Aguinaldo’s Christmas letter to Filipinos, 1898
Emilio Aguinaldo wrote a Christmas message addressed to his countrymen in 1898, the same year Philippine independence was declared in Kawit, Cavite.
His letter is a timely read for two reasons. First, it is in tune with the popular reassessment of Aguinaldo’s legacy spurred in large part by the film “Heneral Luna.” Second, it is connected with the fate of the Philippine presidency, about which the first Philippine president shared some interesting insights.
December 1898 was a tumultuous time in our history. Power struggles, internal and external, threatened to destroy the already-fragile Republic (Andres Bonifacio was purged a year earlier; Antonio Luna had already been sidelined). The Americans, who Aguinaldo considered as allies, had just made their intentions clear with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, in which Spain “ceded” the Philippines to them, even as many continued to hope in their “benevolence.”
Most interesting, at least at face value, is the fact that Aguinaldo’s Christmas message is actually a resignation letter; he asked to be allowed to step down from the presidency, citing his “strong desire … to see the people closely united” and professing his “incompetence.” He called for a superior and more qualified man to replace him.
Historian Milagros Guerrero wrote that Apolinario Mabini and Felipe Buencamino suppressed the letter, fearing that it would only worsen the situation. In two months, the Philippine-American War would erupt and Aguinaldo would spend the rest of his presidency evading the Americans until his capture in 1901. Curiously, his political life would outlive even the American period: He would run for president in 1935 (losing to Manuel Quezon), cooperate with the Japanese during World War II, and live to see Independence Day returned from July 4 to June 12 in 1962.
Some may read the letter as a sincere effort to make way for a better, “more educated” leader; as an exit attempt of one who had foreseen the Republic’s impending doom; or as a sign of fatigue and disappointment, as Ambeth Ocampo once suggested. Like many fragments of history, it is open to many interpretations. At the least, we can read it as a glimpse into the mind of a controversial figure who was in the thick of the Philippine Revolution—the moment that many have marked to be the birth of our nation.
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Beyond attending to debates about the past, there are some insights from the letter penned by the first Philippine president that can be useful as we contemplate the presidential election in 2016.
Aguinaldo wrote of the qualifications for his successors, the first of which has something to do with track record: “His previous history should be traced step by step, aside from his previous behavior; our votes should not be cast for a candidate whose character has not been previously investigated and thoroughly known.”
Anticipating the appeal of intelligence, he stressed that loyalty is more important than wisdom: “To be wise is not enough, for a man may be wise and not be willing to share the fate of the country when in peril, either because he is wise, or rather, perhaps because he may be called wise.”
Surrounded by wealthy ilustrados, he said: “To be rich is not enough, for there are rich men … who although they see their country threatened by re-enslavement, are unwilling to aid with their wealth.” He added: “It is true that they have made contributions … but many have not given more than a thousandth part of their entire fortune.”
Aguinaldo also warned against voting for candidates with little or no experience: “There are some men who aspire to important positions now and cannot agree to mount through lower grades. What does a man like this desire chiefly? Ah, his own welfare, and not that of his people.”
Finally, he wrote that some politicians may employ reluctance to win people’s hearts: “Also another man likes in fact such positions, but pretends not to care for them, when the truth is he is seeking means to gradually advance his warmest partisans so as to insure his own election.”
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One hundred seventeen years is a long time, and we need not enumerate what has changed between now and then. More interesting—and relevant—are things that have persisted: the entrenchment in government of the landed elite, to which Aguinaldo himself belonged; agrarian issues, which stirred—and continue to stir—rural unrest; rampant corruption; misgovernment; threat of foreign incursions. On the other hand, amid all these, Aguinaldo began the letter with the greeting “Merry Christmas,” said with a “joyful heart” and a festive anticipation no different from ours today.
Another thing that has remained constant is the presidency: the only mode of national leadership we have known for much of our nation’s life. So much hope and expectation have been cast upon the presidency, but at the same time, so much anger and disappointment. These, perhaps, weighed heavily on Aguinaldo—then only 29 years old—when he penned his Christmas message.
In light of these parallels, what I found most striking in the letter are these words of the first Philippine president about the presidency, words that should make us redouble our discernment in who to vote for next year: “If he is to perform his duty rigidly of watching over the welfare of the nation, no other office can be compared with it; but if he uses it as a means to further personal interests, there is no better office by which to obtain great wealth in a short time.”
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.
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