The Quezon Heritage, by Lew Gleeck

From Chapter 1, “Philippine Political Culture and the Law School Hero (1935-1942)” (pp. 1-8) in President Marcos and the Philippine Political Culture, by Lewis E. Gleeck Jr., Loyal Printing, 1987

The Quezon Heritage

Manuel L. Quezon became President of the Philippine Commonwealth when it was established in November of 1935. He had dominated Philippine politics since the early Twenties, deposing Sergio Osmeña, who had led the nation as Speaker of the Assembly from 1907, when the First Philippine Assembly convened, until 1916. Under the Jones Act of that year, a two-house legislature was set up and Quezon became Senate President. Osmeña had opted to remain Speaker, incorrectly assuming that it would remain the more powerful of the two houses of Congress. Subsequently, he briefly contested national leadership with Quezon but then more or less graciously accepted the number two role. During the period of Quezon’s ascendancy, there emerged a stable political system, democratic in form but authoritarian in content. Periodic elections, characterized by fierce campaigning, were held (in the final instance returning Quezon to office against General Aguinaldo and Gregorio Aglipay), an Executive branch headed by responsible civil servants functioned adequately, a theoretically independent judiciary discharged its duties acceptably at the higher levels. However, in fact, Quezon named the Speakers and the floor leaders, had the Constitution amended to suit his political plans, appointed judges friendly to his regime, and financed the Presidential office by more or less voluntary contributions from his wealthiest supporters. Nonetheless, Quezon was not subservient to his supporters; they financed and obeyed him because they approved of his leadership and they needed the government favors which he could dispense. It was always Quezon who called the tune. There was, to be sure, an opposition party, or more exactly, several oppositionists with local personal followings, but their constituency was local. Only Quezon and Osmeña enjoyed national political support.

This system became the object of widespread criticism from both Americans and Filipinos from 1937 to 1941, but Quezon, with the assistance of his lieutenants, rejected the accusations. When U. S. High Commissioner Paul McNutt, speaking in 1937 at the Fourth of July celebrations, inveighed against a system Of lip service only to democracy in an independent Philippines, it evoked protests by Osmeña, presidential secretary Jorge Vargas and Quezon himself. Osmeña, speaking to a visiting group of American educators a week later, answered that democracy must take account of the actual conditions and changing needs of a country. Vargas, at the University of the Philippines, argued that despite Quezon’s eminence, there was no lack of the substance of democracy in the Philippines. Quezon, said Vargas, was s”ith the inner workin”a very democratic man,” adding that anyone intimately acquainted with the inner workings of the Assembly would know that while it had “generally heeded” the President’s most mportant recommendations, “many lesser Presidential recommendations had been disapproved.” Quezon then invited himself as guest of honor at an inter-university oratorical contest held at the Ateneo University, where he indignantly rejected any insinuations “that Filipinos were incapable of maintaining a democratic government.”

In 1940, when a team from Fortune did a long story on the Philippines, it too reached an unfavorable verdict on democracy under Quezon, and James Wingo, the Washington correspondent of the Philippines Free Press (June 27, 1940) summarized the article’s views as follows: “Quezon, Philippine President and political boss, hardly indicates the islanders readiness for anything more democratic in the way of self-government than an average Latin American dictatorship.”

All of this was of course rhetoric, or at best semantics. The facts were that Quezon was a benevolent authoritarian, and no one really disputed the substance of the characterization. Equally important, however, no one, except the leaders of the opposition (and they only as part of political theater), had any serious objections to the system. If for example, Quezon disapproved of a judicial decision, he could denounce it, and far from suffering criticism for encroaching on the principle of the separation of powers, he was widely applauded — even by so eminent a scholar as vice Governor J. Ralston Hayden — for thus expressing the national consensus. Quezon was also responsible for blurring the distinction between expenditures on behalf of the state and what in British parliamentary practice would be called the privy purse –the funds devoted to the President’s personal use. Not only was he accustomed to request, and those solicited to supply, the funds to be devoted to specific purposes, but his poker sessions, in which several of the most wealthy Filipinos regularly took part, always yielded substantial sums to be used as the President chose. It should be unnecessary to observe that this practice of informal assessments, if not of winning poker hands, has continued down to the present.

President Quezon also subverted the Civil Service, which American reformers had introduced into the Philippine political system with remarkable success. The zeal of the American exponents of a Civil Service untainted by political interference had evoked enthusiastic support from the upward-mobiles among the Filipino middle-class-to-be, and substantial numbers had made progress in the Civil Service quote impossible in a regime based on political cronyism, to which President Quezon was rapidly returning it — which again to quote Hayden — was something inevitable in the policy of Filipinization. Hayden insightfully pointed out that Filipinization meant not only Filipinos in official positions, but Filipino ways in discharging assigned functions. This meant loyalty to political leaders and favors for families and friends before service to the public. Thus when Jose Gil, Secretary of Public Works, found graft in his department and denounced it to the public, Quezon backed the accused, who were protegees of his political supporters, rather than his Departmental Secretary. This drama would be reenacted in 1975 by Marcos and Executive Secretary Alejandro Melchor. Such behavior did not go unmarked nor uncriticized by the Opposition politicians or in the press, but it was without effect.

