about eight months at sea, arrived in Honolulu harbor October 12, 1846, needing extensive repairs. (Dunn)
While waiting there, Lee was consulted by some American residents on a legal question. He caught the attention of officials in the Hawaiian kingdom and was recruited by Attorney General John Ricord and Dr. Gerrit Judd, the Minister of Finance for Kamehameha III. Lee, then 26 years old, was only the second trained attorney in the Islands (after Ricord). (Dunn)
After some persuasion, he consented to stay, provided his friend could also be provided with employment. This was done, and Lee and Bishop made their home in Honolulu. (Bishop later married a Princess, Bernice Pauahi, founded Bishop & Company (what is now known as First Hawaiian Bank) and became a well-known financier and philanthropist.)
On December 1, 1846, Governor Mataio Kekūanāoʻa appointed Lee a judge in the newly organized court system. The appointment of Lee marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the Hawaiian judiciary. His character and attainments were such that under his leadership the courts won and retained public confidence. (Kuykendall)
The greater part of the Statute Laws of His Majesty, Kamehameha III was drafted by Attorney General Ricord before he resigned from the government; it was completed by Judge Lee. (Kuykendall)
The Act of 1847 expressly provided that the judges should be entirely independent of the executive department, and that the
King in his executive capacity should not control the decisions of the judges.
Following this, Lee presided over the Superior Court of Law and Equity (this court was later elevated to become the Supreme Court.) Lee served as Chief Justice (the Islands’ first CJ,) Lorrin Andrews and John ʻĪʻi as associate justices. The three justices heard all cases of original or appellate jurisdiction above the district court level. Lee was appointed to the Privy Council.
He strenuously urged upon the king and chiefs the policy of giving up to the common people a third of their land, and when a law to that effect was passed, he was appointed president of the Board of Commissioners to Quiet Land Titles (the Land Commission) to carry out its provisions, but he declined to accept any compensation for his services. (Ellis)
As much as anyone, Lee was responsible for carrying into effect the system of private property ownership. All of his deepest beliefs came together in his support of land ownership by commoners. He felt that “merely to preserve” their rights “would be no gain.” He wanted to go forward to “define their rights—to separate them from those of their chiefs.”
He sought “to give them what they have as their own, to inspire them with more self respect, more independence of character, and to lead them if possible to work, and labor, and cultivate, and improve their land.” (Silverman)
In 1851, he was elected to the Legislature and became Speaker of the House of Representatives. Among his labors were the framing of the revised constitution of the kingdom, and the task of drafting criminal and civil codes for the kingdom. (Ellis)
Lee brought major areas of substantive Western law into the Hawaiian legal system by drafting legislation which was frequently passed without alteration.
He wrote the Masters and Servants Act (1850) which governed the terms of contract labor of thousands of Hawaiian and immigrant plantation workers. He drafted the Marriage and Divorce law (1853) which liberalized divorce grounds to include several causes, instead of adultery only. He undoubtedly drafted basic business legislation, such as the bankruptcy law (1848.) (Silverman)
As Chief Justice, first of the Superior Court (1847-52) and then the Supreme Court (1852-57,) Lee administered the court system. He created the position of clerks in the Supreme and Circuit courts and placed them under centralized control.
By the time of the 1852 Constitution, aliʻi authority combined with Western precedents to create a Hawaiian judicial system that was Western in philosophy, structure and procedure.
Soon after the 1852 Constitution went into effect, Chief Justice Lee moved into the newly constructed coral block courthouse located near the harbor. This courthouse was the first structure in the islands built expressly for court purposes. It was built on the site of Halekauwila, a large Hawaiian house belonging to Kamehameha III, where earlier court sessions had been held. (Silverman)
Judge Lee’s health, always delicate, gave way as a result of undue exposure in attendance upon sick natives during an epidemic of smallpox in 1853.
This brought on a return of his early malady, and in 1855, in order to obtain medical advice, he accepted an appointment as minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary to negotiate a treaty with the US by which sugar from the islands was to be admitted free of duty, in return for the admission to the islands of lumber, fish and some other productions of the Pacific states. (Ellis)
He went to the continent; however, his health did not improve and he returned to the Islands, where he died (May 28, 1857; he is buried as Union Cemetery, Fort Edward, Washington County, New York.)
The image shows William Little Lee. In addition, I have included other images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.