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Welcoming What Comes: Sovereignty and Revolution in the Colonial Philippines1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 December 2009

Vicente L. Rafael
History, University of Washington


After more than three hundred years of colonial rule, Filipinos began a revolution against the Spanish empire in August of 1896. By June of 1898, revolutionary forces had managed to overwhelm the Spaniards who were already reeling from the destruction of their navy in the initial days of their war with the United States and had been fatally weakened by the decade-long revolution in Cuba. In the Philippines, a Revolutionary government was formed under the dictatorship of Emilio Aguinaldo. It declared independence, convened a convention to write a constitution and briefly succeeded in forming a Republic led by the wealthiest men of the archipelago by January of 1899. But by February, Filipinos were engulfed in a new war against an emergent U.S. empire that was to last through much of the first decade of the twentieth century, leading to U.S. colonization of the Philippines until 1941.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2010

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2 The historiography of the Philippine Revolution is extensive. The classic accounts remain those by Agoncillo, Teodoro, Revolt of the Masses: The Story of Bonifacio and the Katipunan (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1956)Google Scholar; and Malolos, The Crisis of the Republic (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1960). For works relating the historical background of the Revolution and its aftermath, see the seminal books by Schumacher, John, The Propaganda Movement, 1880–1895: The Creators of a Filipino Consciousness, the Makers of Revolution (Manila: Solidaridad Publishing House, 1973)Google Scholar; Revolutionary Clergy: The Filipino Clergy and the Nationalist Movement, 1850–1903 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1981); and The Making of a Nation: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Filipino Nationalism (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1991). See also Fast, Jonathan and Richardson, Jim, Roots of Dependency: Political and Economic Revolution in 19th Century Philippines (Quezon City: Foundation of Nationalist Studies, 1979)Google Scholar; Milagros Guerrero, “Luzon at War: Contradictions in Philippine Society, 1898–1902,” Ph.D. dissertation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1977; Ileto, Reynaldo, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840–1910 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1979)Google Scholar.

3 Much of the Western, specifically North American academic interest in sovereignty has emerged in the wake of the Cold War, but especially after the events of 9/11 and the assertion of broad executive powers in the United States during the run-up to the Second Gulf War in 2003. The reasons for these are various and call for explanation, but such a project is outside the scope of this essay. The work of Carl Schmitt has been at the forefront of this renewed interest in sovereignty, as it has been the focus of extensive critique by such thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Jean Luc Nancy, and Judith Butler, among many others. See, for example, the wide-ranging essays in de Vries, Hent and Sullivan, Lawrence C., eds., Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press. 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and in Cheah, Pheng and Guerlac, Suzanne, eds., Derrida and the Time of the Political (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Among the numerous recent studies that have sought to situate these debates on sovereignty in specific historical and cultural contexts, one can consult the collection of essays in Hansen, Thomas Blom and Stepputat, Finn, eds., Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants and States in the Postcolonial World (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005)Google Scholar; and the same editors’ very useful survey, “Sovereignty Revisited,” Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (2006): 295–315. See also the essays on Schmitt's concepts of the political and the partisan in a special issue of CR: The New Centennial Review 4, 3 (Winter 2004); and the essays organized around the topic of “Taking Exception to the Exception,” edited by Frank, Jason and McNulty, Tracy, Diacritics 37, 1/2 (2007)Google Scholar.

4 Schmitt, Carl, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Schwab, George, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 5CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Balakrishnan, Gopal, The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt (London: Verso, 2000)Google Scholar.

5 Bodin, Jean, On Sovereignty: Four Chapters from Six Books on the Commonwealth, Franklin, Julian H., trans. and ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Bodin, On Sovereignty, 8–11.

7 See Phelan, John Leddy, The Hispanization of the Philippines: Spanish Aims and Filipino Responses, 1565–1700 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967)Google Scholar; Elliott, J. H., Imperial Spain, 1469–1716 (New York: New American Library, 1963)Google Scholar; Rafael, Vicente L., Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), ch. 4Google Scholar; Kamen, Henry, Spain, 1469–1714: A Society in Conflict (London: Longman, 1983)Google Scholar.

8 For a discussion of the Patronato Real, see de la Costa, Horacio, SJ [Society of Jesus], “Church and State in the Philippines during the Administration of Bishop Salazer, 1581–1594,” Hispanic American Historical Review 30, 3 (Aug. 1950): 314–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Phelan, John Leddy, “Some Ideological Aspects of the Conquest of the Philippines,” The Americas 13, 3 (June 1957): 221–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Elliott, J. H., Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 6869, 198Google Scholar.

9 From the facsimile of the 4th ed., Recopilación de las leyes de los reinos de Indias (Madrid: Consejo de Hispanidad, 1943 [1681]). Long in the making, the Recopilación contained numerous provisions that were modified, if not ignored in their specifics in various parts of the Indies. Indeed, each vice-royalty soon came out with their own version of the laws, though their general ideological thrust remained essentially the same. See Elliott, Empires, 128.

10 See, for example, the nineteenth-century notions of “manifest destiny,” and “benevolent assimilation” in the case of the United States, or Operation Iraqi Freedom in our own time.

