Manuel Quezon of the Philippines

Manuel Quezon broadcasts a radio message to the Philippines from the US, 1937


Manuel Quezon is generally considered the second president of the Philippines, even though he was the first to head the Commonwealth of the Philippines under American administration, serving from 1935 to 1944. Emilio Aguinaldo, who had served in 1899-1901 during the Philippine-American War, is usually called the first president.

Quezon was from an elite mestizo family from the east coast of Luzon. His privileged background did not insulate him from tragedy, hardship, and exile, however.

Early Life

Manuel Luis Quezon y Molina was born on August 19, 1878, in Baler, now in Aurora Province. (The province is actually named after Quezon's wife.) His parents were Spanish colonial army officer Lucio Quezon and primary school teacher Maria Dolores Molina. Of mixed Filipino and Spanish ancestry, in the racially segregated Spanish Philippines, the Quezon family were considered blancos or "whites," which afforded them more freedom and higher social status than purely Filipino or Chinese people enjoyed.

When Manuel was nine years old, his parents sent him to school in Manila, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) away from Baler. He would remain there through university; he studied law at the University of Santo Tomas but did not graduate. In 1898, when Manuel was 20, his father and brother were accosted and murdered along the road from Nueva Ecija to Baler. The motive may have been simply robbery, but it is likely that they were targeted for their support of the colonial Spanish government against the Filipino nationalists in the independence struggle.

Entry into Politics

In 1899, after the US defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War and seized the Philippines, Manuel Quezon joined Emilio Aguinaldo's guerrilla army in its fight against the Americans. He was accused a short time later of murdering an American prisoner of war, and was imprisoned for six months, but was cleared of the crime for lack of evidence.

Despite all of that, Quezon soon began to rise in political prominence under the American regime. He passed the bar exam in 1903 and went to work as a surveyor and clerk. In 1904, Quezon met a young Lieutenant Douglas MacArthur; the two would become close friends in the 1920s and 1930s. The newly-minted lawyer became a prosecutor in Mindoro in 1905 and then was elected governor of Tayabas the following year.

In 1906, the same year he became governor, Manuel Quezon founded the Nacionalista Party with his friend Sergio Osmena. It would be the leading political party in the Philippines for years to come. The following year, he was elected to the inaugural Philippine Assembly, later renamed the House of Representatives. There, he chaired the appropriations committee and served as majority leader.

Quezon moved to the United States for the first time in 1909, serving as one of two resident commissioners to the US House of Representatives. The Philippines' commissioners could observe and lobby the US House but were non-voting members. Quezon pressed his American counterparts to pass the Philippine Autonomy Act, which became law in 1916, the same year that he returned to Manila.

Back in the Philippines, Quezon was elected to the Senate, where he would serve for the next 19 years until 1935. He was selected as the first President of the Senate and continued in that role throughout his Senate career. In 1918, he married his first cousin, Aurora Aragon Quezon; the couple would have four children. Aurora would become famous for her commitment to humanitarian causes. Tragically, she and their eldest daughter were assassinated in 1949.


In 1935, Manuel Quezon headed a Filipino delegation to the United States to witness US President Franklin Roosevelt's signing of a new constitution for the Philippines, granting it semi-autonomous commonwealth status. Full independence was supposed to follow in 1946. 

Quezon returned to Manila and won the first national presidential election in the Philippines as the Nacionalista Party candidate. He handily defeated Emilio Aguinaldo and Gregorio Aglipay, taking 68% of the vote. 

As president, Quezon implemented a number of new policies for the country. He was very concerned with social justice, instituting a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, the provision of public defenders for indigent defendants in court, and the redistribution of agricultural land to tenant farmers. He sponsored the building of new schools across the country, and promoted women's suffrage; as a result, women got the vote in 1937. President Quezon also established Tagalog as the national language of the Philippines, alongside English.

Meanwhile, however, the Japanese had invaded China in 1937 and started the Second Sino-Japanese War, which would lead to World War II in Asia. President Quezon kept a wary eye on Japan, which seemed likely to target the Philippines soon in its expansionist mood. He also opened the Philippines to Jewish refugees from Europe, who were fleeing increasing Nazi oppression in the period between 1937 and 1941. This saved about 2,500 people from the Holocaust.

Although Quezon's old friend, now-General Douglas MacArthur, was assembling a defense force for the Philippines, Quezon decided to visit Tokyo in June of 1938. While there, he tried to negotiate a secret mutual non-aggression pact with the Japanese Empire. MacArthur learned of Quezon's unsuccessful negotiation, and relations temporarily soured between the two.

In 1941, a national plebiscite amended the constitution to allow presidents to serve two four-year terms rather than a single six-year term. As a result, President Quezon was able to run for re-election. He won the November 1941 poll with almost 82% of the vote over Senator Juan Sumulong.

World War II

On December 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines. President Quezon and other top government officials had to evacuate to Corregidor along with General MacArthur. He fled the island in a submarine, moving on to Mindanao, then Australia, and finally the United States. Quezon set up a government in exile in Washington D.C. 

During his exile, Manuel Quezon lobbied the US Congress to send American troops back into the Philippines. He exhorted them to "Remember Bataan," in reference to the infamous Bataan Death March. However, the Filipino president did not survive to see his old friend, General MacArthur, make good on his promise to return to the Philippines.

President Quezon suffered from tuberculosis. During his years in exile in the US, his condition steadily worsened until he was forced to move to a "cure cottage" in Saranac Lake, New York. He died there on August 1, 1944. Manuel Quezon was originally buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but his remains were moved to Manila after the war was over.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Manuel Quezon of the Philippines." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Manuel Quezon of the Philippines. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Manuel Quezon of the Philippines." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).