The Quezon machine reached into every province. The original American intention to decentralize government had of course early been abandoned in the interest both of control and economy, but after Filipinization, the results were that the opposition in the provinces was as little able to make itself felt as on the national scene — and it has always been in the provinces where human rights were held to a minimum — where oppression was most crude and most cruel. Those who were Quezon men were in; those who were not, were out. As a result, all struggled only for Quezon’s favor, and in the process, the ordinary individual citizen was frequently forgotten and usually ignored.

The Quezon Style

Quezon’s personal style was essentially regal. He awoke early and was served coffee — usually not by servants, but by one of his moneyed associates, and he would immediately be joined by several such cronies, along with his personal secretary Jesus Vargas, who though he carried the title of the “little President” among the Quezon lieutenants, totally lacked the authority inherent in that designation. Never heard to voice an independent judgment, his function was to record the master’s judgments and to transmit his decisions. The government was thus run from Quezon’s bedroom, and most of his associates were as frightened by his displays of temper as charmed by his graciousness when pleased, or touched by his thoughtfulness in recognizing a subordinate’s personal problems. The atmosphere was that of a personal court and head of family rather than chief of government. Loyal and admiring subjects were summoned into the royal presence and then dismissed, accompanied by verbal flourishes and the expressions of a regal countenance which his associates fearfully studied, watching particularly eyebrows and nose for sights of a royal distemper, before composing their replies to questions or volunteering suggestions. Quezon’s messages to the Assembly partook of the quality of a speech from the throne, and although the Assembly at times exhibited the typically mulish behavior of an elected body, it could nevertheless usually be brought to heel by the Speaker who served as the royal mouthpiece. The occasionally defiant legislator could be charmed into submission by an invitation into the royal presence or simply ignored and eliminated at the next election.

Quezon ruled essentially by decree, given a parliamentary form by being expressed in legislation. When the terms of the constitution were uncongenial to his purposes, he had the nation approve of the changes he prescribed in a plebiscite Overwhelmingly approved by the people. Filipino editors leaped to do his bidding or they were scourged into submission. Theoretically a champion of social justice no less than political independence, Quezon extemporized what its requirements were judged to be at any one time and demanded that they be supplied. These initiatives, were not always successful, because giving effect to such a principle as social justice, for example, required legislation and continuous administration which could not be run from the Presidential bedroom, but hardly because either the elite or the legislators dared to question his edicts. Foreign relations, once the Americans had accepted him as the undisputed leader, were simply a matter of his personal relations with American High Commissioners and Japanese Ministers of State, both of whom were cordially treated as long as they agreed with his policies… Such was the Quezon style, and except for a few crochety malcontents, the people on public occasions vociferously cheered him on. The legislators generally applauded the Sovereign’s dispensations like the courtiers they in fact were.

The Obstreperous Law Student Ferdinand Marcos is Charged with Murder

In the meantime, a young man whose exploits would one day surpass his own was growing to maturity in Quezon’s Commonwealth. In 1940, he would challenge the Commonwealth President — and miraculously win. Ferdinand Edralin Marcos, a son of a schoolteacher- lawyer-politician and a schoolteacher mother from a family of modest means had been born on September 11, 1917 in the town of Sarrat. This was the heartland of the Ilocanos, that sturdy breed of yeoman farmers noted for industry, frugality and ambition. Sarrat was also the heartland of the Aglipayans, the fiercely nationalistic schismatic offshoot of the Catholic Church, which had once dominated all of Ilocandia, but whose influence had dwindled after the American Supreme Court restored to the Catholics the properties seized by the Aglipayans in the months of the Philippine-American war.

When Quezon had won election as Commonwealth President in 1935, he had been opposed not only by General Aguinaldo, the President of the short-lived Malolos Republic proclaimed in 1899, but by Aguinaldo’s once Vicar General, Gregorio Aglipay, the obispo maximo of the Philippine Independent Church, whose members were soon known as Aglipayans. After Julio Nalundasan, Quezon’s candidate, had in the same election once again defeated the Aglipayan candidate Mariano Marcos, Ferdinand Marcos father, the Nalundasan supporters had shamed the defeated candidate by a victory parade which included two coffins representing the defeated Bishop Aglipay and Mariano Marcos. This deadly insult invited, in fact by local standards demanded, revenge. The night after the parade, Nalundasan was shot dead, and Quezon, furious at the death of his supporter and fearful that the murder would give the infant Commonwealth a bad name, pressed the Philippine Constabulary and local officials for a quick apprehension of the assassin. They responded, soon arresting one Layoen, Marcos’ campaign manager, but in their haste, prepared the evidence so sloppily that the judge dismissed the case for insufficient proof. An apopleptic Quezon then instructed the Constabulary to get a conviction at all costs.(1) This time the noose was thrown over the head of Ferdinand Marcos, the young University of the Philippines law student who on several occasions had impertinently opposed the President in public.

