Why Isn’t Independence Day in August?

Why Isn’t Independence Day in August?

We’re legalistic and confuse heroism with sainthood.

( Chances are you only thought about National Heroes Day in terms of it making a long weekend possible. And now, you’re looking forward to another long weekend thanks to our Muslim brothers and sisters. That’s great. But before your long weekend hangover gives way to the next one, pause for a bit and look at this work of art.

The title of this horrifying picture is “Saturn Devouring His Son” (“Saturno devorando a uno de sus niños“) by Francisco Goya, painted 1819-1823. In the caption to this image from WikiArt, it says, “Between the years of 1819 and 1823, Goya painted a series of paintings on the walls of his villa at Quinto del Sordo, all of which portrayed terrible, fantastical, or morbid imagery. These paintings are now called the Black Paintings, referring to the mental state of Goya during this dark time in his life, due to his bout with illness, which made him deaf, as well internal strife in Spain. This painting was completed on the walls of his dining room, and is a rendition of Saturn, the Roman mythological character, who, fearing that his children would one day overthrow him, ate each one of them upon their births.”

This image brings to mind Pierre Vergniaud, who issued a warning to his fellow revolutionaries in France on March 16, 1793. “Citizens,” he said, “we now have cause to fear that the Revolution, like Saturn successively devouring his children, has finally given way to despotism and all the calamities that despotism implies.” On October 31 of that year, he was beheaded. Many more were to be guillotined before the reign of Terror in the French Revolution gave way to a dictatorship—Napoleon’s.

We are children of revolutions, which we consider romantic and glorious. After all, they are launched against tyranny; they are fought to achieve freedom. What we are less often taught, because it’s messy, is that revolutions have a price. As the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuskinski wrote two centuries later, this time describing the fall of the Shah of Iran, “Revolution must be distinguished from revolt, coup d’etat, palace takeover. A coup or a palace takeover may be planned, but a revolution—never. Its outbreak, the hour of that outbreak, takes everyone, even those who have been striving for it, unawares. They stand amazed at the spontaneity that appears suddenly and destroys everything in its path. It demolishes so ruthlessly that in the end, it may annihilate the ideals that called it into being.” After years of despotic rule, the Shah quickly fell, only to be replaced by a deeply conservative and repressive Islamic regime.

The French Revolution inspired our own revolution against Spain in 1896, just as the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and of the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti in early February 1986 was taken by Filipinos as a sign of things to come—correctly, as it turned out, as Ferdinand Marcos fled the Philippines two weeks later. In 1896 and 1986, revolutions led not just to disappointment, but to the defeat of many of those who had sacrificed most in the struggle. Many reasons are given for this except, perhaps the most obvious one: It’s in the nature of revolutions to eat their own children, as that French politician warned, just as it is in the nature of revolutions to destroy many of the principles that inspired them, as they proceeded to demolish the regime they hoped to replace, as the Polish journalist pointed out.

Now this isn’t about 1986, but rather, 1896. That’s because August marks the fateful days when the Katipunan, finding itself betrayed, decided to go ahead with the revolution against Spain, despite the misgivings of some of its own members, not to mention the earlier skepticism of those it had tried to attract to its side, such as Jose Rizal and Antonio Luna. Rizal, whose attitude towards revolution was complicated to say the least, ended up its first and most famous casualty: Bonifacio would point to Rizal’s death as one of the injustices that they were fighting to avenge. Luna would denounce the Katipunan, only to join the revolution when it was resumed, ending up one of its most uncompromising figures. You’ve seen the movie.

August 1896 may include National Heroes Day, but one has to ask, why doesn’t it include our independence day? After all, the revolution began in August 1896. What we now celebrate as independence day, June 12, took place in 1898 when the revolution resumed, having been fought to a standstill by the Spanish in 1897 and our leaders going into exile in Hong Kong that same year.

Formerly, we celebrated independence day on July 4, which is the day in 1946 when the independence lost to the Americans was finally recognized by the Americans and global community of nations—that is, until Diosdado Macapagal threw a tantrum with the Americans over payments to our veterans, and, already disliking July 4 because more people would go to U.S. Embassy parties than Philippine Embassy ones when he was a young diplomat, and also, seeing that young people were getting radicalized and that July 4 commemorating the success of our peaceful campaign to restore independence was less exciting than the good old days of the First Republic, he decided historians pushing for June 12 had a point and made it official.

So, to this day, there remain proponents of both dates. But surprisingly, relatively few, if any, who insist it should be in August.

Why should this be? There are two reasons, I think. The first is that as a people, we are legalistic. Or at least our leaders and some influential scholars are. On the other hand, we also tend to confuse heroism with sainthood, so it’s difficult to take any position about significant figures in our history without it getting bogged down into something that surely resembles the debates and hearings held by the Catholic Church when it deliberates on whether to proclaim someone a saint.

