It is said that “We, the People” means something different to the generation that risked life and limb to win the revolution, and that that meaning is diluted with each passing generation. For our country, by next week it will be 114 years since Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed a new republic and, since January of this year, 25 years from the adoption of the 1987 Constitution that codified the national consensus embodied in the first Edsa People Power revolution. By whichever starting block, that is enough time to dilute our sense of ownership of our founding symbols and covenants.
Contrast that, for instance, with American constitutional tradition. US historians remind us that in the early days of their republic, the common folk smugly assumed that they—not the Supreme Court—had the power to interpret their constitution. Those of the revolutionary generation put their lives and dreams on the line. (Aguinaldo was a bit more poetic, describing the Filipino fighters as he returned from Hong Kong exile in 1898: They “placed their lives in danger a thousand times.”) They were the authors of their constitution and were entitled to interpret it as well.
The Americans adopted their constitution in 1787, and it wasn’t until 1803 that their Supreme Court asserted its power of “judicial review” to strike down laws found repugnant to the constitution and began to entrench itself as the constitution’s chief expositor. It took barely 16 years to mark the shift from what is now called “popular constitutionalism” (that is, the constitution read according to a communal sense of justice) toward “counter-majoritarianism” (the constitution read by unelected judges and nonpolitical courts).
For our country, enough time has passed for “We, the sovereign Filipino People” to yield their interpretive power to the courts. But reclaim it we did in the impeachment trial just past, wherein the elected deputies in Congress in effect reasserted the sovereign prerogative to make their preferred meanings prevail over the Chief Justice’s, about the duty of disclosure and transparency in the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth and on whether nondisclosure alone, without proof of corruption or plunder, is impeachable. And the very next day, the Supreme Court itself echoed that popular judgment when it lifted its longstanding veil of secrecy over the justices’ SALNs, thus recognizing the primacy of the people’s over the court’s reading of the constitution.
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“In the town of Cavite-Viejo, Province of Cavite, this 12th day of June 1898 ….” Thus began the proclamation of our declaration of independence. Note the significant dates. On June 18, Aguinaldo established what he called the “dictatorial government with full authority, civil and military, in order to determine first the real needs of the country.” On June 20, he issued a decree to provide for local governments, including the election of the local councils, the organization of the police, courts, civil registry and tax collection.
On July 23, Aguinaldo replaced the dictatorial government with the revolutionary government. On Aug. 13, Spain surrendered Manila to the Americans—though the Filipino revolutionaries controlled the rest of the country and had in fact cut off all supplies to the old city—in the words of a US military report—“so completely that [its] inhabitants, as well as the Spanish troops, were forced to live on horse and buffalo meat, and the Chinese population on cats and dogs.” On Jan. 20, 1899, the Revolutionary Congress adopted the Malolos Constitution. In February 1899, the Philippine-American War erupted.
Reading the legal issuances of Aguinaldo, I am impressed at the care and attention that he gave to the legal structuring of a revolutionary triumph. Aguinaldo issued decrees to create a “Literary University of the Philippines” including a faculty of law (with a law syllabus attached, an impressive 6-year course modeled on those of traditional continental civil law countries); regulating the movement of foreigners; raising public funds through loans, bonds and tonnage dues on “merchant vessels sailing from Manila to ports under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Government”; organizing various departments, including our diplomatic service; organizing a Supreme Court and lower court; and issuing monetary currency.
That is all impressive, considering that they were still at war with Spain and wary of a rather suspicious ally. Still, the June 12 declaration expressly referred to this ally. The declaration was made “under the protection of [the] Powerful and Humanitarian Nation, The United States of America” and the red, white and blue in our flag “commemorat[es] the flag of the United States of America, as a manifestation of our profound gratitude towards this Great Nation for its disinterested protection which it lent us and continues lending us.”
The Filipinos who will celebrate Independence Day next week are a century removed from the blood and gore by which we purchased the right in 1898 to call ourselves a nation equal to any another in the world. They are a quarter century removed from the less bloody but still dramatic upheaval of Edsa I in 1986 by which we reclaimed our pride as a nation. Perhaps the emblems of nationhood have been reduced to empty rituals for the current generation of Filipinos.
Scholars say the nation is but an “imagined community,” a sense of oneness deliberately conjured and willed into being. We need to sustain that noble imagining by seizing historical moments like the impeachment trial and the Scarborough showdown with China. We must marshal these concrete and constructive issues to give form and substance to the ineffable yearnings of nationhood.