The Explainer: The Many Faces of Aguinaldo

In 1933, American Senator Hawes came to see if Filipinos really wanted independence. No visit would have been complete for any American VIP with a courtesy call on their vanquished foe, Emilio Aguinaldo.

A British historian once called Aguinaldo “the Filipino Garibaldi,” referring to the fiery leader of the forces that united Italy under the Kingdom of Savoy. That he was. He was also a man of many currents: the self-sacrifice, bravery and patriotism of the revolutionary swirled and mixed with the calculations and vanity, not to mention the ambition, of the provincial politician. He was both noble and petty; idealistic and pragmatic; humble and vain: characteristics that make his achievements all the more impressive, admirable, and controversial.

Tonight, the many faces of Aguinaldo. I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Divide and conquer


Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy –not “Emilio F. Aguinaldo” if you please, the kind of posthumous renaming only stupid pencil-pushing types have the egotism to inflict on the dead- was in many ways, one of the most divisive figures in our history.

Of all the controversies and divisions he caused during his extremely long life, it’s the circumstances surrounding Andres Bonifacio’s death that have resulted in a harsh judgement being passed on Emilio Aguinaldo. The Supremo’s trial and execution marks the lowest point of Aguinaldo’s life in the eyes of many people.

Mabini set the tone when he wrote,

Andres Bonifacio had no less schooling than any of those elected in the aforesaid [Tejeros] assembly, and he had shown an uncommon sagacity in organizing the Katipunan. All the electors were friends of Don Emilio Aguinaldo and Don Mariano Trias, who were united, while Bonifacio, although he had established his integrity, was looked upon with distrust only because he was  not a native of the province: this explains his resentment. However, he did not show it by any act of turbulent defiance, for, seeing that no one was working for reconciliation, he was content with quitting the province for San Mateo in the company of his brothers. When it is considered that Mr. Aguinaldo was primarily answerable for insubordination against the head of the Katipunan of which he was a member; when it is appreciated that reconciliation was the only solution proper in the critical state of the Revolution; the motive for the assassination cannot be ascribed except to feelings and judgments which deeply dishonor the former; in any case, such a crime was the first victory of personal ambition over true patriotism.

-Apolinario Mabini

The Philippine Revolution

But then there’s a contrary view to Mabini’s, too.

Revolutions, some argue, cannot tolerate divided leadership. All great political movements must be led by one person, or at least a united directorate. In a revolution, when the leadership -old or newly assumed- is challenged, the challenger must be dealt with.

Along these lines, the peerless historian, thinker, and National Scientist Onofre Corpuz views the events of Tejeros in a more pragmatic light. To him, Tejeros was the culmination of a bitter fight between two Caviteño factions within the Katipunan.

He says that when the Magdalo faction identified with Aguinaldo elevated itself to the status of a provincial council, there was already a provincial council, established under the Magdiwang faction.

As Corpuz puts it, “The setting up by the Magdalo of a second provincial council, apparently without official Katipunan sanction and when there was already a sanctioned council, was something of an anomaly.”

To make things worse, on August 31, 1896, the Magdiwiang proclaimed itself a revolutionary government -and the Magdalo proclaimed itself a government, too.

Things went from anomalous and confused to worse. The great-grandfathers of today’s white papers began to circulate, aimed at the Supremo, Bonifacio, who had arrived in Cavite and promptly taken the side of the Magdiwang and aimed at Aguinaldo, too. The ancestors of today’s psychological warfare practitioners went to work, spreading malicious gossip.

An attempt to sort things out on December 26, 1896 ended in an impasse.

The Magdiwang considered that unity must lie in accepting the Katipunan constitution as the charter of the new government. The Magdalo insisted the Katipunan was a secret society whose reason for being, that is, to plot and prepare for a general revolt, had been superseded by the outbreak of the revolution itself.

The talks bore no fruit; the slander on both sides continued; at one point Bonifacio, who had a love for guns attested by the list of firearms confiscated from him when he was later arrested, nearly shot Mariano Trias.

Then the Spaniards began a military offensive that sent the revolutionaries into retreat. It was during this period of military reversals that the Tejeros convention took place.

Bonifacio was there; Aguinaldo, conducting operations at the front, was not.

The Convention was conducted in a style that should be familiar to us today: acrimonious and full of rhetoric and more. A professor of mine once told her class that there were more ballots cast at the Tejeros convention than there were people to cast them.