Quezon’s problem was that Marcos was by then an outstanding student leader. He had since elementary school almost routinely captured top scholastic honors and crowned a brilliant career at the University Law School by scoring so high in the 1939 bar examinations that the Supreme Court Justices who examined his test papers concluded that he had been given a copy of the examinations in advance. When he had been called before them en banc, however, he had emerged from a two hour oral examination so brilliantly that the Justices were convinced that they had confronted, if not a genius, a phenomenon with total recall as well as a master of argument.

Since Ferdinand was also number one in the University Cadet Corps – with a reputation for marksmanship — that fact of course strengthened the suspicion that he might have been Nalundasan’s executioner. However, since he was also the awardee of sundry other prizes in athletics and debating as well as scholarship, Quezon’s minions were clearly dealing with an extraordinarily accomplished human being.

Though the murder had been committed in 1935, the climatic events occupied less than one year from December 1939 to November 1940. Rushed off to jail from a night class at the University while preparing for graduation as — it was generally assumed — valedictorian four months later, he first electrified the student world and legal fraternity by a successful appeal for bail, during which D. L. Francisco of the Philippines Free Press found his “imperturbability” the most impressive aspect of this performance: “Many people wondered how a young man could do class work so steadily and so brilliantly, knowing that a murder case, a possible death sentence, was hanging over his head.” While in prison, waiting during his appeal for the right to bail, Ferdinand “showed not the least sign of perturbation… After filing bail … he studied even more diligently …” Nonetheless, the reporter pronounced his future as aborted: “On young Ferdinand, the court has put the stamp of Cain, and whatever future he may have has apparently been killed.” In what would later prove to be a serious misjudgment, the Free Press even praised the “triumph” of the government’s Department of Investigation.

The gloomy prediction of the Free Press’ reporter seemed fulfilled when Judge Roman Cruz found the D. I.’s evidence convincing, and convicted Marcos of the crime. Still, Judge Cruz had been impressed with the accused’s conduct and promise, and citing the youthful Ferdinand’s outstanding academic record and his brilliant defense, recommended clemency. Even so, Judge Cruz later denied a motion for retrial based on evidence that the chief prosecution witness had not been near the scene of the crime when it had been committed. Then, in October, the condemned student, again arguing his own case before the Supreme Court in a theatrically large chamber “usually empty but that day filled to capacity, ” joyously heard himself wholly sustained when Supreme Court Chief Justice Jose P. Laurel found the key witness testimony “incredible” and “inherently improbable.” The Free Press then alliteratively summarized the results: “the bright, boyish, bouyant 23 year old Ferdinand Marcos . . . has metamorphosed over night from a convicted murderer to a liberated public hero, an inspiration to all law students in the Philippines.”(2)

Days afterward, Fritz Marquardt, associate editor of the Free Press, would write that President Quezon had called Marcos to Malacañang, “perhaps offering him a government job,” but that “if he had, Marcos had rejected it.” According to Marcos’ biographer Hartzell Spence,(3) Quezon did offer him such a position, but was lectured by the youngster on morality, the judicial process, and the duties of a President — receiving in turn a chiding from the President for his youthful arrogance. We need not accept the biographer’s verbal transcript of the argument between President and upstart to agree with Spence’s report that Quezon, with public opinion behind Marcos, had offered him employment and had been refused. It was characteristic of Quezon to behave as related, as well as for the victorious young Marcos to show himself both arrogant and angry at the Presidential frame-up.

Elite Changes and Shifts

The Filipino elite under Quezon generally consisted of (1) wealthy landowners cultivating (a) rice, such as the Jacintos of Nueva Ecija, Bulacan, Rizal and Laguna, the de Leons of Bulacan, the Chiocos, Gabaldons, and Ongsiakos of Nueva Ecija, the Gonzaleses and Lichaucos of Pangasinan, the Santoses of Bulacan and Rizal, the Gonzaleses of Pampanga, and the Montinolas of Iloilo; or (b) sugar, such as the Aranetas, Lopezes and Montillas in Negros; and de Leons and Lazatins in Luzon, along with (2) a very few entrepreneurs such as Fernandez, Madrigal, Araneta, Roces and Aguinaldo, and a (3) handful of professional men, including doctors (who often became businessmen), lawyers (who often became politicians) and educators (who were often former doctors or accountants). Some, such as Yulo and Roxas, captured their positions as members of the elite, as had Quezon and Osmeña, by becoming successful politicians, in nearly every case being selected and launched on their careers by Quezon himself.