11 For a detailed discussion of the linguistic basis of Spanish colonial rule, see Rafael, Contracting Colonialism. For an overview of the structure of the Spanish colonial bureaucracy, see Phelan, Hispanization.

12 Recent critiques of sovereignty include Derrida, Jacques, The Politics of Friendship (London: Verso, 1997)Google Scholar; Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005); and Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Creation of the World, or Globalization, Raffoul, Francois and Pettigrew, David, trans. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 96107Google Scholar. See also the special issue of Diacritics 37 cited in note 3; and the essays in Cheah and Guerlac, eds., Derrida and the Time of the Political.

13 See, for example, de la Costa, “Church and State in the Philippines”; Schumacher, John, SJ, Father Jose Burgos: A Documentary History (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Rafael, Contracting Colonialism.

14 For the most compelling studies regarding the remarkable growth of the Spanish liberal state in the wake of the collapse of the Spanish American Empire, thanks to its more efficient, flexible, but no less ruthless exploitation of its Archipelagic Empire of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, see Fradera, Josep, Colonias para despues de un imperio (Barcelona: Edicion Bellaterra, 2005)Google Scholar; and Filipinas, la colonia mas peculiar: La hacienda publica en la definición de la politica colonial, 1762–1868 (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 1999). Spanish liberalism, borrowing the techniques of its Bourbon predecessors and taking its cue from the British, sought to govern the colonies as states of exception, whose racially mixed populations were seen to be inferior and unequal to Peninsular Spaniards and, especially in the case of the Philippines, consigned to become colonial subjects without any prospects of assimilation as citizens. Where the Spanish Habsburgs sought to endow colonial subjects with natural rights and wed them to the universal laws of Christianity, Spanish liberals sought (and never quite succeeded) to govern them with “special laws” designed to keep them politically subordinate and legally apart from Peninsular Spaniards even as they remained increasingly tethered to the regional economies of Spain. The point here is that contrary to much Anglo-American scholarship that sees the Spanish empire fading into obscurity after the 1820s, Fradera shows how it in fact went through significant reform and became revitalized in the course of the nineteenth century. See also Schmidt-Nowara, Christopher, The Conquest of History: Spanish Colonialism and National Histories in the Nineteenth Century (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for the cultural consequences of these attempts at liberal absolutism.

15 For an extended discussion on the origins of Filipino nationalism, see John Schumacher, SJ, The Propaganda Movement, 1880–1895, rev. ed. (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1997)Google Scholar. See also Rafael, Vicente, The Promise of the Foreign: Nationalism and the Technics of Translation in the Spanish Philippines (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 del Pilar, Marcelo H., La soberania monacal en Filipinias (Barcelona: Imprenta Iberica de Francisco Fossas, 1888)Google Scholar; and La frailocracia Filipina (Barcelona: Imprenta Iberica de Francisco fossas, 1889).

17 A facsimile of the handwritten Spanish text of the Declaration of Independence, “Acta de la Proclamacion de la independenica del pueblo Filipino,” can be found in: de Ocampo, Esteban, ed., June 12, 1898 and Related Documents (Manila: National Historical Commission, 1972), 1940Google Scholar. A printed version of the text is on pages 41–44, and my references below refer to that.

18 The Spanish text reads: “Y poniendo como testigo de la rectitude de nuestras intenciones al Supremo Juez del Universo, y bajo la proteccion de la poderosa y humanitaria nacion, Norte Americana, proclamamos y solemnemente declaramos, en nombre y autoridad de los habitantes de las islas Filipinas que son y tienen derecho a ser libres e independientes; que estén libres de toda obediencia de la Corona de España…. Estado libre e independiente, tienen completa autoridad para declarar la Guerra, entrar en alianzas y regular el comercio y ejecutar todos aquellos otros actos y cosas de incumbencia de los estados independientes.”

19 For a discussion of the “we” in the U.S. Constitution that proclaims “we, the people” that constitutes itself retrospectively as the author of the very text that inaugurates its existence, see Derrida, Jacques, “Declarations of Independence,” New Political Science 15 (1986): 717CrossRefGoogle Scholar; For an elaboration of this Derridean analysis, see Frank, Jason, “‘Unauthorized Propositions’: The Federalist Papers and Constituent Power,” Diacritics 37, 2–3: 103–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Warner, Michael, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 104–8Google Scholar.

20 See Guerrero, “Luzon at War”; Agoncillo, Malolos; Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution.

21 See, for example, the text of Malolos Constitution, Article 2: “La Republica Filipina es libre e independiente,” and Article 3, “La soberanía reside exclusivamente en el pueblo.” Yet, the constitution proceeded to further consolidate elite power, leaving aside the interests, much less the “voice” of the people. For the Spanish text of the Constitution, see Guevara, Sulpicio, ed., The Laws of the First Philippine Republic, 1898–1899 (Manila: National Historical Commission, 1972), 88103Google Scholar. See also Agoncillo, Malolos; and Guerrero, “Luzon at War.”

