Biography of Emilio Aguinaldo, Filipino Independence Leader

Emilio Aguinaldo
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Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy (March 22, 1869–February 6, 1964) was a Filipino politician and military leader who played an important role in the Philippine Revolution. After the revolution, he served as the new country's first president. Aguinaldo later commanded forces during the Philippine-American War.

Fast Facts: Emilio Aguinaldo

  • Known For: Aguinaldo served as the first president of the independent Philippines.
  • Also Known As: Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy
  • Born: March 22, 1869 in Cavite, Philippines
  • Parents: Carlos Jamir Aguinaldo and Trinidad Famy-Aguinaldo
  • Died: February 6, 1964 in Quezon City, Philippines
  • Spouse(s): Hilaria del Rosario (m. 1896–1921), María Agoncillo (m. 1930–1963)
  • Children: Five

Early Life

Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy was the seventh of eight children born to a wealthy mestizo family in Cavite on March 22, 1869. His father Carlos Aguinaldo y Jamir was the town mayor, or gobernadorcillo, of Old Cavite. Emilio's mother was Trinidad Famy y Valero.

As a boy, he went to elementary school and attended secondary school at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran, but had to drop out before earning his high school diploma when his father passed away in 1883. Emilio stayed home to assist his mother with the family's agricultural holdings.

On January 1, 1895, Aguinaldo made his first foray into politics with an appointment as Cavite's capitan municipal. Like fellow anti-colonial leader Andres Bonifacio, he also joined the Masons.

Philippine Revolution

In 1894, Andres Bonifacio himself inducted Aguinaldo into the Katipunan, a secret anti-colonial organization. The Katipunan called for the removal of Spain from the Philippines by armed force if necessary. In 1896 after the Spanish executed Jose Rizal, the voice of Filipino independence, the Katipunan started their revolution. Meanwhile, Aguinaldo married his first wife, Hilaria del Rosario, who would tend to wounded soldiers through her Hijas de la Revolucion (Daughters of the Revolution) organization.

While many of the Katipunan rebel bands were ill-trained and had to retreat in the face of Spanish forces, Aguinaldo's troops were able to out-fight the colonial troops even in a pitched battle. Aguinaldo's men drove the Spanish from Cavite. However, they came into conflict with Bonifacio, who had declared himself president of the Philippine Republic, and his supporters.

In March 1897, the two Katipunan factions met in Tejeros for an election. The assembly elected Aguinaldo president in a possibly fraudulent poll, much to the irritation of Bonifacio. He refused to recognize Aguinaldo's government; in response, Aguinaldo had him arrested two months later. Bonifacio and his younger brother were charged with sedition and treason and were executed on May 10, 1897, on Aguinaldo's orders.

Internal dissent seems to have weakened the Cavite Katipunan movement. In June 1897, Spanish troops defeated Aguinaldo's forces and retook Cavite. The rebel government regrouped in Biyak na Bato, a mountain town in Bulacan Province, northeast of Manila.

Aguinaldo and his rebels came under intense pressure from the Spanish and had to negotiate a surrender later that same year. In mid-December 1897, Aguinaldo and his government ministers agreed to dissolve the rebel government and go into exile in Hong Kong. In return, they received legal amnesty and an indemnity of 800,000 Mexican dollars (the standard currency of the Spanish Empire). An additional 900,000 Mexican dollars would indemnify the revolutionaries who stayed in the Philippines; in return for surrendering their weapons, they were granted amnesty and the Spanish government promised reforms.

On December 23, Aguinaldo and other rebel officials arrived in British Hong Kong, where the first indemnity payment of 400,000 Mexican dollars was waiting for them. Despite the amnesty agreement, the Spanish authorities began to arrest real or suspected Katipunan supporters in the Philippines, prompting a renewal of rebel activity.

Spanish-American War

In the spring of 1898, events half a world away overtook Aguinaldo and the Filipino rebels. The United States naval vessel USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, Cuba, in February. Public outrage at Spain's supposed role in the incident, fanned by sensationalist journalism, provided the United States with a pretext to start the Spanish-American War on April 25, 1898.

Aguinaldo sailed back to Manila with the U.S. Asian Squadron, which defeated the Spanish Pacific Squadron in the Battle of Manila Bay. By May 19, 1898, Aguinaldo was back on his home soil. On June 12, 1898, the revolutionary leader declared the Philippines independent, with himself as the unelected president. He commanded Filipino troops in the battle against the Spanish. Meanwhile, close to 11,000 American troops cleared Manila and other Spanish bases of colonial troops and officers. On December 10, Spain surrendered its remaining colonial possessions (including the Philippines) to the United States in the Treaty of Paris.


Aguinaldo was officially inaugurated as the first president and dictator of the Philippine Republic in January 1899. Prime Minister Apolinario Mabini headed the new cabinet. However, the United States refused to recognize the new independent government. President William McKinley claimed that doing so would be at odds with the American goal of "Christianizing" the (largely Roman Catholic) people of the Philippines.

