1. Reflections of a by-gone Revolution

    There were two ways I was considering approaching a post on the 114th anniversary of the founding of the Philippine Republic, neither were inherently “positive” (so to speak). The first was to look at how little the Republic matters in domestic affairs. Oh sure the idea that it was the first Asian constitutional democracy is something we all know. Or at least should know. And sure we talk about how wonderful it was that Filipinos revolted against a collapsing Spanish empire. But beyond those superficial little details, the names and some dates and places, we know very little about the Philippine Republic. Its foundations, trials and tribulations. The hopes and fears and dreams of the men and women who sacrificed so much to try and build a better country.

    The other was to approach how flawed our public, and even scholarly, histories are in how they approach that era. Most material is filtered through the lens of the American Imperial Era. American historians and translators culled our Spanish era documentary history to create a self-serving interpretation of the Filipino people’s past. They downplayed the Republic, for good reason. The Republic was still extant, the men and women still fighting against the burgeoning American hegemony. They co-opted our history, they co-opted some of our dead heroes, and they systematically defiled and degraded the heroism of members of the Philippine Revolution and Republic. They re-interpreted the Philippine Revolution in support of American interests. That insidious colonialism is still found in much of our histories. The battle to remove much of it has barely begun.

    Upon reflection, these two approaches are intertwined. Our public perception of the revolution and republic are fatally flawed, precisely because of the nature of our public histories. There are a number of scholars, men who have plumbed the depths of the philosophical, political, social, and economic nature of the 19th century, to compile complex and challenging understandings of Filipinos and their fight for independence. But those insights rarely filter into public histories. Instead, our popular histories play along the insignificant edge of the margins of Philippine history. They revel in pop gossip, luxuriating in miscellany; proffering it up as deep insights into the heroes of our past. Instead of deepening our understanding of our history, it turns our history into nothing more than insubstantial fluff.

    Among the writers who have tried to reconstruct our history as a risen people are Father John Schumacher, O.D Corpuz, Resil Mojares, Floro Quibuyen, Vicente L. Rafael, and others. Then there are the brilliantly insightful writers, like Nick Joaquin and Felice Sta. Maria, and Anding Roces, who would never call themselves historians, but bring (brought) new insights and connections to the study of our history. Yet, among those names just listed the only one who may have any such broad resonance would be Joaquin. And in his case only as a fiction writer.

    Bringing up a scholarly point, the root of history is the Latin word historia, which means inquiry. The basis for the study of history is simple: It’s about asking questions, inquiring into our past. That, I truly believe, is something that our historians have forgotten. History is not about ideology or politics, its not about reworking it to fit a pre-determined narrative; in the process losing the cumulative narrative thread of our history. The broad understanding of the Philippine Republic is a prime example of that. The 19th century is more about the Cult of Personality, more about the importance of a few select individuals, and far less about the struggle of the Filipino people throughout the archipelago to not only defeat the Spanish, but establish a Philippine Republic. We fixate on the struggle, we forget about what came after the struggle. I doubt many know that the Philippine Republic had a police force, that it raised taxes and sold war bonds, that it maintained a postal service and established a university. These are all integral components of the Philippine revolutionary experience, yet they are ignored. Even fewer know that there was an American military report that detailed how there was a functioning Filipino led government. Of course that report was buried, forgotten, so that American leaders could build the case for invading our country.

    With so much of our history left by the wayside, it is little wonder that the importance of that history is broadly unappreciated. Felice Sta. Maria purposefully called her epic book on the Philippine Republic Visions of the Possible. O.D Corpuz titled his book on the military nature of the Philippine Revolution Saga and Triumph. While Father Schumacher named his compilation of essays on the 19th century propaganda movement The Making of a Nation. Floro Quibuyen, as well, titled his book about Rizal and the Revolution A Nation Aborted. 

    See, that is the forgotten component of the Revolution and Republic. It was not just about defeating the Spanish and later the Americans, it was about building a Filipino nation; and everything that entailed. The question for us is: Do we even know what our heroes believed that nation entailed? Oh the answers are there for us to find. They are writ large in their actions and words. That is one of the great things about our revolutionary history, so much of its meaning is preserved. Yet, we barely look at it, rarely delving deep to construct the vision of the Philippines that our heroes were trying to create. It was far deeper and far more resonant than just independence from colonialism.

