The Explainer: Mabini, pragmatic idealist

You’ve seen this clip before. In “Schindler’s List,” the victors claim they will be the only ones to write history; that when history represents an inconvenient truth, the answer, for those who have force of arms, is to erase it.

But as it was for the Nazis, so has it been for all who’d impose their views by force of arms.

Tonight we’ll take a look at a man who left his direct testimony concerning our birth as a nation. Apolinario Mabini and his La Revolucion Filipina, his testimony to prevent our past ever being reduced to mere rumor, is part I of our two part Independence Day special.


I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Brains versus Brawn


If you only have time, or the energy, to read one book on the Philippine Revolution, let it be this one. Apolinario Mabini’s The Philippine Revolution. The version I have here happens to be a delightful translation into English by the great journalist and diplomat Leon Ma. Guerrero.

Mabini , born on July 23, 1864, was a product of his age. Heir to the laws of Rome, and the Classical culture of Europe.

And heir to the Enlightenment that gave birth to the French –

and American Revolutions,

Heir, as well,  to the anticlerical attitudes of those revolutions.

He was, and is, also a bridge: a bridge between the Propaganda Movement and the Revolution that followed; and between our Revolution against Spain and the Filipino-American War; and finally, a bridge between the era of the defeat of our First Republic, and the peaceful campaign for independence that finally secured our independence in 1946.

Mabini was like Rizal: he had misgivings about the Katipunan, because it had failed to attract a significant portion of the educated and wealthy. But like Rizal, his preference for evolution instead of revolution, for reforms and not revolt, wouldn’t have saved him from the self-defeating stupidity of the Spanish authorities. What saved him, according to his own account, was that he fell victim to paralysis –Polio?- six months before the Revolution began.

His lawyer’s bias for the rule of law and for stability, gave way to his recognizing that the misgivings he used to have, could no longer apply after Spain suppressed the first phase of the revolution but failed to institute reforms even when Aguinaldo went into exile in Hong Kong in 1897. Two months before the revolution against Spain resumed in May of 1898, Mabini was already drafting plans for restarting it; and again, by his own account, apparently a copy of these plans reached Emilio Aguinaldo, who called him to meet him in Kawit, Cavite.

Mabini arrived in Kawit on June 12, 1898 and witnessed this latest proclamation of our independence –I say latest, because it had been proclaimed in August 1896 by Bonifacio and again and again thereafter- and the simultaneous recognition of Aguinaldo as “our egregious dictator” as our Independence Proclamation so unctuously put it.

Mabini says that he found this proclamation defective:

[The] proclamation of independence which was being made that day was premature and imprudent because the Americans were concealing their true designs while we were making ours manifest… However, unable to prevent the proclamation because I had arrived too late to do so, I kept my peace and set myself to studying in detail the measures most urgently called for in the existing situation.

His solution was as follows. The towns and provinces, he proposed, should be reorganized, and elect some sort of leadership. These leaders would also be asked to pick two prominent residents from every province to join Aguinaldo and serve as a kind of advisory council –a Congress, as it turned out. This would reassure people that Aguinaldo’s dictatorship was going to be a home-grown tyranny; and together with another Mabini proposal, for government departments to be set up, everyone could look forward to a real and functioning bureaucracy being put in place.

All this was done; on June 23, 1898 Aguinaldo issued a decree transforming his dictatorship into a revolutionary government. And then Mabini worked out a way for the provincial representatives to ratify the proclamation of independence made in Kawit, which they did on August 1, 1898 in Bacoor –without the bootlicking terminology or declaration that we were an American protectorate.

But then Mabini got into a fight with the delegates, by now gathered at Malolos, because they wanted to draft a constitution. Mabini objected because, he pointed out, the Malolos Congress wasn’t a constitutional convention; it wasn’t even a legislature in the proper sense of the word, but only an advisory body; and that, being in the middle of war, it’s business should be war policies and not constitutional theories. Let other nations recognize our independence first, he argued; when the world accepted our independence, only then should we fuss around with drafting our basic law.

He was attacked for opposing the Malolos Congress adopting a constitution. The man who’d advised Aguinaldo to gather provincial representatives to advise him, and by so doing, dispel fears Aguinaldo might be a tyrant, was now condemned by those advisers as an advocate of dictatorship: a proponent of tyranny! Yet Mabini was only being consistent: he’d opposed proclaiming independence in the first place, because it tipped our hand to the Americans; he opposed a constitution because as a lawyer, he knew its provisions would tie the hand of Filipinos while naturally being an irrelevant document to the Americans; a cripple himself, he knew it would cripple the Filipino cause at a time when he believed we should be using every means to negotiate the peaceful recognition of our independence by the United States. If this were at all possible.

Otherwise, we should fight. But do you see how subtle his mind was, how disciplined, how sharp?

