Manuel Quezon and the Push for Philippine Independence

October is Filipino-American History Month, and we’re commemorating it with a post on Manuel Quezon and Philippine Independence from Alexandra Villaseran, an archivist with the Center for Legislative Archives

Today there are six nonvoting members in the U.S. House of Representatives: a Resident Commissioner representing Puerto Rico and one Delegate each for the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But in the early 20th century, the nonvoting members of Congress included a Resident Commissioner from the Philippines, the largest U.S. protectorate at the time.

What does an elected representative to Congress with no voting power do with the limited powers they are allowed? For modern Resident Commissioners and Delegates, their work might include sponsoring bills for veterans affairs, healthcare, or tax and disaster relief. Though these representatives have floor privileges, they do not have the right to vote on proposed legislation, which was also the case for representatives from other territories the United States acquired that eventually achieved statehood, including Hawaii and Alaska. 

From 1909 to 1916, the Resident Commissioner from the Philippines serving in the House was the Filipino lawyer and statesman Manuel Quezon, better known as the first President of the Philippines in the Commonwealth era. Quezon was instrumental in lobbying the U.S. Government to grant the islands a greater level of autonomy, culminating in perhaps his savviest political victory, the Jones Act of 1916. 

Following the acquisition of the Philippine Islands from Spain in 1898, resistance from Filipinos hostile to the idea of further rule by a foreign government resulted in the First Philippine Republic declaring war on the United States. The Philippine-American War broke out on February 4, 1899, in what became known as the Battle of Manila, and ended when Philippine President Emilio Aguinaldo was captured on March 23, 1901. The U.S. government officially declared the war over on July 2, 1902, with a victory for the United States. 

The U.S. established a territorial government in the islands that reported to the U.S. Bureau of Insular Affairs through the 1902 Philippine Organic Act, which provided for an appointed American governor-general, an American-majority appointed upper house, and a fully elected all-Filipino lower house known as the Philippine Assembly. The commonwealth legislature held biennial elections to send two Resident Commissioners to the U.S. House of Representatives. Though denied voting rights in the House, Resident Commissioners of the Philippines could speak on the floor and otherwise participate in legislative business.

Born to a Chinese-Spanish-Tagalog mestizo family in 1878, Manuel Quezon arrived in Washington, DC, in December 1909 and took up residence at the Champlain Apartment House at the corner of 14th and K Streets in Northwest. His first term in Congress was relatively quiet, acting more like a publicist than a lawmaker. Privately believing that the islands would stumble if the U.S. pulled its resources too quickly, Quezon’s primary goal as Resident Commissioner was to convince the American people that the Philippines was ready for greater autonomy on its path to being fully self governing. 

His maiden speech in the House on May 14, 1910, thanked Congress for its investment in the Philippines, appealing to the United States’ revolutionary history and stating that most Americans would rather “emancipate” the islands than “subjugate” them.

Gregarious and charismatic, Quezon made fast friends in Congress, who gave him the nickname “Casey,” an anglicization of Quezon. His allies included Democrat William Jones of Virginia, who chaired the Insular Affairs Committee. Jones put his name on a bill proposed by Quezon, H.R. 22143, which set an Philippine independence date for eight years later and specified that the islands would remain under America’s military umbrella for the next two decades. 

Though the bill passed the House and went to the Senate, legislators were wary of passage without significant changes to the independence clause. The 63rd Congress closed without a solution.

The second version of the Jones bill was the first piece of legislation introduced in the House in the 64th Congress. This second version made no definite provision for independence at any stated time but declared in the preamble that it was “the purpose of the people of the United States to withdraw their sovereignty over the Philippine Islands and to recognize their independence as soon as a stable government can be established therein.” Senate leaders placed it on their legislative calendar a day later as S. 381; the Senate Committee on the Philippines approved the markup, pressing Congress to quickly pass the second version of the Jones Act.

In January 1916, however, Senator James Clarke of Arkansas offered an amendment providing for absolute independence within four years without a guarantee in any form that the United States would maintain any presence in the Philippines. Quezon and his Filipino allies desired, for a time at least, some form of a protectorate under the United States, though he was willing to compromise on the Clarke amendment rather than risk the best chance the Philippines had to become fully autonomous. 

Despite stating he was “for the Clarke amendment body and soul,” the Clarke amendment was voted down, with a bill more or less mirroring the one introduced in the 63rd Congress passing the House, moving to the Senate with whispers of abandoning the Clarke amendment. 

On May 8, Quezon visited the White House to lobby President Wilson to back the revived legislation. The Senate cleared the bill four months later, much of which was the version Quezon had helped draft. With Quezon in attendance, the President signed it into law on August 29, 1916. 

Quezon’s allies in Congress threw him a party at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, after his legislative triumph. After resigning as Resident Commissioner in 1916, he returned to the Philippines a newly minted national hero, with two days of public speeches and celebratory banquets. 

Following the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934, which created the Commonwealth of the Philippines, Quezon won election as President of the Philippines in 1935. During the Japanese occupation, Quezon and his family fled his home country.

Quezon succumbed to tuberculosis in exile in upstate New York on August 1, 1944, and was briefly interred at Arlington National Cemetery before being repatriated after the end of World War II. In his honor, several suburbs northeast of Manila were chartered into Quezon City, which became the seat of government in the Philippines from 1948 to 1976. 

Read “Mango Poem” by Regie Cabico, which was inspired by documents within the National Archives related to the Philippine-American War.

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