    After all, without understanding what our heroes were fighting for, and what the Philippine Republic was supposed to represent, how can we even begin to fathom who we are as a people and nation today? That is a continuing struggle, one that is visible every single day. And an issue that will continue to haunt us, unless really begin to inquire about our past. 

    That understanding will not only set us free, it will help us fulfill a 114 year old promise of true independence.

     

  2. "

    …the June 12 proclamation of independence addressed to ‘civilized nations’ fell on deaf ears. The Filipinos did not know of the diplomatic politicking of the Big Powers, but of course their leaders were aware of the London Spectator article.

    They remained true to their ideals. Aguinaldo issued his ‘call to Unity’ message on June 23, calling upon his countrymen to unite in a ‘noble association.’ His decree of the same date established the Revolutionary Government, with the explicit objective of striving to attain independence. From here on, the documents of the revolution consistently hewed to the rule that the liberation of Filipinas rested on the Filipinos alone.

    "
    — OD Corpuz, Saga and Triumph
     

  3. Aguinaldo in Perspective

    On March 22, 1869 Emilio Aguinaldo was born; not to an incredibly wealthy political dynasty, but to a landed and reasonably well-off provincial family.

    On March 23, 1901 he was captured by American forces; essentially, betrayed and turned over the new colonial power in town. Effectively, his capture ended formal resistance on the part of the Philippine Republic. As we know, or at least should know, informal resistance lasted well into the 1910s; most especially in the Southern portions of the Philippines. The story leading up to his capture, the resistance on the part of provincial leaders (coordinated under the Philippine Republic) is little known. We are…unaware of their sacrifices from 1899 to 1901 and beyond. It is a horrendous hole in our collective memory.

    Aguinaldo himself is little known, beyond a few biographical sketches and ‘travesties’ accomplished. Quite honestly, it goes with the territory of having been involved with the Philippine-American War and leading the Philippine Republic. We, sadly, are the inheritors of a personal historical narrative written by the Americans, and perpetuated by Philippine historians who, knowingly or unknowingly (as the case may be), passed on American era myth-making and propaganda. Aguinaldo has become an example of what we subconsciously feel about the Philippine Republic: Shame, regret, anger. He is that vessel which represents our collective shame at buckling under another colonial power. In other words, he has become our history’s greatest scape goat. And as a result, one of our saddest and most tragic figures.

    There are a number of reasons why this is the case. In reconsidering Aguinaldo and his place in our history, we have to consider from whence came our understanding of Aguinaldo. 

    The most obvious is that we consider him to blame for Bonifacio. Yet, in the post-Bonifacio Philippine Republic, Aguinaldo was not blamed. This came after, much later in fact. When the failures of the Republic were being considered and the placing of blame by the survivors of that failure was undertaken. There was a question: Why did we fail in achieving our dream? Rightly or wrongly, that became Aguinaldo. This is derived from our historical tendency to work backwards from certain point, not necessarily consider the evolution of actions and events.

    In fact, there the Philippine Republic flourished in what it could accomplish, under very obvious constraints. There were taxes levied, a university system set up, there was coordination among rural and provincial officials, a court system, even some sort of police force was established and functioning. A US military report (that was quickly suppressed) noted that there was a functioning government prior to the onset of hostilities. It was suppressed for a very simple reason: If the general American public and politicians knew that the Filipinos were capable of governing themselves, there would have been little to no support for imperial ambitions. And the United States was ambitious and avaricious. Of that there is no doubt.

    Prior to 1899, when the US still viewed themselves as supporters of democracy and not the next evolution in imperial overlords, the US press described Aguinaldo in glowing terms:

    "[Aguinaldo] has organized a government…and from that day to this he has been uinterruptedly successful in the field and dignified and just sa the head of his government." Oscar Williams, American Consul in Manila on June 16, 1898

    Soon after, the New York Times was calling him “Chief” and an “unmoral infant”.

    Which representation, in our cultural memories, has been passed down? The ‘fair and just’ ruler of a Filipino government or the scheming tribal chief, beset on all sides by grasping advisors and incapable of making up his mind, much less leading a country?