After restating the Katipunan position that the secret society was the legitimate revolutionary government and its constitution the real charter of the country, Bonifacio still ended up acceding to the creation of a new government.

The rest is well-known: Aguinaldo was elected President, Mariano Trias vice-president, Artemio Ricarte became Captain-General; then Bonifacio lost his temper when his election as Director of the Interior was contested (“in violation of the rules,” says Corpuz). He declared the elections null and void, nearly shot the man who contested his election, and stalked out.

Corpuz maintains that Tejeros marked an inevitable watershed in all Revolutions:

[W]hen there has to be a contest for leadership -not for military preeminence… but for primacy in the politics of the revolution, [then] strength, shrewdness, and one’s stars must settle the conflicting claims.

-Onofre Corpuz

Roots of the Filipino Nation

Of Tejeros itself, the lesson may be a simple one, captured in a parenthetical remark by Corpuz:

[I]t is still a truism in modern-day Philippine politics that no President of the Republic gains anything by interfering in contests between provincial political ”chieftains”. Nothing romantic in that; but then the legacies of great events are often found in the mundane and in the pragmatic considerations of leadership.

-Onofre Corpuz

Roots of the Filipino Nation

For this reason, other historians will tell you that the Tejeros convention was the first victory of local prejudices against the national interest; that the Caviteños weren’t beyond using intimidation and ungentlemanly conduct in order to ensure the rise to the supreme leadership of their favorite son, Emilio Aguinaldo.

Others still will tell you that this is what the high-handed and Manileño Supremo, Bonifacio, got for thinking himself superior to the provincials.

Others point out that the whole thing was an intra-tribal fight, with Bonifacio criticized for calling himself King of the Tagalogs and Aguinaldo, after the final split at Tejeros, calling the new government the Pamahalaan ng Sangkatalugan in April, 1896.

What was all this but a fight among Tagalogs who had the gumption to consider the nascent Filipino nation and their tribe as one! An argument, naturally, heatedly countered on the grounds that Bonifacio et al. Viewed “Tagalog” from the perspective of its etymology, “Taga-ilog,” which would satisfactorily describe the majority of lowland Filipinos, and which was preferable to “Filipino,” which, after all, at the time still meant a Spaniard born in the Philippines.

Anyway, after the Tejeros showdown, events moved swiftly. In a few days Aguinaldo was sworn in, the Pamahalaan ng Sangkatalugan was proclaimed. The new regime was swift in bureaucratizing matters. Magdiwang and Magdalo alike were obligated to show licenses for  the carrying of arms. By May 10, 1897, Bonifacio was dead: ordered arrested, tried, and executed.

Aguinaldo’s embryo government didn’t last much longer. Some disillusioned Katipuneros abandoned the fight. Other leaders found themselves sidelined and even persecuted. Aguinaldo settled for a negotiated peace at Biak-na-Bato. He and his fellow leaders would go into exile; the Spaniards promised reforms –the kind Rizal had sought.

Aguinaldo and friends called themselves the Hong Kong Junta. Having gone abroad, Emilio Aguinaldo received word that the revolutionaries left behind had started to divide the last two installments of Spanish reparations among themselves: Isabelo Artacho, Artemio Ricarte, Paciano Rizal and others passing a resolution to the effect that the Filipinos left behind should have the money. The revolutionary leaders at home promptly received a check for 200,000 pesos (representing installment number two) from the Spanish Governor-General and divvied it amongst themselves; Aguinaldo promptly convinced the Junta in Hong Kong to nullify the Pact on account of the terms being violated (the money was supposed to go abroad); and Aguinaldo was given the authority to be the custodian of the funds in hand in Hong Kong.

The poor ex-President and his supporters, living under the most edifying circumstances (they were poor and parsimonious with what money they had) were then systematically harrassed by Isabelo Artacho, former Secretary of the Interior of the Biak-na-Bato Republic, beneficiary of the division of the spoils, but who remained unsatisfied because his request for a “reimbursement” of expenses amounting to 508.75 pesos had been denied by Aguinaldo in reaction to the hijacking of the funds meant to go to the Junta. Artacho went to Hong Kong and started an acrimonious process of litigation to strip Aguinaldo of the money he was holding in trust for the resumption of the Revolution. After making a complete pest of himself, and after assailing the integrity of Aguinaldo, Artacho finally agreed to a settlement amounting to 5,000 pesos.

These were the cases of Aguinaldo the divider; but there’s another Aguinaldo –the unifier, and, the man capable of reconciliation. More on these more admirable faces of the man, when we return.


