When General Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed Philippine independence from Spain on June 12, 1898, he had only the vaguest idea of how to proceed to establish a self-governing nation. The act was mainly the initiative of the military chiefs of the revolution. Missing was the civilian component. It fell on Apolinario Mabini to work out what a people must do next after proclaiming their emancipation from colonial rule.
Oddly enough, Aguinaldo and Mabini met for the first time on the day of the proclamation itself. While still in exile in Hong Kong, Aguinaldo had heard of this bright lawyer who seemed to be familiar not just with the theory and justification of anticolonial revolutions, but also with the establishment of a new government in the wake of a revolution. Summoned to Cavite, the paralytic Mabini arrived in Kawit on a hammock on June 12, totally clueless that independence was to be proclaimed that same day.
He thought that the declaration was “premature and imprudent.” In his brilliant book, “Mabini and the Philippine Revolution,” Cesar Adib Majul wrote that Mabini came to this conclusion after asking Aguinaldo for documents containing the supposed understandings between him and the American consuls in Singapore. Aguinaldo could not show him anything because there was none. From this, Mabini inferred that it was just a matter of time before the war with the Americans would break out.
A strategic thinker with a sharp sense of anticipation, Mabini thought that a public declaration of independence would make the Americans even more wary of helping the Filipino revolutionaries purchase arms for the war against Spain. He was right. But, as importantly, Mabini also thought that a proclamation of independence that did not actively involve the civilian community would have no popular basis, and therefore would be lacking in legitimacy.
Working alongside Aguinaldo from the first day they met, Mabini set out to make the best of a situation that could not be reversed. This meant, first of all, laying down the legal foundations for the new government. While the June 12 proclamation had given Aguinaldo dictatorial powers, it was the series of decrees Mabini drafted and which were promulgated on June 18, 20, and 23 that gave the revolution its shape and direction.
Majul wrote: “The Decree of June 18, 1898 established the Dictatorship. Since the Dictatorship was replaced by the Revolutionary Government within less than a week, its importance lies in its serving as the basis for the establishment of municipal and provincial governments, and also for the formation of the Revolutionary Congress. Together with the Decree of June 20, 1898, it served as the electoral law of the Revolution.”
Participation in the local elections carried with it the requirement that the electors and the elected officials commit themselves to the independence of the country. While these exercises were dominated by the ilustrados to the extent that they explicitly invited the participation of the “inhabitants most distinguished by their education, social position, and honorable conduct,” it was clear in Mabini’s mind that this was the best way to avert the fragmentation of the revolution along class lines. Of course, this created opportunities for counterrevolutionary elements to infiltrate the revolution. But Mabini thought it was a gamble worth taking since the revolutionary army was, after all, safely in the hands of volunteers from the peasant masses.
The June 23 proclamation is particularly significant. While its main point is the establishment of the revolutionary government, O.D. Corpuz regarded it as a “revised declaration of independence.” Far more eloquent than the June 12 proclamation, it contains no reference whatsoever to any quest for protection from the United States. This is in stark contrast to the June 12 declaration, which invokes “the protection of the Mighty and Humane North American Nation, the United States of America.” The June 23 document bears all the marks of Mabini’s distinct social philosophy. Here, he describes the Filipino people as embarked on the creation of a free society, “taking reason as the only standard for their acts, justice as the only end, and honest work as the only means.”
On Aug. 3, 1898, the various elected chiefs of the local governments established in the territories under the control of the revolution were assembled to sign a document ratifying the country’s independence. At around the same time, the Americans were accepting the surrender of the Spanish forces, completely oblivious of the fact that it was the Filipino revolutionaries and not they who were holding thousands of Spaniards prisoners.
A few months later, in October 1898, negotiations for a peace treaty between the United States and Spain began. The talks excluded the Filipinos. Here, the Americans demanded the total cession of the islands to America. Spain initially opposed the idea, but later relented after it was offered a one-time payment of $20 million. In February the following year, the Philippine-American War that Mabini had presciently anticipated began.
It was a savage war that scandalized American intellectuals like Mark Twain who, until then, had thought of their country as a beacon of liberty and freedom for all subjugated nations. The American colonizers sought to erase memories of that war from the Filipino psyche by giving us back our independence on July 4, 1946. But, we owe it to our heroes and to our children that we continue to remember.