Most of us only have a cursory knowledge acquired from basic education text books of Don Felipe Agoncillo, the lawyer from Taal after whom a town in Batangas has been named and who is remembered in history as the country’s representative to the Treaty of Paris1 of 1898 and the “outstanding first Filipino diplomat.2” What the text books do not go into detail about is that he was sent to secure self-rule for the Philippines but ultimately failed through no fault of his or from lack of trying.
Agoncillo was born in 1859 to an affluent family in Taal. After studying to become a lawyer at the University of Santo Tomas, where he was a brilliant student, he returned to Taal to practice law. He gained a reputation for defending the poor against the abuses of the Spanish colonial government. He would marry Marcela Mariño, whom History would remember as the designer of the first Philippine flag. The two were passionate nationalists who would eventually become involved in the resistance movement against Spanish colonial rule.3
In December of 1897, Agoncillo joined other members of the Philippine revolutionary government in exile in Hong Kong as part of the provisions of the truce signed between the Spanish colonial government and the Filipino resistance, effectively ending the Philippine Revolution against Spanish rule.4
The following year, an American fleet under the command of Admiral George Dewey arrived in Manila to engage the Spanish fleet. This was because the Americans themselves were involved in a war against the Spaniards sparked by the attack on an American ship in Cuba. By this time, Spain was spent as an imperial power and could no longer resist the emerging strength of the Americans. Representatives of the two countries would meet in Paris later in the year to discuss and eventually sign a treaty.
The Philippine revolutionary government was hoping to benefit from this, its forces having earlier engaged the Spanish troops in aid of Dewey’s naval assault. In August, General Emilio Aguinaldo sent Agoncillo to Washington DC to meet with United States President William McKinley and discuss how the Filipinos might be represented in the discussions to be held later in the year in Paris.
Agoncillo arrived in San Francisco in September 1898 and then travelled over land to the American capital in the company of General Francis V. Greene. The latter had been to the Philippines as part of the American forces sent to engage the Spaniards. He was also travelling to the American capital to report to the president.
McKinley finally got to meet Agoncillo at the White House Cabinet Room in the afternoon of the first of October. Gregg Jones, in his book, described what transpired:
“At the first opening, the Filipino diplomat began to state his people’s case to the President in florid Castilian Spanish. As an interpreter struggled to keep pace, Agoncillo juxtaposed the despotic excesses of Spanish colonial rule with the virtues of the American system, the model ‘which the Philippine people will follow when they are independent.’ He recalled Aguinaldo’s meetings with Dewey and other American representatives, and asserted that each of the American emissaries had pledged support to Filipino self-rule.5”
The American president, Jones wrote further, listened politely but would ultimately reject any previous commitments that American military commanders had made to the Philippine revolutionaries, particularly with regards to self-rule. He told Agoncillo that the Filipinos could not be represented in the Paris talks because it was something that would not be acceptable to the Spaniards. Finally, he also said that he did not think Agoncillo’s command of English was good enough for him to make himself understandable to American negotiators.
Jones theorized that McKinley’s stance might have been influenced by a growing desire among many Americans for expansionism, something that was personified by Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley’s potential Republican rival for the following year’s presidential elections. Thus, through a cable to his peace negotiators in Paris, he gave the instruction that “the cession (by Spain of the Philippines) must be of the whole archipelago or none.”
Meanwhile, Agoncillo, after his meeting with McKinley, sailed to Paris where for six weeks he tried in vain to convince American peace negotiators to support self-rule for the Philippines. He was never allowed to participate in any of the hearings held between the negotiators from Spain and the United States, so effectively the fate of an entire country was being decided without its people being given the courtesy of being heard.
Although Spain was initially reluctant to cede the entirety of the Philippines to the Americans, the offer of a US$20 million payment ultimately turned out too good to refuse for an erstwhile European power that had by this time lost most of its wealth and power.
In an interview which Agoncillo gave to the New York Times, Agoncillo said, “I am afraid the Filipinos will never again submit to the yoke of a colonial government. Rather than live again as slaves, they will fight to the bitter end in defense of their rights and freedom.” His words would turn out to be quite prophetic. Indeed, in Februay of 1899, fighting between Filipino troops and American forces in the Philippines broke out in what History would call the Philippine-American War.6
Notes and references:1 An international agreement through which Spain ceded what remained of its empire, including the Philippines, to the United States. Wikipedia.
2 “Felipe Agoncillo,” Wikipedia.
3 “The Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars: A Political, Social and Military History,” Spencer C. Tucker, Editor. 2009.
4 “Pact of Biak-na-Bato,” Wikipedia.
5 As with succeeding details of Agoncillo’s participation (or lack of it) in the Treaty of Paris negotiations, from the book “Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream,” by Gregg Jones. 2012.
6 “Philippine-American War,” Wikipedia.