On January 2, 1899, the Malolos Congress approved a constitution but Mabini still tried to delay its promulgation. In the meantime, he accepted, once again, and permanently this time, the portfolio of Secretary of Foreign Affairs. On December 10, 1898, Spain ceded its sovereignty over the Philippines to America for $20,000 but the treaty required ratification by the US Senate.  Mabini says the administration of William McKinley pulled a coup –it started the Filipino-American War on February 4, 1899. In a “you’re either with us or against us” atmosphere, the US Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris on March 2, 1899; by May 1, 1899, a year to the day after Commodore George Dewey had destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, America paid Spain.

But one fight remained to be fought in America. It boiled down, as Mabini explained it, to two competing proposals.

  1. The Republican, or administration proposal: “that the United States declare it did not intend to annex the islands permanently, but rather to prepare the inhabitants for an autonomous government which would promote American and Filipino interests.”
  2. The Democrat, or opposition, counter-proposal: for “the United States to declare that it renounce all purpose of exercising sovereignty, jurisdictions and control over the islands since its intention was to hand over their government and administration to the Filipinos when the latter should have established a stable government worthy of recognition.”

The vote in the US Senate? 29 to 29 and the tie-breaker being the US Vice-President as President of the Senate, the Republicans won.

There seems a minor difference between the two resolutions, to us, but Mabini, as he later explained it, recognized there was a fundamental difference between the two views. I’d like to ask you to read his explanation:

Under this proposal the Philippines can be neither a territory nor a state because it should not be permanently annexed to the United States, but [instead], as property bought by the United States, the latter can dispose of the Philippines at its discretion, that is to say, without the limitations of its Constitution. If the United States is the absolute owner of the islands, Congress has absolute power to legislate on them, and hence can fix at it’s discretion the political status and civil rights of the inhabitants. If the latter enjoy life and liberty, it is not because they have an inborn right to them, by virtue of natural law, but because the United States Congress so wishes.

This great fear –that we would be reduced to the status of cattle, or that of the slaves in America prior to their Civil War- was what pushed him to oppose things like proclamations of independence or constitutions, when we should be gathering our strength and focusing on the issue at hand.

When we return, the price of focusing on first things first.


II. Unyielding on basic rights


That scene from “The Lion in Winter” demonstrates the dilemma of the prisoner. Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife and prisoner of Henry II, is offered liberty in exchange for her properties… 

Mabini’s focus on first things first, gained him the reputation then up to now, as a kind of lover of strongman rule. In  “A Changeless Land: Continuity And Change in Philippine Politics” David G. Timberman expresses the usual view:

But there is also a strong strain of authoritarianism that runs through modern Philippine history. Two leaders of the rebellion against Spain -Apolinario Mabini and Emilio Aguinaldo- advocated authoritarian rule. Later Commonwealth president Manuel Quezon advocated ‘one party democracy’ and Jose Laurel, the president of the Philippines during the Japanese occupation, looked to Japanese-style Fascism as the solution to the Philippines’ underdevelopment. Even Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino, the leading opponent to Marcos’s authoritarianism, is said to have believed that the successor to Marcos would need dictatorial powers to rebuild the country.

But what did Mabini really have in mind, as far as the future government of our independent country should be? Mabini’s biographer, the late Cesar Adib Majul, quotes an extract from “La Trinidad Politica,”, where Mabini boils it all down:

Society should have a soul: authority. This authority needs an intellect to guide and direct it: the legislative power. It also needs a will that is active and will make it work: the executive. It needs, too, a conscience that judges and punishes those who are bad: the judicial power. These powers should be independent of one another, in the sense that one should not encroach on the functions of the other; but the last two should be subordinated to the first, in the same manner that both will and conscience are subordinate to the intellect.

Though he also pointed out that the legislature, too, had a check and balance imposed on it, which was public opinion formed through observing the legislature operate in open session.

And here is what set Mabini apart from his fellow lawyers and other educated men, in their attitudes towards our country and its people. Mabini insisted on the people having a say, regardless of whether they were educated or not. His contemporaries, many of them as it turned out, enemies, only permitted public participation if it was done by people like themselves.

Mabini observed early on how something that was legal, wasn’t necessarily something that was right. He recounted how, in 1880, the Spanish required landowners to register their lands to acquire a new kind of title. This was a cumbersome and expensive process and there were those who simply took over the lands of other people because they could afford the attorneys to manufacture the required paperwork. Then another law, on mortgages, was passed and it enabled these unscrupulous people to strengthen their titles. The result was that people who formerly owned lands now found themselves tenants required to pay rent to the usurpers of their lands.

This example alone, give us an idea of how both wealthy and poor Filipinos could come to the same conclusion –that the Spaniards and their government had to go. But it also goes a long way to explain why Mabini kept having collisions with the prominent provincial leader’s he’d advised Aguinaldo to summon to his side.

Here is a very, very sad, but dignified official letter Mabini signed on April 29, 1899, as Prime Minister of the Republic. It was addressed to the Jacob Gould Schurman, heading a commission sent by the U.S. President to figure out what to do with our hapless country.

