Emilio Aguinaldo was a revolutionary independence leader, general, statesman, and the first president of the Philippines according to many Filipinos. He played a major role in the Philippine revolution against Spain and in the Philippine-American War.
Aguinaldo’s rise to notability happened early in his life. He was born into a wealthy Chinese-mestizo family that owned extensive lands and that provided benefits not readily available to many Filipinos. The young Aguinaldo overcame a near-death sickness in his youth and briefly attended Letran College in Manila, but left in order to help his family care for their extensive estate. In 1895, when only 17 years of age, he was elected to the position of capitan municipal (municipal captain), or town head, of Cavite El Viejo.
Around the same time, Aguinaldo began his revolutionary career and entered the secret Katipunan revolutionary society, an abbreviated Tagalog term for “The Highest and Most Respectable Society of the Sons of the People.” The Katipunan advocated complete independence from Spain and thus aroused suspicions and opposition from the Spanish authorities. No longer able to evade notice by the ruling Spaniards, Aguinaldo and his fellow revolutionaries fought them, overcame early setbacks, and achieved considerable victories, most notably at the Battle of Binakayan on November 10, 1896, when they defeated Spanish regular troops. Although he won early successes and gained the leadership of his revolutionary group, Aguinaldo was forced by renewed military pressure from the Spanish to sign the Pact of Biacnabato and to accept banishment to Hong Kong in return for financial and political concessions, social reforms, and promises of autonomy of government for the Philippines.
In 1898 Aguinaldo returned to the Philippines from exile to continue his revolutionary work and to assist the efforts of the United States to defeat the Spanish during the Spanish-American War. He believed that his participation and the victory over Spain would be rewarded with a declaration of independence for the Philippines; Aguinaldo instead found that the American forces refused to allow his military to occupy Manila. He refused to allow his troops to be replaced by American forces and withdrew to Malolos, where he and his followers declared independence on June 12, 1898. On January 23, 1899, Aguinaldo was inaugurated as the first president of the Philippines, although U.S. authorities did not recognize his government.
The Philippine-American War began on February 4, 1899, after a Filipino crossed over the San Juan Bridge and was shot by an American sentry. Aguinaldo led the resistance to American occupation and rejected the notions of gradual independence advocated by the occupiers and U.S. president William McKinley. Although Aguinaldo’s guerrilla warfare tactics posed many difficulties for the U.S. military, they implemented a “carrot and stick” approach that mitigated popular support for the insurgents. The capture of Aguinaldo in Palanan, Isabela, on March 23, 1901, with the help of Filipino trackers broke the revolt, which foundered within the following year. In exchange for his life, Aguinaldo pledged loyalty to the United States and thus acknowledged its sovereignty over the Philippines.
Although no longer a revolutionary, Aguinaldo thereafter remained committed to independence and veterans’ rights while staying retired from public life for many years. In 1935, when the Commonwealth of the Philippines was established, he ran for the presidency but lost to Manuel L. Quezon. During World War II the Japanese occupiers forced him to support them and to make anti-American speeches and statements. He was later cleared of wrongdoing when Americans recaptured the Philippines and learned that the Japanese had threatened to kill his family if Aguinaldo did not comply. After the war he actively promoted nationalistic and democratic causes within his country. He died on February 6, 1964, in Quezon City.
- Achutegui, Pedro S. de, S.J. and Miguel Bernad, S.J. Aguinaldo and the Revolution of 1896: A Documentary History. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1972;
- Agoncillo, Teodoro. Malolos: The Crisis of the Republic. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1960;
- Aguinaldo, Emilio. My Memoirs. Translated by Luz Colendrino-Bucu. Manila, 1967.
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