American Regime in the Philippines: 1898-1935

Philippines National Railway Lines

On April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain and the Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, ordered Dewey to attack the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. The Battle of Manila Bay was the first hostile engagement of the Spanish-American War. In the darkness before dawn, Commodore Dewey’s ships passed under the siege guns on the island of Corregidor at the entrance to Manila Bay and by noon on May 1, 1898 had destroyed the Spanish fleet.

Aguinaldo arrived back in the Philippines from Hong Kong on May 19, 189 and resumed command of his rebel forces. The Filipino rebels routed the demoralized Spanish forces in the provinces and laid siege to Manila. From the balcony of his house in Cavite, Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed the independence of the Philippines on June 12, 1898.

Whatever understanding Dewey and Aguinaldo may have reached in Hong Kong prior to the war, neither could have appreciated the full extent of the geopolitical forces at play. By late May, the newly appointed Admiral Dewey had received intructions to distance himself from Aguinaldo and his independence cause.

By late July, 12,000 American troops had arrived from San Francisco. The Spanish governor, Fermin Jaudenes, negotiated the surrender of Manila with an arranged show of resistance that preserved Spanish sensibilities of honour and excluded Aguinaldo’s Filipinos. The Americans took possession of Manila on August 13, 1898.

As it became apparent that the United States did not intend to recognize Philippine independence, Aguinaldo moved his capital in September from Cavite to the more defensible Malalos in Bulacan.

That same month, the United States and Spain began their peace negotiations in Paris. The Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898. By the Treaty, Cuba gained its independence and Spain ceded the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States for the sum of US$20 million.


The Treaty of Paris was not well received in the Philippines. Filipino nationalists were incensed at the arrogance of the imperial powers to bargain away their independence for the tidy price of US$20 million with not so much as a pretence of consultation with Filipinos.

Aguinaldo did not need recommendations to decide what he would do. On January 23, 1899 he proclaimed the Malalos Constitution and the First Philippine Republic.

The hostilities in the Philippine War of Independence began on February 4, 1899 and continued for two years. The United States needed 126,000 soldiers to subdue the Philippines. The war took the lives of 4,234 Americans and 16,000 Filipinos. As many as 200,000 civilians may have died from famine and disease.

As before, the Filipino rebels did not do well in the field. Aguinaldo and his government escaped the capture of Malalos on March 31, 1899 and were driven into northern Luzon. Peace feelers from members of Aguinaldo’s cabinet failed in May when the American commander, General Ewell Otis, demanded an unconditional surrender.

Aguinaldo disbanded his regular forces in November and began a guerrilla campaign concentrated mainly in the Tagalog areas of central Luzon. Aguinaldo was captured on March 23, 1901. In Manila he was persuaded to swear allegiance to the United States and called on his soldiers to put down their arms.

The United States declared an end to military rule on July 4, 1901.

Filipinos initially saw their relationship with the United States as that of two nations joined in a common struggle against Spain. As allies, Filipinos had provided the American forces with valuable intelligence and military support. However, the United States later distanced itself from the interests of the Filipino insurgents. Aguinaldo was unhappy that the United States would not commit to paper a statement of support for Philippine independence. Relations deteriorated and tensions heightened as it became clear that the Americans were in the islands to stay.

The United States defined its colonial mission as one of tutelage, preparing the Philippines for eventual independence. Civil government was established by the United States in 1901, with William Howard Taft as the first American Governor-General of the Philippines, replacing the military governor, Arthur MacArthur, Jr. The governor-general acted as head of the Philippine Commission, a body appointed by the U.S. president with legislative and limited executive powers. The commission passed laws to set up the fundamentals of the new government, including a judicial system, civil service, and local government. A Philippine Constabulary was organized to deal with the remnants of the insurgent movement and gradually assume the responsibilities of the United States Army. The elected Philippine Assembly was inaugurated in 1907, becoming a lower house of a bicameral legislature, with the appointed Philippine Commission as upper house.
United States policies towards the Philippines shifted with changing administrations. During the early years of colonial rule, the Americans were reluctant to delegate authority to the Filipinos. However, when Woodrow Wilson became U.S. President in 1913, a new policy was adopted to put into motion a process that would gradually lead to Philippine independence. The Jones Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1916 to serve as the new organic law in the Philippines, promised eventual independence and instituted an elected Philippine senate.

The 1920s saw alternating periods of cooperation and confrontation with American governors-general, depending on how intent the incumbent was on exercising his powers vis-à-vis the Philippine legislature. Members to the elected legislature lobbied for immediate and complete independence from the United States. Several independence missions were sent to Washington, D.C.

A civil service was formed and was gradually taken over by Filipinos, who had effectively gained control by 1918.
Philippine politics during the American colonial era was dominated by the Nacionalista Party, which was founded in 1907. Although the party’s platform called for “immediate independence”, their policy toward the Americans was highly accommodating. Within the political establishment, the call for independence was spearheaded by Manuel L. Quezon, who served continuously as Senate president from 1916 until 1935.

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