By Gianela Zapata

The First Philippine Republic was inaugurated in Malolos, Bulacan on January 23, 1899. Today, its legacy lives on through every Filipino who chooses to fight for justice and freedom just like their ancestors did 123 years ago. 

The Philippines is both a republic and a democracy. By definition, a republic is a form of government where governing the country is a matter of public interest rather than the private concern of a ruling dynasty, dictatorship, or monarchy. For every republic, the people in power get there through a system that is meant to include the interests of every citizen. In a democracy, all the citizens of the country have a say in their governance— usually by majority vote to elect representatives who have their best interests in mind.

Elections are held every six years (democratic) to elect a president and representatives: the congress and a senate (republic). Thus, the Philippines was and always has been declared as the Constitutional Democratic Republic from its first until the present fifth republic. However, the history behind the first republic tells the story of a long battle for independence that we continue to see today. 

Sowing the Seeds of Independence 

Let us travel back to the Propaganda Movement which was started by Jose Rizal, Mariano Ponce, Graciano López Jaena, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, and the like. Filipinos demanded equality towards the treatment and representation of the Filipinos within the Cortes, also known as the Spanish legislature. 

This movement was developed and pushed further by Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Jacinto, who created the Katipunan, fought for their independence from Spain, and pushed their vision of the “Haring Bayang Katagalugan,” promoting a democratic society where the power to govern lies with the people. 

This continued from the Tejeros Convention on March 22, 1897, up to the Biak-na-Bato Republic which was ended by the Pact of Biak-na-Bato on December 15, 1897. Because of this, the leaders of the revolution such as Emilio Aguinaldo had a voluntary exile to Hong Kong with the desire for a republic carved within their minds. 

A painting from the said Tejeros Convention as it shows an angry Bonifacio and a frightened Tirona
Photo source: Presidential Communications and Strategic Planning Office

The Pact of Biak-na-Bato, December 15, 1897
Photo source: Philippine Cultural Education

The Birth of a New Philippines

In May of 1898, Emilio Aguinaldo returned to the Philippines as their new leader, with support from the United States. As the Filipinos continued to regain their ground and achieved victory bit by bit, the proclamation of Independence was created in Kawit, Cavite on June 12, 1898. This was also the first time that the Philippine National Anthem was ever played to the public.

By August, Filipinos were finally in control of most of their country. Between June and September of 1898, elections were held for seats in the revolutionary Congress, also known as the nation’s first legislature. Then, on September 15, 1898, this Congress representing the different provinces in the Philippines, met in Malolos, Bulacan. The first thing on their agenda was to write a democratic Constitution for an independent people. 

After much revisions and numerous debates, Aguinaldo approved the final draft of the Malolos Constitution (or more accurately known as La Constitución Política de 1899) on December 23, 1898. It was formally adopted by the Malolos Congress on January 20, 1899, and promulgated by Emilio Aguinaldo on January 21, 1899. 

The cover of La Constitución Política de 1899
Photo source: NHCP Museum of Leon and Galicano Apacible

The first republic was inaugurated two days later on the 23rd, the same day that Aguinaldo was inaugurated as President. This was met with numerous festivities and celebrations. After all, it was the first constitutional republic in all of Asia.

The photo of the inauguration for the First Philippine Republic
Photo source: National Historical Commission of the Philippines

Compared to previous Filipino governments, it contained the full attributes of a state: a constitution, territory under the authority of a government with an army, and three branches of government— namely, Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary. It enforced its taxes, released currency and postage stamps, recognized the separation between Church and State, promoted education, and valued the native tongue. It guaranteed the civil liberties of the people, as well as the civil human rights against the abuses of those in power. 

The Struggle Is Not Yet Over

This, however, was only the beginning. When Spain sold the Philippines to the United States just a month earlier, the Americans turned out not to be an ally, but a new colonizer threatening the freedom of the nation once again. With this, US imperialism continued even after another occupation by the Japanese in 1942. 

While the days of militaristic foreign rule are far behind us, the battle for a better Philippines is never truly over. Despite having only lasted for two years, The First Republic’s legacy shows the triumphant victory of Filipinos against three centuries of colonialism. One of its greatest achievements is the protection of the rights of our people. Along with The Philippine Revolution, The First Philippine Republic served as a symbol of hope for many colonized and occupied regions in Asia, encouraging them to push for their liberty.

It is a testament to the aspirations and capabilities of the Filipino people for democracy. It is an empowering reminder to exercise and defend our rights before and even when they are taken from us. Looking ahead, it is undeniable proof that the Philippines deserves a government that truly represents the people they govern. We have a shared responsibility to live by that legacy.