A people’s hero

Heroes are different from statesmen because while statesmen acquire their authority from political decisions, that of heroes comes from public esteem. Heroes become the exemplars of civic virtue because they consecrate their lives to the pursuit of the common good. For them, the purpose of politics is to form citizens who have the will and the capability to work for the future of an entire community. Statesmen are often drawn from the ranks of heroes, but what ultimately sets them apart is not their heroic quality but their adeptness in the ways of modern politics.

Andres Bonifacio, whose 148th birth anniversary the Filipino nation marked yesterday, Nov. 30, was a hero, but he was not a statesman. Indeed, shortly after he launched the revolution against Spain, he began to be perceived as an obstacle to the formation of a Filipino state. The man recognized as the father of the Katipunan found himself excluded from the government that was established in the course of the revolutionary war. Charged with sedition and treason, he was put to death by his own comrades. In the light of the subsequent reversals and compromises that marked the conduct of the revolution, the circumstances surrounding Bonifacio’s death raised many questions in the public mind.

If the Supremo was a hero, why was he killed by his fellow revolutionaries? If indeed he became a traitor to the revolution, as his accusers say, why is he revered and remembered as a hero?  If Bonifacio’s image as a hero has persisted to this day, then it is more than likely that the Filipino people fail to see the justification for his execution.

For a long time, the burden of these questions lay on the shoulder of the one person who took over the leadership of the revolution after the ouster of Bonifacio—Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo.  These questions haunted him long after the defeat of Spain, and a new colonial power, America, had taken over the country.

Although Bonifacio does not occupy as hallowed a place in the nation’s pantheon of heroes as the martyred Dr. Jose Rizal, there is no question that in the public mind he was a far greater hero than Aguinaldo. Bonifacio was 33 when he died. But Aguinaldo, who was only 29 when he took over the helm of the revolution in 1897, and became the president of the first Philippine Republic, lived until he was 94. After his capture by the Americans in 1901, he retreated from public life, re-emerging only in 1935 to seek the presidency of the country during the Commonwealth period. Thus, he saw for himself how the next generation of Filipinos regarded his own contributions to the nation. He lost by a landslide to the mercurial Manuel L. Quezon.

During the Japanese Occupation, Aguinaldo committed the error of supporting the Japanese, marking him out as a collaborator. He was arrested and briefly jailed after the Americans re-took the country. This must have been the lowest point in the general’s public esteem. Already then in his mid-70s, he found himself on the wrong side of history when the war ended in 1945.

Then in 1948, as if from nowhere, General Aguinaldo issued a statement pertaining to the execution of the brothers Andres and Procopio Bonifacio. Fifty years had passed since that fateful event, but the memory of the tragedy must have continued to rankle in his mind. He felt obliged to clarify the reasons for the harsh sentence against the Supremo and his brother. The statement was written in Tagalog, and what follows would be my rough translation of portions of the text.

After many years, he begins, the so-called mystery behind the death of the hero and father of the Katipunan, Andres Bonifacio, has to be put to rest. There is no mystery, he says, except perhaps in the eyes of historians who are content with summaries. “The documents in the care of Mr. Jose P. Santos attest to the reasons behind the decision of the court-martial that tried and sentenced the Bonifacio brothers to be shot to death. The judgment was strongly affirmed by the leaders concerned, and all of them were of one mind about the correctness of the decision. However, when the papers were given to me, I could not see myself staining the unity of the revolutionary struggle of our race. And because I was in a position of authority then, I decided to amend the judgment against the two brothers by commuting it to indefinite exile to a faraway place.

“Shortly thereafter, two members of the Council of War, Gen. Mariano Noriel and Gen. Pio del Pilar, came to me and warned me that: ‘If you wish to maintain the stability of our revolutionary government, and if you want us to survive this war, you have to revoke the pardon you are giving these two brothers.’ That is why I recalled my commutation order and authorized General Noriel to carry out the death sentence issued by the Council of War against the two brothers.”

It was certainly honorable for General Aguinaldo to issue this clarification, because previous to that, the prevailing belief had been that the presidential order of commutation was willfully ignored by those who had a personal axe to grind against Bonifacio. Had he wished to wash his hands off the killing of Bonifacio, he could have allowed this view to continue. But, this basic integrity has not endeared him to generations that remember only the raw courage and heroism of the man who showed Filipinos how to begin a revolution. Aguinaldo fought and lived long to see the birth of a free nation.  Yet, between him and Bonifacio, it is the latter who occupies pride of place in the hearts of the Filipino people.