Remembering our first president

ROSES & THORNS - Alejandro R. Roces () - March 28, 2009 - 12:00am

On March 22, 2009, the 140th anniversary of President Emilio Aguinaldo passed with little fanfare. Where Bonifacio’s revolution faltered, Aguinaldo was able to continue. He is a man we should not forget to honor. Aguinaldo lived long enough for us to know him; that may be why the memory of his accomplishments does not ring as resoundingly as others. His lot was not to die a martyr and have his name emblazoned across our history, but to remain human in the eyes of the nation.

Those revolutionary days in 1898, and Aguinaldo’s role in them, is something we should not forget. As Nick Joaquin wrote in the book Turn of the Century: “In mid-1898, they (Americans) and we were still supposed to be allies against Spain, but we held the advantage over them. Dewey held Manila Bay and the Port of Cavite - and nothing else. The whole country had risen up in arms behind Aguinaldo. By the end of June, Aguinaldo was pressing towards the gates of Manila…” Aguinaldo’s mistake in those days following his blitz up El Camino Real (the King’s Highway) which ran from Cavite to Intramuros, was misplaced trust. On June 12th, Aguinaldo had declared our Independence. On July 4, 1898, he refused to attend the American celebration of their independence. He was invited as General Emilio Aguinaldo, not President Emilio Aguinaldo.

Aguinaldo was the first to proclaim Philippine Independence and later proclaimed the Philippine Republic. This made (albeit for a short time) the Philippines the first Republic in all of Asia. Beyond that historical footnote, Aguinaldo also gave the Philippines the two main symbols of our country - the Philippine national flag and our national anthem.

On June 12, 1898, Aguinaldo displayed the Philippine flag and played the Philippine national anthem. The flag was predominantly red, white and blue: colors he chose to intentionally copy the colors of the American flag. The Americans refer to their flag as the “red, white and blue”. The Filipino flag was known as the “red, white and blue with the sun shining through”.

The first national anthem actually had no lyrics. This was because Aguinaldo emulated the Spanish national anthem, the Marcha Real, which to this day still does not have any official words. Our first national anthem was also a march, then called the Marcha Filipina Magdalo, later changed to the March Nacional Filipina. Later, lyrics would be added after the Filipinos saw the Americans singing their national anthem. Jose Palma, a Filipino poet and brother of Rafael Palma, the first UP president, then wrote the lyrics of the anthem in Spanish; later translated to Tagalog.

We wonder how many people remember we owe both symbols to Aguinaldo.

We have long been an admirer of Aguinaldo. During the Presidency of Diosdado Macapagal, we worked to change our independence day to June 12th from July 4th. He was a fighter who fought for what he believed in, and he believed in a free and democratic Philippines. And if his trust was misplaced with whom he allied and trusted, we believe this reflects more on them than it does on him. In his speech proclaiming the Republic of the Philippines on January 23, 1899, he said: “And thus, in the same manner as God helped weak America in the last century when she fought against powerful Albion (England)…He will also help us today in the identical undertaking…there is here finally, a national spirit, which unites and brings together all Filipino hearts into a single idea and a single aspiration TO LIVE INDEPENDENT OF ANY FOREIGN YOKE IN THE DEMOCRATIC SHADOW OF THE PHILIPPINE REPUBLIC…” The Philippines had already been “sold” to the United States in the 1898 Treaty of Paris for $20 million.

There is a true story that shows how humble and sincere Emilio Aguinaldo was to the last years of his life. On his 91st birthday, the Philippine Historical Association presented him with a certificate making him an honorary member. He told them that he could not accept the honor as he was not a historian. Only after he was told that he was not being honored for writing history but for making it did he agree to accept.

Aguinaldo’s love of country and humility are traits to be admired and emulated.

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