At the top of this elite were those who were personally close to Quezon himself: Alejandro Roces, Vicente Singson Encarnacion, Ramon Fernandez, and Vicente Madrigal, along with such brilliant lieutenants as Speaker Jose Yulo or Manuel Roxas — so long as they seemed not to threaten Ouezon’s own eminence. Thus Quezon’s Commonwealth cabinet included such upward-mobiles who had flourished under the American regime’s dedication to recognizing talent and industry rather than wealth or social origins. Among them were Antonio de las Alas as Secretary of Public Works and Communications, Jose Yulo as Secretary of Justice, and Eulogio Rodriguez as Secretary of Agriculture and Commerce.

The Sphere of Human Rights

During the struggle for Philippine national independence, individual political rights were seldom the object of solicitude on the part of Philippine governmental representatives. The great bulk of the electorate blindly followed the nationalist leadership first of Osmeña and then of Quezon, and the relatively small, politically literate section of Philippine society as a rule suppressed any dissatisfaction with Ouezon’s authoritarian leadership for fear of weakening the national campaign for independence. Oppositionists such as Sumulong, Aguinaldo, Montinola, and Isabelo de los Reyes complained of Quezon’s steamroller tactics, but their own following was not sufficiently large to awaken much interest in the extent to which their rights to select candidates, to campaign or to protest were restricted.

In the economic field, Quezon aspired to see a more equitable division of the fruits of Philippine society. His emphasis on social justice witnessed to his support, in the abstract, for such a redistribution. Whether addressing disgruntled tenants in Pampanga or commenting on the protests of American businessmen at the prospects of an increased tax burden, Quezon spoke with great vehemence of his determination to force those of wealth to share more widely. Never interested in economic or administrative matters, however, Quezon’s expressed policies were blunted and ignored in their execution. In one instance – land reform – they were rejected outright. Quezon’s efforts in this field, we are made to understand from repeated references in ex-Governor General Harrison’s memoirs, were flatly rejected by his Filipino Cabinet and closest advisers. After several defeats, Quezon, in an obvious effort to save face, was even driven to characterizing as erroneous the policy he had been urging so unsuccessfully. On the other hand, he was clearly succesful in influencing urban employers to raise worker’s wages, and took steps to intervene in disputes in favor of the workers, threatening to take over recalcitrant businesses. As he accurately pointed out, taxes were lower in the Philippines than in any comparable country.

In the sphere of human dignity, Quezon himself was always ready to meet personally with workers or peasants — and irrespective of their numbers or threats. Provided they or their leaders did not dispute his leadership, worker’s delegations were welcome to the palace. Quezon, for all his regal airs, was accessible to and approachable by the ordinary man. Inevitably, however, his determination to assert the claims of national independence, combined with his own personal arrogance, led him to lay claim to Philippine excellence in all arenas. When McNutt criticized the Commonwealth government for its authoritarianism, Quezon declared that the Filipinos were getting the best government they’d ever had, and his tantrums, however repetitious, when his prerogatives as Commonwealth president were challenged, were effective in demonstrating Filipino assertiveness. Popular approval of these histrionics were yet another sign that the Filipinos took vicarious pleasure in their President’s display of temper and accepted his claims that he was defending national honor and dignity rather than merely exhibiting amor propio.

(1) Quezon dealt similarly with a still more famous oppositionist student of that day, Wenceslao Vinzons, Jr., of Camarines Norte, the leader of The Young Philippines, which publicly opposed Quezon and even had the audacity to support Aguinaldo and Aglipay in the 1935 election. As he would as with Marcos, Quezon tried to buy Vinzons off with a government job, but was refused. Vinzons, for whom future greatness was universally predicted, had a reputation for unexampled honesty and political independence. Tragically, he was executed by the Japanese during the occupation when he refused to collaborate. His corpse was consigned to an unmarked grave somewhere in Camarines Norte.

(2) Marcos has been identified as the murderer of Nalundasan by nearly all of his critics, but they cannot have read the trial evidence. Their belief is grounded on the compelling force of the political culture — a point which the author otherwise emphasizes. Marcos probably would have been liberated by Chief Justice Laurel for the reasons alleged (Laurel had been guilty of similar crime in his youth, etc.), but he had no need to justify a finding of innocence in the face of overwhelming legal evidence of a frameup.

(3) For Every Tear a Victory (New York, 1964)

Lewis E. Gleeck Jr.
Author: Lewis E. Gleeck Jr.
(1912-2005) Diplomat, scholar, curator of the American Historical Collection and editor of its Bulletin.

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