‘Separate and equal’ | Inquirer Opinion
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‘Separate and equal’

The declaration of Philippine independence by Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo on June 12, 1898, led to the founding of the First Philippine Republic, which was gained through the blood of José Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, and other martyrs. By doing so, the Philippines emerged as the first Asian constitutional republic even while most of the world was being controlled by European powers.

During this time, the United States was pondering the possibility of expansionism as it emerged from the Spanish-American War as a world power. This question summed up the dilemma on Capitol Hill: Can the US acquire an empire on the other side of the planet, or remain a benevolent power by championing its founding principle that upholds the consent of the governed?

Contextualizing the US annexation of the Philippines at the turn of the last century can bring back lessons from history that can benefit the current generation, including the political establishment that must contend with China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea.

History tells us that neither Spain nor the US acknowledged the provisional government established by Aguinaldo in 1898 or the formal declaration of independence ratified by the Malolos Congress in 1899. Instead, Spain ceded the Philippine archipelago to the US for $20 million on Dec. 10, 1898, through the Treaty of Paris. The treaty relinquished Spain’s control of Cuba and gave away its other colonies, such as Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, to the US. It also sounded the death knell for over four centuries of the Spanish Empire, and provided the US with a renewed sense of confidence—a sense of manifest destiny, as it were, for its future as a Pacific power.

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This still-evolving American foreign policy would logically undermine the goals for self-determination of the nascent Philippine republic. With virtually all of the Philippines outside Manila already under the control of Aguinaldo’s forces after shaking off the Spanish yoke, Filipino revolutionaries and at least seven million Filipinos were prepared to settle and enjoy the benefits of hard-fought freedom. But when Private William Grayson, a member of the Nebraska Volunteer Infantry Regiment, opened fire on Filipino soldiers at 9 p.m. on Feb. 4, 1899, that shot ignited what would become the Filipino-American War. The rest is history.

One vote. Strategically, the McKinley administration saw Manila as an ideal location to defend US interests in China against European interventions. The presence of the US could also increase American influence in the far east. But the Treaty of Paris had a polarizing effect on American politics. It was narrowly ratified by the Senate on Feb. 6, 1899, with just one vote more than the necessary two-thirds for approval.

In 2011, while researching at Harvard’s Widener Library, I stumbled upon a pamphlet that contains excerpts from a three-hour speech of US Sen. George F. Hoar on April 17, 1900, during the debate on the ratification of the treaty. Hoar vigorously opposed the conquest of the Philippines, describing the archipelago as “a nation entitled as such to its separate and equal station among the powers of the earth by the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Hoar could not fathom why America had to civilize a country like the Philippines, which already had a “written constitution, a settled territory, an independence it has achieved, an organized army, a congress, courts, schools, universities, churches, the Christian religion, a village life in orderly, civilized, self-governed municipalities; a pure family life, newspapers, books.”

Hoar acknowledged the intellectual prowess and patriotic fervor of Filipinos, saying it had “statesmen who can debate questions of international law, like [Apolinario] Mabini, and organize governments, like Aguinaldo; poets like José Rizal; aye, and patriots who can die for liberty, like José Rizal.” He added: “No people can come under the government of any other people, or any ruler, without its consent.” Hoar then asked his colleagues whether it was justifiable to “crush that republic, despoil that people of their freedom and independence and subject them to our rule.”

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“Is it right, is it just, to subjugate this people? To substitute our Government for their self-government, for the Constitution they have proclaimed and established? … Are these mountains of iron and nuggets of gold and stores of coal, and hemp-bearing fields, and fruit-bearing gardens to be looked upon by our legislators with covetous eyes?” he asked.

Hoar’s questions are still relevant today, even though the international context has evolved. Since 1946, the Philippines has had a trusted economic and military ally in the US. The Philippines remains valuable geopolitically to the US even as its economy is closely tied to China.

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Bilateral relations can be tricky at times, but in the community of nations, the universal aspirations for peace and development should prevail over divergent national interests.

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