To take possession of the seat of power | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

To take possession of the seat of power

Change has come indeed. In a departure from tradition, President Duterte took his oath, without the Vice President, in Malacañang instead of at the Quirino Grandstand. It has been three decades since the last president took his oath in Malacañang: Before Mr. Duterte was Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, and before them were Vice Presidents Elpidio Quirino and Carlos P. Garcia, who assumed office upon the deaths of Manuel Roxas and Ramon Magsaysay, respectively.

One of the important traditions of an inauguration calls for the newly minted president to take the formal entrance to Malacañang and ascend the grand staircase to take possession of the seat of power for the next six years. We owe this bit of history to Manuel L. Quezon, who wrote this in his autobiography, “The Good Fight” (1946):

“On a beautiful morning, November 15, 1934, I left my house in Pasay by the shores of the Bay of Manila and rode with military escorts through streets decorated with American and Filipino flags, under artistic and symbolic arches, to the Legislative building where the inaugural ceremonies were to take place. Hundreds of thousands of people had come to Manila from far and wide to witness the elevation to the highest office in the land of the first Filipino who would occupy the seat of power, for centuries past occupied by Spaniards and Americans.”

After the inaugural in the Legislative House (presently the National Museum), Quezon narrated:


“From the grandstand, I went through streets crowded with people acclaiming their first President, on to the Palace of Malacañan, the great mansion on the bank of the Pasig River which had been the seat of power of foreign rulers for many decades past. As I stepped out of the presidential car and walked over the marble floor of the entrance hall, and up the wide stairway, I remembered the legend of the mother of Rizal, the great Filipino martyr and hero, who went up those stairs on her knees to seek executive clemency from the cruel Spanish Governor-General Polavieja, that would save her son’s life. This story had something to do with my reluctance to believe that capital punishment should ever be carried out, as a matter of fact, during my presidency, no man ever went to the electric chair. At the last moment I always stayed the hand of the executioner.”

As Quezon ascended the steps, he was making a statement that the Lord of Malacañang was now a Filipino, not a Spanish or American governor-general. He recalled his first visit to Malacañang in 1901, and pointed out two rooms facing each other at the end of the large reception hall: the room on the right was then occupied by the military governor of the Philippines, Gen. Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas “I shall return” MacArthur; the room on the left was the gilded cage where the enemy kept Emilio Aguinaldo, who was captured that year in Palanan, Isabela.

While the legend of Rizal’s mother climbing the Malacañang steps in December 1896 to seek clemency for her son is a very powerful narrative, it is not supported by documentary evidence. Santiago Mataix, Manila correspondent of the Madrid newspaper El Heraldo, sent two dispatches, one of which says: “All measures have been taken to prevent Rizal from committing suicide. The family of the Filipino doctor tried to see the governor to ask for his pardon. General Polavieja was unable to receive them.” The other dispatch reports the opposite:

“The sisters of the condemned man, broken up with crying, waited for the Governor General at the gate of his palace, throwing themselves at his feet to ask for clemency.


“The General would have wished that the performance of inexorable duties could have allowed him to indulge at the same time both the clemency of authority and his own inmost feelings of pity.”

From this bit of news, perhaps inaccurate or even made up, was spun the legend of Rizal’s aged mother climbing the Palace steps on her knees. The correspondent for the other Madrid paper, El Imparcial, does not mention that story, but reported that the Rizal family was inciting the public in Tondo and Trozo to create a commotion that would impede the execution, and that the family’s request for Rizal’s body was denied by the government so it could not be used for demonstrations, and the clothes of the martyr could not be cut up and distributed as relics.


Rizal’s mother dictated a four-page letter to a notary addressed to Governor-General Polavieja that is preserved in the National Library. It pleads with Polavieja:

“to deign to turn your eyes and consider the tribulations of an unhappy mother, who at the close of her life and at the advanced age of 71, will have to endure the greatest and most bitter of sorrows, which is to witness the death of her unfortunate son, the victim only of fate and of the unlucky circumstances which have surrounded him.”

Signing the letter in her own hand as “Teodora Alonso de R,” she calls on Polavieja’s “magnanimous heart” to stay the execution “for the good honor of Mother Spain and the consolation of mothers.” But her words were in vain.

It matters not that the story of Rizal’s mother on her knees on the Malacañang steps is untrue. But Quezon commuting death sentences is true. Witness to his mercy is the large table of Philippine hardwood, once in the Palace hallway, that was made in Bilibid by convicts whose lives he had spared. Unfortunately, these stories on laws tempered with mercy have no resonance on a President who seeks the return of the death penalty.

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TAGS: inauguration, malacanang, oath of office, Rodrigo Duterte

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