Here’s the legalistic point of view. Proponents of June 12 like it because it was a formal occasion. There was a proclamation of independence written in flowery language; there were officials waving from a window. There was a band, and it performed a national anthem. A national flag was presented to the people. A dictatorship was proclaimed, too. A lawyer’s, military officer’s, local official’s, and protocol minder’s delight. But again, it was not the start of our revolution, it was the resumption. Nor was it the height of achievement, if you want to measure these things according to documents and institutions. Apolinario Mabini, as nit-picky a lawyer as you would have ever hoped to meet, was in the audience and had a fit.

First of all, he said, in a Monty Pythonesque moment, a bunch of cronies standing by a window is no basis for a proclamation of independence. Who made you the determinants of our national destiny, anyway? Second of all, why did you proclaim a dictatorship and worse, one that was a protectorate of the United States when you didn’t have a shred of evidence the Americans would recognize whatever it is you just proclaimed here in Kawit? So changes had to be made, including not one, but two rounds of ratifications of the proclamation of independence, and the transformation of the dictatorship into a revolutionary government that sounded more serious than a scene out of an operetta. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1899 that we became what we now repeatedly take pride in pointing out to others: the first constitutional republic in Asia.

Here enters the question of sainthood. The father of the Revolution was Bonifacio. We consider our first president, officially, at least, to be Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo was able to obtain this title by means of a showdown over the leadership of the revolution in which Bonifacio not only lost, but ended up executed. Aguinaldo won, but his victory led to the defeat of the revolution that Bonifacio began. Not only had the Spanish sent reinforcements and waged a ruthless war, but the Katipuneros who found themselves the soldier of a revolution that was embarking on devouring its own children, were discouraged by what they saw going on. But Spain blundered into a war with the United States which set its eyes on the Philippines as a glittering prize, a base for cornering the China market, so it winked and nudged and flattered Aguinaldo into resuming the revolution armed with nothing but the frustrated dream of freedom of his countrymen and vague unofficial promises from the Americans.

Still, to be sure, when it resumed, the revolution succeeded—against Spain. This is what we commemorate on June 12, on Aguinaldo’s terms, as he made sure no one would forget by turning his own home into a gigantic shrine to his achievements—genuine, to be sure, but also pointedly in contrast to the first phase of the revolution, which was made possible by Bonifacio building Katipunan, inspiring it, and leading it, including the creation of a government which, however, had little to do with lawyers or mayors like Aguinaldo who would have wanted (and later made sure to have) something more formal, more official.

The problem is that Aguinaldo in turn got overtaken by events. The independence he proclaimed was then destroyed by the Americans. What followed was over 40 years of campaigning to get that independence back, which was finally achieved in 1946, half a century after the revolution first began in 1896. Only for us to discover independence isn’t an easy thing, and that where once we worried about foreign tyranny, around the corner would be a home-grown one, which would come to an end, relatively peacefully, in 1986—90 years after the revolution first began in 1896. Still, Aguinaldo outlived his contemporaries and made sure 1898 would live larger in the official imagination than 1896.

Here is where what seems to me a rather irrelevant argument over secular sainthood muddles the picture. Both Bonifacio and Aguinaldo were tough men. Both were ruthless in what each believed was the national cause. Revolutions require tough choices not for the faint of heart.

If you go to Don Bosco Mandaluyong, on the wall of what used to be a convento, there’s a historical marker saying that in one of the rooms of that building, the Katipunan was betrayed on August 19, 1896. You know the most famous version of the story (there are others) from your textbooks: a Katipunero, Teodoro Patiño, got into a fight with a fellow Katipunero, Apolonio de la Cruz, who was his supervisor in a newspaper. Patiño told his sister, who was a nun in Mandaluyong, about the secret society. She got upset, was noticed by her mother superior, who, upon hearing the nun’s secret, summoned Patiño and told him to spill the beans to an Agustinian friar who then raised the alarm with the authorities who mounted a raid on the newspaper. This led the Katipuneros to regroup in Caloocan to decide on when to begin the revolution.

Now there are accounts that claim Patiño was actually instructed to spill the beans, because Bonifacio felt the more cautious among his fellow Katipuneros had to be nudged in the direction of finally taking the plunge. You’ve also probably heard the view that the Katipunan framed wealthy and influential Filipinos who refused, or had misgivings, about either joining or supporting the revolution. Consider further that even prior to the revolution breaking out, organizing the Katipunan and keeping it secret required discipline and firmness, and you get the picture that leading a revolution isn’t for the faint of heart.