II. El Camino Real


Sadly, we can’t hear his voice; but we can relive, for a moment, the prestige and prominence Aguinaldo enjoyed as he surveyed his veterans from his house.

At the height of his glory, when Emilio Aguinaldo entered the Barasoian Church to inaugurate the new Congress, he bore “an ivory stick with a gold head and gold cord and tassels”. This little detail serves a reminder that the General-President was not just anybody but a member of the principalia, a scion of the class that retained its preeminence in indio  society through cooperation with the Spanish.

And while the ilustrados, the learned and the wealthy who achieved distinction in the aftermath of the opening of the Suez Canal, may have held that class in low regard (as shown by Rizal’s satirical portrayal of the members of that class in his novels), the principalia considered themselves the natural leaders of their countrymen.

Aguinaldo was a local official in the colonial set-up even as he prepared to support the conspiracy plotting to mount a revolution. He was capitan municipal of Cavite el Viejo (today’s Kawit), a position that helped his efforts to recruit support for the Katipunan. He was the sort of personage that the Katipunan wanted more of to fill their ranks; it is to Aguinaldo’s credit that he believed in the revolution long before many others of his class –and many who belonged to the ranks of the ilustrados who considered the principalia strictly small-time because they were small-town people- were convinced of the need to fight for independence.

And it is Aguinaldo’s very heritage that, perhaps, made his ascendance in the revolution inevitable after the fighting began. He had executive experience; he was familiar with the bureaucratic rigmarole that is the foundation of organized governance.

When the revolution began, one of his first acts was to send out a circular to his fellow capitans urging them to support the revolt. Even as Bonifacio the charismatic Supremo grappled with the problems of sustaining his leadership and faced military reversals, Aguinaldo and his relatives –all “to the manor born,” so to speak- were churning out official directives on everything from the proper distribution of food and bullets to regulations and decisions concerning cattle rustling. In the end, charisma and eloquence would succumb to the mastery of the minutiae of governance.

He was also a politician in the modern sense of the word. Not that he was the most accomplished practitioner of the craft of politicking; faced with problems, he would swing from being humble -offering at one point to resign the presidency on Christmas Day, 1898- to a ruthless exasperation with his critics that has been compared to Marcos by at least one American historian at least, who says we have as one of the “latent” alternatives in our history “militaristic dictatorship, whether Aguinaldo-clumsy or Marcos-adroit”.

And like all politicians, he knew leadership is established through divisions, but only maintained by means of fostering unity.

His genuine attempts to foster unity, even in the face of disagreements and personal antipathies, is a more valuable heritage than the stories of division and fraternal strife that are more famous.

Let me give you two examples, one from when he was in power, one from when he was no longer president.

On November 17, 1898, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Region of the Visayas was proclaimed. This superseded a revolutionary commitee set up in the town of Molo in August of that year. The Ilonggos had run out ofpatience with the Revolutionary government because it was slow in responding to their requests for assistance, which dated back to May of 1898.

During the meeting that established the new provisional government, a manifesto was drafted “affectionately” greeting “the Sovereign People of Visayas… under the shadow of the tri-colored flag and upon the basis of the Constitution of the Filipino Republic.”

By December the Visayan government proposed to Malolos that the Philippines be federalized, although with “the political administration and the army centralized in the Government of Luzon”: in this way, the Visayan  Secretary of War Julio Hernandez’s letter to Aguinaldo pointed out, “can our ensign be a graphic representation to the organization of the Archipelago.” This was December 4, 1898. By December 12, the provisional government was transformed into a Federal Council. Yes, Virginia, dreams of federalism are older than Nene Pimentel.

There was the thorny problem that the Malolos Constitution did not set up a Federal Sytem, and yet the Visayans in Iloilo had declared their government Federal, which was envisioned as covering Iloilo, Cebu, Capiz, Antique, Negros Occidental and Oriental, and the “district of Concepcion”. Negotiations were undertaken, with emissaries shuttling back and forth, and armed expeditions being sent out from Malolos to beef up the forces in the Visayas. Disagreements occurred; the Tagalog soldiers would eventually be accused of abuses and looting, again shades of things to come, whenever government troops are sent to the provinces from the capital.

And yet, when General Otis asked the Federal Council of the Visayas to submit to American authority, the President of the Council, Roque Lopez, replied,

Let the American commander sincerely tell us which authority we should prefer: That of the United States.. or the legitimate authority of the revolutionary government of Malolos, based upon acts of conquests… and on natural bonds created by a policy and the constitution established since the first moment of the revolution…?