Honorable Sir, the letter began,

The Filipino people feel weak before the onslaught of the American troops, whose valor they admire; and in view of the superiority of the American forces in organization, discipline, war materials and other resources, the former do not consider it a humiliation to solicit peace, invoking the generous feelings of the Government of the North American people…

But the Philippine Government, fully convinced that it did not provoke the war and that it had only taken the use of arms in defense of its native soil, asks for a suspension of the hostilities and a general armistice in the whole Archipelago for the short period of three months, in order to sound the opinion of the people concerning the most advantageous form of government for them, the proposal that shall be offered to the North American Government, and the appointment of a commission with full powers to act in the name of the Filipino people.

Teodoro M. Kalaw, in a footnote to this letter, tells us that the American commander, General Otis, said the Filipinos had no choice but to surrender unconditionally. On May 8, Mabini signed a letter to Aguinaldo accepting his dismissal as Prime Minister and the appointment of this man,


Pedro Paterno, as the second prime minister of our short-lived Malolos Republic. Paterno and his colleagues felt that defeat was so inevitable that it justified accepting any terms, including accepting American sovereignty. Mabini had always stood for a negotiated peace, and insisted that some way be found, for the country’s representatives to consult their constitutents on so momentous a matter.

OuOut of power, he was denied the dignity of being named Chief Justice on the shallow basis of his being unable to walk.

On December 10, 1899, the Americans captured Mabini. He was offered his freedom if he swore allegiance to America. He refused. He also continued to criticize representatives of the Republic, negotiating a peace with America. His basic disagreement with them was that they were offering to accept American sovereignty, without demanding a recognition, by the Americans, of our basic human rights.

Get those rights recognized, Mabini argued, and Filipinos would have a solid basis for recovering independence. But to accept the American flag with no corresponding guarantees for the people, was pure and simple cowardly surrender.

In October 1900, his liberty was temporarily restored; then taken away again; on January 15, 1901, the Americans sent him where the Spaniards had sent troublesome Filipinos: to Guam.  He arrived there on February 12, 1901. He wouldn’t return home until February 26, 1903, by which time the First Republic had been utterly destroyed.

Like Aguinaldo, who did so on April 1, 1901, Mabini in 1903 finally took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. A general named San Miguel secretly asked his advice on what to do, whether he and his men should continue fighting.

Mabini’s response is why he serves a bridge between our era of revolution, and the era of the peaceful campaign for independence that bore fruit on July 4, 1946. This is what Mabini wrote to General San Miguel.

It seems to me that at the present time we should endeavor to secure independence through the path of peace. Let us cease [fighting] that the people may rest, that it mayu work to recover from its recent proprietary losses. Let us conform to the opinion of the majority… This is, I believe, the surest and most fit way method in dealing with the welfare of all.

In the end, Mabini’s verdict was clear: the Philippine Revolution, which began in 1896 with Bonifacio, was defeated and went into hibernation after the Pact of Biak na Bato in 1897, which resumed in May, 1898, and then exchanged fighting Spain for fighting America in February, 1899, was a failure. No ifs and buts about it, and not because of the Americans but because of ourselves.

In Guerrero’s translation, Mabini’s words read like tragic poetry:

To sum it up, the Revolution failed because it was badly led; because its leader won his post by reprehensible rather than meritorious acts; because instead of supporting the men most useful to the people, he made them useless out of jealousy. Identifying the aggrandizement of the people with his own, he judged the worth of men not by their ability, character and patriotism but rather by their degree of friendship and kinship with him; and anxious to secure the readiness of his favorites to sacrifice themselves for him, he was tolerant even of their transgressions. Because he thus neglected the people forsook him; and forsaken by the people, he was bound to fall like a waxen idol melting in the heat of adversity. God grant we do not forget such a terrible lesson, learnt at the cost of untold suffering.

That leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, will be the man we will meet next week.

Mabini died of the Cholera on May 13, 1903. He was 39 years old.

As for Mabini’s writings, the National Historical Institute has many publications that are relatively inexpensive. His collected letter or articles, for example.

If you don’t want to spend at all, Guerrero’s translation of La Revolucion Filipina is available online, in full, in English,

And in Filipino:

If you’re scholarly inclined, the definitive work, to date, dates back to the 1960s: Cesar Adib Majul’s “Mabini and the Philippine Revolution,” most recently republished by the U.P. Press.

Now if you’d like to do some further readings, the book that ties everything together is this one: Abinales and Amoroso’s “State and Society in the Philippines,” the first fresh look at our origins as a state in a generation.


My View


Saint Jerome famously observed that the love of money is the root of all evil. And so, our President and our Congress have sacrificed our independence day to domestic tourism –which has the collateral advantage of making us forget, as we go on an extended weekend holiday, the inconvenient truth that our founding generation of patriots would find much in what we see around us today, a disgrace.

If you can think of any other country in the world that views its national day as economically expendable, like we do, I’d like to know.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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