22 The standard biography of Mabini is Majul, Cesar Adib, Mabini and the Philippine Revolution (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1960)Google Scholar.

23 Mabini, Apolinario, La Revolución Filipina, 2 vols. (Manila: Bureau of Printing, 1931), v. II, 5657Google Scholar; 125; 134–35.

24 Ibid., 57–59.

25 Ibid., 196.

26 Ibid., 53–59; 206–9; 300–25.

27 Ibid., 278–79. For an extended discussion of the significance of the blood compact in late-nineteenth-century nationalist thinking, see Rafael, Promise of the Foreign, ch. 7.

28 La Revolución Filipina, II, 72–74; 131; 161–67.

29 Ibid., 93, 54–55.

30 Mabini was drawing, as many of his fellow ilustrados were, on the idea of natural law found in Catholic philosophy, particularly in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. See, for example, the selections on natural law taken from the Summa Theologica, in Pegis, Anton C., ed., Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Random House, 1945), 616–45Google Scholar. See also the useful discussion in Majul, Mabini and the Philippine Revolution, 79–84.

31 Ibid., 48, 206, 180.

32 La Revolución Filipina, II, 66–67.

33 See Guerrero, “Luzon at War,” ch. 3.

34 La Revolución Filipina, II, 68–69.

35 Ibid., 69.

36 Honesto Mariano, “Popular Songs of the Revolution” (1915), cited in Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution, 181–82.

37 Rousseau, Jean Jacques, The Social Contract, Cranston, M., trans. (New York: Penguin, 1968), 59Google Scholar.

38 Indeed, the serial extension and open-ended inclusion of others into the nation is suggested by the formation of the word itself through the agglutinative addition of the prefix “ka” and “ba” to the root word “bayan.”

39 My discussion of damayan and kalayaan is clearly indebted to Reynaldo Ileto's path-breaking study of the idioms of popular revolt in the Philippines, Pasyon and Revolution. However, while Ileto sought to frame the affective politics of freedom, mourning, and compassion within the text of the Tagalog version of Christ's epic suffering and death (which would seem to lend to all Philippine politics a Christian cast), I suggest that these notions in the context of the Filipino Revolution at once fall short and exceed whatever Christian significance we might ascribe to them. Their provenance in everyday life, as I suggest below, allow them some room to maneuver around the reductive, colonizing projects of state building and political theology while looking toward what we might think of as a proto-democratic (and more modestly messianic) possibilities. A similar set of concerns that seeks to de-theologize, as it were, Philippine nationalist history, is implicit in my book. The Promise of the Foreign, especially chapter 7.

40 Alvarez, Santiago V., Katipunan at ang Paghihimagsik, translated by Malay, Paula Carolina as The Katipunan and the Revolution: Memoirs of a General (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1992), 281Google Scholar. All translations from the Tagalog are mine.

41 Ibid., 282.

42 Aguinaldo, Emilio, Mga Gunita ng Himagsikan (Cavite[?]: Cristina Aguinaldo Suntay, 1964), 117Google Scholar.

43 Ibid., 103.

44 Laktaw, Pedro Serrano, Diccionario Tagalo-Hispano, Segunda parte (Manila: Santos y Bernal, 1914), 203–4Google Scholar.

45 Aguinaldo, Mga Gunita, 81, 111, 117, 147.

46 Ibid., 233–34.

47 Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution, 88–89.

48 One is led to think here of Derrida's revision of the classical notion of sovereignty based on “ipseity,” the sense of the “I can” that underlies almost all accounts of freedom as self-determination and self-mastery. He calls for a critique of ipseity beyond the terms of the self-evident autonomy of the “I” who says “I can,” and for a reconsideration of freedom “that would no longer be the power of a subject, a freedom without autonomy, a heteronomy without servitude” (in Rogues, 152). The revolutionary accounts I have been reading suggests some non-European sites for receiving and responding to these calls.

49 I am indebted to Bonnie Honig's careful unpacking of Schmitt's use of the metaphor of the “miracle” to theologize the notion of exception, which for him serves as the privileged manifestation of sovereign power. See her essay, “The Miracle of Metaphor: Rethinking the State of Exception with Rosenzweig and Schmitt,” Diacritics 37, 1–2 (2007): 78–102. Honig's explication of the everyday quality of the miraculous, and the miraculous because prophetic nature of the everyday, has been productive for thinking about the vernacular experience of sovereignty in the Philippine context. See also Honig's book, Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). The link between sovereign life and the miraculous draws, of course, from the writings of Bataille: “Beyond need, the object of desire is, humanly, the miracle; it is sovereign life, beyond the necessity that suffering defines.” See Bataille, George, “Sovereignty,” in The Accursed Share, 3 vols., Hurley, Richard, trans. (New York: Zone Books, 1993)Google Scholar. The quote comes from vol. 3, 201.

50 To get an acute sense of the quotidian quality of popular sovereignty arising precisely from the intensification of everyday acts of pity, sharing, mourning, and pilgrimage, see Ileto's detailed description of the movement led by a revolutionary fighter, Felipe Salvador, in Pasyon and Revolution, ch. 6.

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