When the revolution, once it began, did better in Cavite than it did in the vicinity of Manila, and when the Katipunan broke into two factions in that province, the stage was set for what was essentially a coup d’etat against the existing Katipunan government. What we now know as the Tejeros Convention saw Bonifacio out-maneuvered at every turn by a simple stratagem. Deny your opponent, in this case, Bonifacio, his previous advantages, by insisting on new rules of the game you’ve already mastered. The proposal to succeed the Katipunan with a new government made the arena of decision a political campaign, and not a question of membership by those who’d been in the Katipunan since the start. Aguinaldo was a provincial mayor. He was used to elections. He knew how elections were won—and they aren’t won, for example, by applying to a barangay the rules that govern, say, the Free and Accepted Masons (on whose practices many of the Katipunan rules had been based). So the outcome was to be expected—as was the inability of victors in this country to shake hands with those they’ve defeated. Someone always has to kick a man in the face when he’s down, it happened in Tejeros, it’s kept happening ever since.

But such confrontations—ruthless, scheming, bloody—are par for the course in all revolutions, whether two centuries ago or in the previous century. Remember Vergniaud in 18th-Century France? How about Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, who systematically liquidated all moderate independence figures, until he was the last man standing? Again, it is in the nature of revolutions, which doesn’t prevent all the flawed participants to be recognized for the parts they played in what transpired. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

If this collision of these two perspectives, to my mind, is what’s made it impossible to achieve the consensus required to propose our independence day being in August, we have to add to these two opposing perspectives, a third factor: the inability of historians to achieve a consensus among themselves as to when certain events actually took place. If Bonifacio and Aguinaldo have their ferocious proponents, then actual dates can have equally ferocious proponents. When they’re professors or academic historians, then it can become a battle of definitions.

Today we commemorate the “Cry of Pugad Lawin,” but once upon a time, we used to commemorate the “Cry of Balintawak.” Today we commemorate August 23, but once upon a time we used to commemorate August 26. There’s a difference of perspective, among other things, that marks why some support one date and others prefer another. It involves the question of when we should consider the revolution to have begun. Was it the decision to revolt? The tearing of cedulas, important because it was the document used to signify you were liable to render free labor to the government? Or was when there was the first encounter with Spanish troops? For many Katipuneros, they commemorated August 26, the first battle. Starting in the 1960s this changed to August 23, the decision to revolt, proposed by historians although many Katipuneros remembered it happening on August 24.

Up to 1922, it seems surviving Katipuneros agreed on the “Cry of Balintawak,” and the date August 26. Starting in 1922, a group of Katipunan veterans insisted the “Cry of Pugad Lawin” was more precise. Since 1962, this has been official, dating the start of the Revolution to August 23, including the tearing of cedulas. But this is contested by other historians who point out it is based on memoirs of people who weren’t present at the time for the events they described. The problem with both sides is that they happened to be living the revolution when it took place, and not pausing to meticulously record what happened, and where, in a place that was basically woods and farmlands anyway. My favorite map of the stomping grounds of our revolutionaries during those tension-filled August days of decision, happens to come from a 1960s children’s book, Kangkong: 1896. I love it because it’s vague. You may have lived through amazing, historic, days, but then as now, how many of us could be precise about where things took place? “Sa may kwan, bandang ano, sa alam mo nang dating nandun…

So the battles that began in 1922 took place among increasingly elderly individuals with long memories for grievances but less than precise ones for places and even dates, and over time historians would pick and choose which faded memories to prefer over others. It is a fascinating story, one that historian Jim Richardson has tried to summarize online (with the able help of the younger generation of Filipino historians).

You should read what he, and many other gifted, passionate, historians have worked hard to resolve over time. Personally, I think it is only a matter of time before we reach the level of maturity, as a society, when we can be more judicious, and therefore fair, to all concerned: not least in recognizing what revolutions are and that complexity is more interesting than secular sainthood. But for now, the confrontations of the past continue to have echoes in the position papers and books of our historians. But this means, and explains, why we haven’t yet had that national light-bulb moment when we can all sit up and say, “Why, independence day should be in August!”

Think about that over the coming long weekend.


Some additional readings, if you’re up to it:

I’ve mentioned Jim Richardson, who has been writing amazing things about the Katipunan—and making them available online. Visit his website Katipunan: Documents and Studies. If you have some money for a book, get a copy of The Cry of Balintawak: A Contrived Controversy, by Soledad Borromeo-Buehler.

There’s other stuff you can access online, too. You can read about the Katipunan, Bonifacio, the Tejeros Convention, and the First Republic in Heroism, Heritage, and Nationhood. You can look at the ebb and flow of the first and second phases of the Revolution against Spain and the Philippine-American War, in The Historical Atlas of the Republic. Personally, if you only have time to read one book on the Philippine Revolution, then do read Apolinario Mabini’s La Revolucion Filipina, translated by the late Leon Ma. Guerrero.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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