Indeed, although Aguinaldo and other Filipino leaders were unaware of it initially, Spain had handed over direct control of the Philippines to the United States in return for $20 million, as agreed to in the Treaty of Paris. Despite rumored promises of independence made by U.S. military officers eager for Filipino help in the war, the Philippine Republic was not to be a free state. It had simply acquired a new colonial master.

Resistance to American Occupation

Aguinaldo and the victorious Filipino revolutionaries did not see themselves as the Americans did, as half-devil or half-child. Once they realized they had been tricked and were indeed "new-caught," the people of the Philippines reacted with outrage. On January 1, 1899, Aguinaldo responded to the American "Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation" by publishing his own counter-proclamation:

"My nation cannot remain indifferent in view of such violent and aggressive seizure of a portion of its territory by a nation which has arrogated to itself the title 'Champion of Oppressed Nations.' Thus it is that my government is disposed to open hostilities if the American troops attempt to take forcible possession. I denounce these acts before the world in order that the conscience of mankind may pronounce its infallible verdict as to who are the oppressors of nations and the oppressors of mankind. Upon their heads be all the blood which may be shed!"

In February 1899, the first Philippines Commission from the United States arrived in Manila to find 15,000 American troops holding the city, facing off from trenches against 13,000 of Aguinaldo's men, who were arrayed all around Manila. By November, Aguinaldo was once again running for the mountains, his troops in disarray. However, the Filipinos continued to resist this new imperial power, turning to guerrilla war after conventional fighting failed them.

For two years, Aguinaldo and a shrinking band of followers evaded concerted American efforts to locate and capture the rebel leadership. On March 23, 1901, however, American special forces disguised as prisoners of war infiltrated Aguinaldo's camp at Palanan on the northeast coast of Luzon. Local scouts dressed in Philippine Army uniforms led General Frederick Funston and other Americans into Aguinaldo's headquarters, where they quickly overwhelmed the guards and seized the president.

On April 1, 1901, Aguinaldo formally surrendered and swore allegiance to the United States. He then retired to his family farm in Cavite. His defeat marked the end of the First Philippine Republic, but not the end of the guerrilla resistance.

World War II

Aguinaldo continued to be an outspoken advocate of independence for the Philippines. His organization, the Asociacion de los Veteranos de la Revolucion (Association of Revolutionary Veterans), worked to ensure that former rebel fighters had access to land and pensions.

His first wife Hilaria died in 1921. Aguinaldo married for a second time in 1930 at the age of 61. His new bride was 49-year-old María Agoncillo, the niece of a prominent diplomat.

In 1935, the Philippine Commonwealth held its first elections after decades of American rule. Then 66, Aguinaldo ran for president but was soundly defeated by Manuel Quezon.

When Japan seized the Philippines during World War II, Aguinaldo cooperated with the occupation. He joined the Japanese-sponsored Council of State and made speeches urging an end to Filipino and American opposition to the Japanese. After the United States recaptured the Philippines in 1945, the septuagenarian Aguinaldo was arrested and imprisoned as a collaborator. However, he was quickly pardoned and released, and his reputation was not too severely tarnished.

Post-War Era

Aguinaldo was appointed to the Council of State again in 1950, this time by President Elpidio Quirino. He served one term before returning to his work on behalf of veterans.

In 1962, President Diosdado Macapagal asserted pride in Philippine independence from the United States by making a highly symbolic gesture; he moved the celebration of Independence Day from July 4 to June 12, the date of Aguinaldo's declaration of the First Philippine Republic. Aguinaldo himself joined in the festivities, although he was 92 years old and rather frail. The following year, before his final hospitalization, he donated his home to the government as a museum.


On February 6, 1964, the 94-year-old first president of the Philippines passed away from coronary thrombosis. He left behind a complicated legacy. Aguinaldo fought long and hard for independence for the Philippines and worked tirelessly to secure veterans' rights. At the same time, he ordered the execution of his rivals—including Andres Bonifacio—and collaborated with the brutal Japanese occupation of the Philippines.


Although Aguinaldo is today often heralded as a symbol of the democratic and independent spirit of the Philippines, he was a self-proclaimed dictator during his short period of rule. Other members of the Chinese/Tagalog elite, such as Ferdinand Marcos, would later wield that power more successfully.


  • “Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy.” Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy - The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War (Hispanic Division, Library of Congress).
  • Kinzer, Stephen. "The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire." St. Martin's Griffin, 2018.
  • Ooi, Keat Gin. "Southeast Asia a Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor." ABC-CLIO, 2007.
  • Silbey, David. "A War of Frontier and Empire: the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902." Hill and Wang, 2007.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Biography of Emilio Aguinaldo, Filipino Independence Leader." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Biography of Emilio Aguinaldo, Filipino Independence Leader. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Biography of Emilio Aguinaldo, Filipino Independence Leader." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).