Emilio Aguinaldo

Independence leader of the Philippines

Emilio Aguinaldo ruled the Philippines for three years at the beginning of the 20th century

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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 agricultural holdings.

On January 1, 1895, Emilio 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.

Katipunan and the Philippine Revolution

In 1894, Andres Bonifacio himself inducted Emilio Aguinaldo into the Katipunan, a secret anti-colonial organization. The Katipunan called for the ouster of Spain from the Philippines, by armed force if necessary. In 1896, after the Spanish executed the voice of Filipino independence, Jose Rizal, 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 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 of 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 Andres 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.

This internal dissent seems to have weakened the Cavite Katipunan movement. In June of 1897, Spanish troops defeated Aguinaldo's forces and retook Cavite. The rebel government regrouped in Biyak na Bato, a mountain town in Bulacan Province, central Luzon, to the 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 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, Emilio Aguinaldo and other rebel officials arrived in British Hong Kong, where the first indemnity payment of $400,000 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.

The 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, providing the US with a pretext to start the Spanish-American War on April 25, 1898.

Aguinaldo sailed back to Manila with the US Asian Squadron, which defeated the Spanish Pacific Squadron in the May 1 Battle of Manila Bay. By May 19, 1898, Aguinaldo was back on his home soil. On the 12th of June, 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 US in the Treaty of Paris.

Aguinaldo as President

Emilio Aguinaldo was officially inaugurated as the first president and dictator of the Philippine Republic in January of 1899. Prime Minister Apolinario Mabini headed the new cabinet. However, the United States did not recognize this new independent Filipino government. President William McKinley offered as one reason the specious 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 in the Treaty of Paris. Despite rumored promises of independence made by US 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.

To commemorate the United States's most substantial foray into the imperial game, in 1899 the British author Rudyard Kipling wrote "The White Man's Burden," a poem extolling American power over "Your new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil, and half-child."

Resistance to American Occupation

Obviously, Aguinaldo and the victorious Filipino revolutionaries did not see themselves as half-devil or half-child. Once they realized that they had been tricked and were indeed "new-caught," the people of the Philippines reacted with outrage far beyond the "sullen," as well.

Aguinaldo responded to the American "Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation" as follows: "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 of 1899, the first Philippines Commission from the US 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 fought on against this new imperial power, turning to guerrilla war when 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 north-east 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.

April 1, 1901. Emilio Aguinaldo formally surrendered, swearing allegiance to the United States of America. 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 and Collaboration

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

In 1935, the Philippine Commonwealth held its first elections after decades of American rule. Then aged 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 occupiers. After the US recaptured the Philippines in 1945, the septuagenarian Emilio Aguinaldo was arrested and imprisoned as a collaborator. However, he was quickly pardoned and released, and his reputation was not too severely tarnished by this war-time indiscretion.

Post-World War II 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 in 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, Aguinaldo donated his home to the government as a museum.

Emilio Aguinaldo's Death and Legacy

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

Although today Aguinaldo is 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, later would wield that power more successfully.


Library of Congress. "Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy," The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War, accessed Dec. 10, 2011.

Ooi, Keat Gin, ed. Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia from Angkor Wat to East Timor, Vol. 2, ABC-Clio, 2004.

Silbey, David. A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902, New York: MacMillan, 2008.