FFE Magazine

PH History Today: The Philippine Assembly- Road to self-governance

Hot weather we’re having in the second week of October, ah? I don’t know about you, but people here in the country are also feeling the heat what with the current events we’re having. I think it is good if we talk about something that the Filipinos agreed about for a change. I am talking about the first time Filipinos were made to choose a leader among their ranks on a national scale.

I am taking you to October 16, 1907, after Rizal wrote ‘El Filibusterismo’ that sparked the Revolution. Only 16 years from El Fili but already the Philippines was at a major turning point in its history. This is the story of the Philippine Assembly: the Philippines on the road to self-governance.

We won’t be leaving the shores of the Philippines this week, but stories that happen at home are always interesting, noh? So grab a chair, get something cool to drink and stay for a while…

A man named Cooper

Our story begins with an American who went by the name of Henry Allen Cooper. Henry came from Wisconsin and was a statesman who loved and served his country well. As a representative to the United States Congress, Henry was in charge of Insular Affairs – in other words, he called the shots in Congress when it came to what to do with the Philippines. Well, on paper at least.

Henry Allen Cooper, author of the Philippine Organic Act, 1902

Across the Pacific, our country was in chaos. The Spaniards were out, but in came the Americans, and with the taste of victory still fresh in his lips, Juan dela Cruz was adamant in kicking them out too. War was ravaging the country – in America, lawmakers were shaking their heads and gnashing their teeth over the ‘barbarous, bolo-wielding Filipino.’

Filipino soldiers during the Philippine-American War

The Philippine-American relationship at the turn of the century, by cartoonistWinsor McCay, 1899

Description: Uncle Sam (representing the United States), gets entangled with rope around a tree labelled ‘Imperialism’ while trying to subdue a bucking colt or mule labelled ‘Philippines’ while a figure representing Spain walks off over the horizon.

But Henry saw past the bolo and understood what was in Juan dela Cruz’s heart: freedom. He proposed a bill, the Philippine Organic Act, which paved the way for Filipino self-governance. In a speech delivered in front of Congress, he read Rizal’s final obra ‘Mi Ultimo Adios’ to help him make out the case for the Filipino’s freedom.

It worked.

The poem was received at first with absolute stillness… then thunderous applause. The Philippine Organic Act, or Cooper Act, was enacted by the US Congress on July 1, 1902. At the same period, the Philippine-American war officially ended after 4 years.

The Philippine Organic Act ensured that a Philippine Assembly (which is equivalent to our modern Lower House or Congress) consisting of Filipinos will convene once three conditions were met:

                1. the halting of the war,

                2. the publication of a census and

                3. peace and recognition of the US’ authority for two years after the publication of a census.

The Philippine Commission, a group appointed by the US President to govern the country, was able to execute these conditions (as best they can) in 2 years’ time. Pretty soon, America gave the green light to the elections for the promised Assembly.

The national elections

Can you guess who the leading names for election were at the time? Why, take a good look at your 20-peso and 50-peso bills. You got that right – they’re the warm Sergio Osmeña and the dashing Manuel L. Quezon. But they didn’t have it easy in the race to win seats.

Quezon (L) and Osmena (R) in the 20 and 50 peso bills.

There were two major political parties during the campaign for the Assembly. These were the Partido Nacionalista (Nationalist) and the Partido Nacional Progresista (Progressive). If you think the name confuses you, then you’ll be in for a surprise since the agendas will too. At first, the Progressives were for American statehood. But a reorganisation turned them more conservative, although still well-connected with American lawmakers. The Nationalists meanwhile were clearly for independence. The problem was that this party had members who were always at odds with one another.

So, in one corner, we have the Progressives who were well-organised and, in the other, the Nationalists whose members were practically at each other’s necks. Which party did you think won the elections?

Here’s a clue: Juan dela Cruz still hungered for independence from the US.


It was the Nationalists. Being pals with the Americans simply didn’t help Progressive’s cause. An astounding 74% of voters in the 80 districts of the Philippines voted for the Nationalists. The Progressives got 20%, Independents 5% and others 1%.

With majority of the seats in their power, the Nationalists had the say in the election of the Assembly speaker – the person who was virtually the most powerful Filipino in the government at the time.

Best friends and bitter foes Manuel L. Quezon (left) and Sergio Osmena (right).

October 16, 1907

The middle of October year 1907 marked the day the Philippine Assembly came together and elected their leader. But I’m sorry to say there wasn’t much suspense on how the elections for speakership took place.

By the time the Nationalists became the majority party, it was pretty much a choice among three candidates: Osmeña, Pedro Paterno and Dominador Gomez. Astounding support from both parties eventually led to Osmeña’s victory.  Joining him as majority and minority floor leaders were Quezon and Vicente Singson respectively.

The Philippine Assembly, 1907

The inauguration of the first Philippine Assembly finally took place at the Manila Grand Opera House (If you want to know where this once stood, take the LRT-1 and exit Doroteo Jose station. You’ll find a hotel carrying the Opera’s name). The event was graced by US Secretary of War William Howard Taft (yes, Taft Avenue in Manila was named after him), who later became the 27th president of the United States.

History researcher Chris Antonette Piedad-Pugay described that day best when he said it represented a ‘turning point in the country’s history, for its creation marked the commencement of Filipino participation in self- governance and a big leap towards self-determination.’

By giving Filipinos the right to elect their leaders, leaders who represented them on a national scale, they became empowered. They were given voice and their voice was finally recognised. October 16 was not only significant in that it paved the way for the institutionalisation of the legislative body in the country. It was significant because the Filipinos finally held the steering wheel toward the country’s destiny.


Of course, complete independence from America was not achieved until 1946, after World War II. Members of the Philippine Assembly (Osmeña and Quezon, notably) fiercely lobbied for independence.

It’s true that American lawmakers did not exactly feel that the country was ready to govern itself. But before you go ballistic over this unfair conclusion by our brothers from the other side of the Pacific, keep in mind that America was keeping its own interests in mind, especially with World War II looming in the background.

The old and the new Manila Grand Opera Hotel

Keeping the Philippines was actually pretty reasonable from their perspective… but this is beside the point. What’s done is done, and we have to look forward to what the future holds.

What do I mean by this? Well, the barangay elections, of course! I think that it is important for us now to remember what happened on October 16, 1907 since the local election is coming up. Despite news in Zamboanga and the shocking pork barrel and DAP scandals, let us be inspired by the first Filipino voters who believed that electing their own leaders was a way to achieve their wish for their country – freedom.

It isn’t so much the who’s, what’s and where’s that matter in this story for Filipinos today. It’s the why and the how… why did the first Filipino national voters believe that an election will save their country? How did they find the power to trust their leaders and slowly, finally, lay down their weapons.

Simple. It was faith that moved them – a faith that we need now as we vote for those who are worthy of the positions in the coming barangay elections.

Wheeew, what a very long story! We are now more than 100 years from the events of that day. Still, we should find it inspiring and even practical as we prepare for October 28. Did you find this story a great motivation for the coming elections? Share your thoughts by commenting below!



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