"We are free because our heroes fought and died."
January 23, 1899 is a date that must be etched in the memory of every Filipino. It is on this date that the Republic of the Philippines was born. It is the inauguration date of the First Philippine Republic—the first in Asia.
Following the terms of the pact of Biak-na-Bato between the Spanish authorities and Filipino revolutionists, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo and select leaders of the revolution went to exile in Hong Kong in December 1897. There, they did not stop working for the country’s independence. They formed the Hong Kong junta—the revolutionary government in exile.
Aguinaldo and the other revolutionists may have left but they never intended to stop the quest for the country’s freedom from foreign domination. The 400,000 pesos paid by the Spanish authorities was put in banks and while in exile, Aguinaldo and the revolutionaries led spartan lives, living off solely on the money’s interest. There are many accounts of how strict Aguinaldo was in safeguarding the funds to the point of only providing the leaders with a small allowance and just one winter coat each. Onofre D. Corpuz in his book “Saga and Triumph” said that the nobody complained because Aguinaldo adhered to the frugal life he required of the others despite the his being in control of the funds.
The Junta decided that Spain reneged on the pact’s terms. The group was also very concerned about the possible impact of a war between Spain and America on the Filipino’s struggle for independence. They resolved that Aguinaldo should immediately return home and resume the revolution. They used P200,000 of the funds to buy arms and ammunition to be used by Filipino revolutionists.
Thus, in May 1898, Aguinaldo and some of his leaders were back in Cavite, reorganizing the revolutionary command and planning the resumption of the struggle. His call for his comrades to rejoin him was met with renewed passion and enthusiasm to fight again. The Americans were correct in their assessment that only Aguinaldo had the stature and capacity to lead the revolution.
The Filipinos recaptured the whole of Cavite from the already weak Spanish forces made even weaker by the defection of Filipino militia to the side of the revolution. By this time, the revolutionary forces were gaining strength and also winning in other provinces including Batangas, Laguna, Bulacan, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, and Tarlac.
Within a few weeks, on June 12, 1898 in Kawit, the revolutionary government declared Philippine independence. On August 1, the declaration was ratified. Aguinaldo was leading both the revolution and the dictatorial government. They were busy organizing government and the military structures, issuing decrees, and transitioning into a republic.
To achieve the last, the seat of government was transferred to Malolos. A Constitution was necessary to serve as the republic’s basic law. Aguinaldo called for a Congress to draft the Constitution. He wanted delegates to be elected by localities. Those that could not hold elections were assigned representatives. This was the country’s first exercise in representative democracy. Flawed as it may be considered in modern times, we must not forget that the country was still at war then.
The processes and discussions they went through were very interesting, exciting even. Finally, on January 21, 1899 or barely eight months after Aguinaldo returned from Hong Kong to continue the revolution, the country’s first Constitution was ratified.
Two days later, on January 23, the Republic of the Philippines was born to the jubilation of the Filipino people gathered in Barasoain church. The revolutionary leader General Emilio Aguinaldo became the Republic’s first president. It was such a glorious occasion meant to show the whole world that the Filipinos were an independent and free people, civilized and ready to govern themselves.
In fact, recognition from other countries was what the new republic wanted. At that time, Felipe Agoncillo, our first diplomat, was already hard at work in seeking for America’s recognition—a difficult task given him by Aguinaldo. The importance of foreign recognition and acceptance was very clear from President Emilio Aguinaldo’s inaugural address parts of which I have quoted below:
“…Hereafter, the Philippines will have a fundamental law, which will unite our people with other nations by the strongest of solidarities; that is the solidarity of justice, of law, and of right, eternal truths, which are the basis of human dignity…
… our beloved people will cease to be anonymous and will be able with legitimate pride to proclaim to the universe the long coveted name of Philippine Republic.
We are no longer insurgents; we are no longer revolutionists; that is to say armed men desirous of destroying and annihilating the enemy. We are from now on Republicans; that is to say men of law, able to fraternize with all other nations, with mutual respect and affection. There is nothing lacking, therefore, in order for us to be recognized and admitted as a free and independent nation…
Great is this day, glorious is this date and this moment, when our beloved people rise to the apotheosis of independence, will be eternally memorable. The 23rd of January will be for the Philippines hereafter a national feast…
… we are a civilized nation and also a brave one, worthy, therefore, of being freely admitted into the concerts of nations.
… you (referring to the Representatives) showed the entire world, by your wisdom, sound sense, and prudence, that in this remote and heretofore unknown portion of the world, the principles of European and American civilization are known, and more than known, that intelligence and hearts here are perfectly in accord with those of the most civilized nations; and that notwithstanding the calumnious voice of our detractors, there is here, finally a national spirit, which unites and forges together all Filipino hearts into a single idea and single aspiration to live independent of any foreign yoke in the democratic shadow of the Philippine Republic.
For this reason on seeing consecrated in our constitutional work the eternal principles of authority, of liberty, of order and justice, which all civilized nations profess, as the most perfect guaranty of their actual solidarity, I feel strength, pride, and am sincerely impelled, from the bottom of my heart to shout – Long live the Philippine Republic! Long live the Constitution!..”
January 23, 2021 marks the Republic’s 122nd birthday. While the country has come a long way, we must not forget our roots. Our nation was born because tens of thousands shed blood and gave their lives up.
If there is one lesson that we must learn from the Philippine revolution, it is love of and sacrifice for country. Let us remember, we are free because our heroes fought and died.
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