Looking Back

How our Constitutions came to be

/ 05:22 AM November 09, 2018

The Philippines has had five Constitutions: 1899 Malolos Constitution; 1935 Roosevelt Constitution; 1943 Japanese Occupation Constitution; 1973 Marcos Constitution; and the 1986 Cory or Freedom Constitution.

Depending on the source you are using, the number can increase to eight if you include: 1897 Biak-na-bato Constitution; 1902 Philippine Organic Act and 1916 Autonomy Act; and the 1986 transitory Constitution. It is a pity textbook history focuses on the facts rather than the narrative, because a new or proposed Constitution should always be seen in the context of previous documents. Each Constitution was born of its time, the text reflecting the aspirations and fears of generations before ours.


Constitutions were drafted at specific crossroads in our history: Malolos was the emergence of the nation, rudely interrupted by the United States acquiring the Philippines from Spain for $20 million at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Then we had the 1935 Constitution, sometimes referred to as the Roosevelt Constitution, because it was certified by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Japanese Occupation, the 1943 Constitution was ratified by the Kalibapi Convention. A Constitutional Convention began in 1971 but its work was overtaken by the declaration of martial law in 1972, so when Ferdinand Marcos was presented a draft in December 1972, he submitted it for ratification by citizens’ assemblies rather than through a plebiscite.  This Constitution allowed Marcos to rule by decree until 1978, when a parliamentary system of government was instituted. When the 1986 People Power revolt drove Marcos into exile in Hawaii, a new Constitution was drafted and approved. It is the 1987 Freedom Constitution that is in force today, and is in danger of being rewritten or totally replaced.

As a historian, I cannot help but see the present in the light of the late 19th century because of the two periods’ many parallels. It is not well-known, for example, that Apolinario Mabini was against the Malolos Congress and the Malolos Constitution, because they clipped the powers of the president. Mabini believed that in an emergency such as the Philippine-American War, a president should act and decide quickly without hindrance from the legislature. In principle, Mabini was wary of putting all the powers of state in the hands of one man, but since he was advising this one man, it was not a problem—yet.


Against Mabini’s objections, the Malolos Congress drafted and approved a Constitution, the draft of which was transmitted to Emilio Aguinaldo. Upon Mabini’s advice, Aguinaldo returned it in December 1898 with a number of proposed amendments. Congress refused. It is not well-known that Mabini had submitted a draft Constitution for consideration, and so did his rival Pedro Paterno—but both were ignored by the Malolos Congress, which formally adopted its version of the Constitution on Jan. 20, 1899.  Aguinaldo promulgated it the next day.

Mabini’s letters to the president at this critical moment, and his stinging memoirs written while in exile in Guam, provide an insider’s view into these events. The Malolos Congress feared the military and a strong president, so the Constitution clipped their wings and gave more power and precedence to Congress. At this time, news of abuses by the military had reached the ears of Mabini. He issued orders against torture, illegal arrest and seizure of property, etc.

In the wake of recent reports of “palit-puri,” or sex in exchange for favors, committed by some scum in the police force today, we read Mabini and wonder how he could see into the future. In the last chapter of his “Revolucion Filipina,” he wrote:

“I shall not end these remarks to my countrymen without putting on record the boundless disgust I felt whenever I heard of the rape of Filipinas by Filipino soldiers. I admit these were isolated cases, very difficult to present in times of general disorder and the uncontrolled outbreak of passions, but I am sure that the first instances would not have been repeated if the commanders concerned had punished such outrages energetically and without hesitation. How shall we get foreigners to respect our women when we ourselves set the example of offending them? Can we Filipino men expect to be respected when our women are not….”

Was Mabini prophetic? Or should we accept the fact that the Philippines and we Filipinos have not changed much since 1899?

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