    Aguinaldo, by association with the Philippine Republic, had to be discredited. The Americans had to not only consolidate power in the archipelago, but substantiate the military takeover of a nation on the other side of the world. What better way to present their ‘benevolent assimilation’ policies that through careful character assassination of the Filipino’s leader.

    That is one part of the equation. The other is far more complex and difficult to consider. Most tellingly, much of our understanding of the Philippine Republic and Aguinaldo comes from Mabini. A brilliant man, there is no doubt, who was a patriot unparalleled in our annals. He was also a bitter man, broken in part by the failures of the Republic. Who fervently believed that if he was heeded more, failure would not have been an eventuality. Maybe he was right. But, that bitterness, that anger at the fall of the Republic, colored his subsequent writings. Not to mention the fact that he spent part of the remainder of his life in exile. The Mabini/Aguinaldo relationship was complex. And Mabini began as one of the leading powers behind the Philippine Republic. Eventually though, his influence waned. He lost the power struggle to sit at the right hand of Aguinaldo. He was, understandably, angry. Anyone would have been. But, in evaluating and understanding what he wrote, we also have to understand why he was writing it and what he was feeling at the time.

    Someone once told me that the tragedy of Aguinaldo is that he lived, he survived his times and lived much too long to be a hero. In our pantheon, we love the shooting star, the comets that burn brightly and quickly. Rizal, Bonifacio, del Pilar, even Mabini. That is heroic in our mind. What we remember of Aguinaldo is not the dashing young general and 20-something year-old president of the Philippine Republic. We don’t remember the man who helped coordinate and stave off the might of the American military for almost two years; who helped establish the first democratic constitutional republic in Asia. We don’t remember that at all. Just like we don’t remember the Philippine Republic.

    There are reasons to criticize Aguinaldo, just like with any hero in any country. Perfection in heroes is unattainable, except through careful manufacturing and pruning of historical fact. For example, Aguinaldo abhorred learning, he once wrote: “It’s bad to be learned;  you’re either hanged or exiled.” Granted, his earliest memories were of the 1872 Cavite Mutiny and the subsequent hangings of Gomburza. And yes, he was of the gentry, was well-established in his milieu. Maybe that played a part in his seeming blase attitude towards education. Yet, he did accomplish things. He became the mayor of his town at 17. And yes, he did rise through the ranks of the Katipunan and he did acquit himself well on the martial field. Then again, he wasn’t a bold figure, prone to outbursts of romantic frenzies. He was…measured and prudent. Hardly the stuff of legend-making.

    This is the part that I think confounds and irritates historians today: Where others failed, he inevitably succeeded. In 1896, he had victories in the field. He beat the Spanish. Then, upon his return in 1898, he had support in the provinces and the Philippine Republic was able to succeed. Where the urban intrigues failed, the provincials found victory. That dichotomy, that tension, ended up spelling doom for the Republic.

    Is this yet again a case of history written from the perspectives of the city?

    I believe though that when we eventually return, reconsider and reconstruct the years leading to and during the Philippine Republic, our understanding of Aguinaldo and his legacy will most definitely change. Superficially, it all ended in tears and failure. But beyond, there is much we can learn from those years. The Philippine Republic, from conception to implementation, was the flowering of Filipinas. A failure it may have become, but not without sacrifice, bloodshed and heroics of legend. Heroics sadly relegated to footnotes.

    Nick Joaquin once described Aguinaldo as our second greatest anti-hero; the first being Rizal. As a historic figure, much less a hero, he defies easy classification and understanding. This is made even more difficult by the biases extant and infused in our historiography. Yet, I cannot help but consider him somewhat of a hero: A man who, when given the opportunity, rose to the occasion, like so many other forgotten Filipinos.

    He has become something of a representative figure. Not of shame, but for all those Filipinos who fought on forgotten battlefields and died in defense of a dream. In the process of reclaiming Aguinaldo and his contributions, their stories will be told and remembered. That is, in truth, the role of heroes. That is why they are so important. They are touchstones in popular culture, they stand as paragons of virtue and action, and inevitably the ultimate representations of by-gone eras. We manufacture heroes as needed, we fit them into boxes, check off a list of needed attributes and then hold them up for all to see and eventually, to learn from.

    It is tragic that Aguinaldo is not even remembered as a hero, much less an anti-hero, but something far more simplistic and sad: Just a Villain.