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An Open Letter to Emilio Aguinaldo: Was the First President Really That Bad?

With the 150th birthday of Emilio Aguinaldo nearing, re-examine his checkered and storied life.
IMAGE Malacañang Palace Presidential Museum and Library/ Wikimedia Commons
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Dear Ka Miong,

Happy birthday. 150 is an important milestone. It’s amazing to think that you’re more or less an Enrile-and-a-half years old. I’m sure you’re busy celebrating wherever it is that you are. Of course, you’ve never really had the best of luck when it comes to birthdays, have you? I’m sure you still remember your 32nd: holed up in Palanan and finally captured by the Americans you were trying to run away from. My worst birthday had me throwing up all night in a bathroom. We could both do better.

A lot of people still don’t like you these days, Miong. And I’m sure it would break your heart if you were still alive. You did what you had to do, and I believe you when you say that. But I guess history is easier to absorb when there are heroes and villains.

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Don’t get me wrong, Miong. You’re not exactly a shining example of the Kartilya ng Katipunan. You had Bonifacio killed. You had Luna killed. You lost the war. You supported the Japanese. And your worst crime was that you stuck around until 1964. Somebody once told me, you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain. I guess we know what became of you, Miong.

But who can blame you? People blame you for taking over the Katipunan and steering it to certain failure, but they forget that if it wasn’t for you, the Revolution would have died in Bulacan. Of course, one of the reasons why Bonifacio failed in San Juan del Monte was because you didn’t pitch in, since your bourgeois prudence advised against rising without arms. Regardless, let’s not forget that it was in Kawit that the Katipunan found its victories, and it was in Kawit that the ember of the Revolution eventually grew into a fire.

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People always say you cheated Bonifacio at the Tejeros Convention. But really, who got cheated? You didn’t even want to be President in Tejeros. You weren’t even there. You didn’t even have any Magdalo friends in your cabinet, save for your cousin Baldomero. You certainly botched rigging that election. But even so, why have Bonifacio killed?

Well, not really. You wanted to reconcile with Bonifacio. When he wouldn’t budge, you had him arrested and put on trial, before settling on exile. It was Pio del Pilar and Mariano Noriel, both former supporters of Bonifacio, who convinced you he needed to go. And let’s not forget Yntong Bonzon, who raped Gregoria de Jesus, and Jose Ignacio Paua, who stabbed Bonifacio in the neck; both of whom you let off scot-free.

But I guess that’s how it was with you, Miong. You were spineless, like bamboo going with the breeze. Worse, you never really had a taste for disciplining your own men. If there was any real fault in you, it was giving your ear to the sycophants you surrounded yourself with.

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You believed people too easily, Miong. When George Dewey came to you and said he'd help you achieve independence, you believed him, and that led to America invading and taking our country as a colony.

When Mabini told you Luna was dangerous, you believed him. You listened to Pedro Paterno and Felipe Buencamino’s call for peace over Luna’s plan for guerilla war. Maybe you were justified in that: America was too strong an enemy, and we certainly couldn’t win on sheer tyranny of will. We weren’t like the Vietnamese, and you were no Ho Chi Minh.

You tried to resign during the war. I think that was brave, Miong. Some people would call you a quitter, but I think being self-aware was the bravest thing you could do. War was hard. You didn’t expect any of that to happen. I think, at one point, you had a moment of clarity, and you realized that you weren’t the man for the job. Had Mabini not convinced you otherwise, who knows what would have happened?

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But if there’s one thing I can’t ever fault you of, it’s your patriotism. At a time when waving the flag was illegal under American occupation, you turned your house into a shrine for the flag. When the Japanese came with promises of Filipino nationalism, your sense of nationalism won over and you decided to collaborate. You weren’t alone, of course. Manuel Roxas was a collaborator. Benigno Aquino was a collaborator. Your general, Artemio Ricarte, who refused to set foot in an American Philippines and chose exile over subjugation, collaborated with the Japanese.

Whether it was for love of country like Ricarte or the protection of their vested interests, a lot of Filipinos collaborated with the Japanese. I believe you when you say you only collaborated for the sake of the Filipino people.

You’ve had a rough life, Miong. Checkered. Storied. People tend to focus on the events without stopping to think of the “why.” I think, at the end of the day, you were just a victim of your class. A bourgeois mestizo with a genuine love of country but not the education to temper it. Instead, a caustic mix of stubbornness and weakness of will: That’s you, Miong.

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People remember the Bonifacios and the Lunas, forgetting that you did so much more than just have them killed. You didn’t die a martyr like them. You saw the Republic you fought for change and grow, and you died a comfortable death in a hospital. That’s not how heroes die. But heroes are measured by how they lived, and in my book, you’re a hero. At the very least, you’re much more deserving of being buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani than other Presidents.

You weren’t perfect, Miong. But you weren’t Satan. Still, if you do have the chance, please haunt Jun Abaya for us. Your great-grandson really needs to pay for what he did to the MRT. Thanks. Happy Birthday.

Your friend,

Justin

Source: Nick Joaquin, A Question of Heroes.

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Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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