This was the Aguinaldo of renewed prestige, and patience, who knew that politics is addition.

Now on to the second example, a very personal one to me.

We know Aguinaldo’s capture by the Americans did not write finis to his career. At first a respected and remote figure in quiet retirement, he became controversial again when he made unsuccessful forays into national politics in the 1920s and 1930s.

First, he started taking political sides, triggered by his empathy for that stern disciplinarian and fellow warrior Leonard Wood. Aguinaldo expressed support for Wood, against the Senate President out to detroy him, Quezon. Since the friend of my enemy is my enemy, this made Aguinaldo Quezon’s enemy.

This enmity between the two men lasted over a decade. Quezon who had been, for a brief time, one of Aguinaldo’s aides-de-camp, was expelled by Aguinaldo  from the veterans of the Revolution, sarcastically remarking he’d never been a member, anyway. Quezon then said that if Aguinaldo was going to be a politician, he should be deprived of his government pension.

The first national presidential election in 1935 also nearly led to a revolt by Aguinaldo’s partisans who were disgusted by their General’s defeat. Governor-General Frank Murphy had to intervene to calm the situation.

J. Ralston Hayden, former American colonial official in his book recounted that he believed Aguinaldo’s giving up the security –financially and politically- that he enjoyed for the first few decades of American rule for the viciousness of the new politics of the 20s and 30s may have been a case of succumbing to flattery. During a visit to Malacañan, someone is said to have whispered that it would be nice if the General, once held prisoner there, would someday occupy the palace as president. Aguinaldo supposedly was entranced by the idea.

The enmity between Quezon and Aguinaldo might have been permanent if not for a common friend, the Pangasinense political patriarch Daniel Maramba. In 1940 he invited both men to his birthday and when they both turned up, not knowing the other would be there, Maramba set them at ease by expressing that his dying wish was that his two good friends should reconcile.

The two were left alone to talk; after a while, they shook hands.

On June 12, 1941, Quezon moved flag day, then celebrated in October, to June 12, and for the first time since 1901, the government commemorated June 12 and the two leaders appeared in public, together.

Even during World War II, with one president, Quezon, in exile and the former president, Aguinaldo, having broadcast an appeal to troops at Bataan and Corregidor to surrender, Quezon refused to condemn Aguinaldo even when the Americans asked him to. In 1945, Aguinaldo was briefly imprisoned by the Americans, again, but his having marched in the inauguration of Laurel in 1943 doesn’t seem to have been taken against by the people.

No longer a political partisan, Aguinaldo began his political rehabilitiation. President Quirino appointed him to the Council of State and Congress restored his pension. By the adminisration of Macapagal, he found himself having lived to enjoy the restoration of independence day to June 12. He donated his house to the nation; and by the Marcos administration, his image was on our banknotes.

When we return, we’ll ask a historian a question we often overlook: just how good a general was Aguinaldo?


My view


It may be that Aguinaldo’s being a small-town politician, which guaranteed his dominance over the Katipunero ideologues from Manila, contributed to his failure in national politics afterwards. Or, as the conventional explanation goes, he was simply overtaken with developments and the rise of a younger generation.

In 1996, Ruby Paredes delivered a thought-provoking lecture on the response of Manila residents to the Revolution: how long did they stay in the Revolution? Did they stay in Spanish-controlled Manila or join the fight? Did the death of Bonifacio alienate Manilans? she pointed out the strong sense of identity possessed by Manilans . She argued that the failure of Aguinaldo’s forces to seize Manila between mid-June to mid-July 1898 may have led to the swiftness with which (particularly prominent) Manilans accepted American rule. After all, 80,000 Spaniards were crowded into a  city built to hold 10,000, and yet Aguinaldo refused to mount an effective siege. She read an account of how, the day before the Malolos Congress was inaugurated, 4,000 Filipino troops marched out  of Manila, and asked, wouldn’t the Manilans at Malolos the next day have viewed the vivas  with hollow feelings?

And it’s with similar hollow feelings that we often view, the founding events of our nationhood.

But the greatest illumination comes from two works of historical fiction, the PETA Musical “1896”, and Nick Joaquin’s splendid play, “El Camino Real” (1989) which incidentally predated Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, “The General In His Labyrinth,” by over a decade.

If you ever have the chance, see the musical, and read or attend the play. They will tell you more than any history book.





Manuel L. Quezon III.

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