Rizal in the American Congress
By Vicente Albano Pacis
December 27, 1952–IN the semi darkness of the ground floor of the US Capitol in Washington, I entered an office by mistake—and stumbled upon the author of the Philippine Bill of 1902—and an interesting episode in Rizalian lore.
It was 1926. Though perhaps not as critical as that of 1902, the American congressional situation with respect to the Philippines was serious. In Manila, General Leonard Wood, the Governor-General, and Manuel L. Quezon, the Senate President, were in the midst of a knock-down-and-dug-out fight. And friends of the general on Capitol Hill were active. One of them, tough and determined Congressman Robert Bacon of New York, had introduced a bill separating Mindanao and Jolo from the Philippines and retaining them under US sovereignty, should Luzon and the Visayas become independent, Senator Sergio Osmeña has rushed to Washington in alarm to try and block the shocking proposal.
A young Associated Press correspondent, I was closely watching the developments on the measure and was that day on my way to the office of Congressman Kiess of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Committee on Insular Affairs, when I entered the wrong door. I was about to withdraw, having started to offer my excuses, but what the elderly female secretary said rang a bell in my head.
She said. “This is the office of Congressman Henry A. Cooper; can I help you?”
“Cooper of Wisconsin?” I inquired.
I had been in and out of the Capitol for five or six months and had not heard any mention of his name now seen him in the house session hall. I had no idea that he was still a member of Congress. But feeling sure now that the man into whose office I had gotten by mistake was none other than the man for whom the Cooper Act—the first Philippine Organic Law—was named, I decided to see him. I asked the secretary if I could do so.
She slipped into the dim inner office and almost right away came back to usher me in. Seated beside an ancient roll-top desk, the completely white-haired, short, thin old man trembled visibly as he rose slowly and offered me his hand.
“I’m Cooper,” he stated simply.
I explained who I was and added for its possible psychological effect that I had just left the University of Wisconsin the previous summer. But it was not necessary. The mere fact that I was a Filipino seemed to have had a tonic effect on both his strength and memory.
“Well, sir, so you’re from the Philippines?” he said in a reedy voice as he motioned me to a seat.
Having himself sunk back into his swivel chair, he continued, “I’m always glad to meet Filipinos. In all modesty, one of the highlights—one of the most thrilling moments—of my long congressional service was my participation in the drafting and enactment of the first enabling act for the Philippines. And, sir, President McKinley, Governor Taft, and the rest of us met obstacles on every side. But do you know who came to our rescue, sir? None other than you great martyr and hero, Jose Rizal.”
I had gone in, glad of the opportunity to meet a history-book name. His reference to Rizal left me in a state of trembling expectation. What he did next heightened the suspense.
He leaned back in his chair, pressed interlaced fingers on his breast and closed his eyes. He remained thus for some time. I began to wonder if he had gone to sleep as old people often do at the oddest moments. I was about to call his secretary when he suddenly opened his eyes, sat erect, gripped the arms of his chair with each hand as if he had just remembered something very important. His mind had evidently traveled some two decades back, and now he resumed talking.
“Philippine-American relations started very badly, sir!” he recalled. “Those of us who were trying to formulate what might be a just and wise Philippine policy were harassed on every side. Do you know, sir, that President McKinley finally had to resort to nightly prayer?”
With a faraway look in his eyes, he related how the president, criticized on all sides and offered conflicting advice, had finally decided to go on his knees every night in the White House. And one night there had come to him what appeared to be the ultimate solution of the situation. Give back the Philippines to Spain? Leave them to another power in the Orient—Germany, Great Britain, Japan? Abandon the Filipinos? Each of these questions had brought an unsatisfactory answer. So the president had inescapably reached the decision that the only honorable course left to America was to take over the Philippines “to civilize, to educate and to train in self-government.”
The old congressman talked of the Anti-imperialist League, headed by powerful men like Ex-President Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie, and Justice Joseph Story, which was “spreading fear and indignation by alleging that the Republican Administration, in taking over the Philippines, was embarking on a career of imperialism and wrecking America’s constitutional principles.” The Democratic Party, having promised independence to the Filipinos as early as in the presidential campaign of 1900, announced itself in favor of giving that independence immediately.
“But sir,” Congressman Cooper pointed out, “the Democrats were less interested in the Filipinos than in their own skins. Do you know that their official platform declared, ‘The Filipinos cannot be citizens without endangering our civilization. . . .'”?
Although by 1902 General Aguinaldo had already been captured in Palana, Isabela, by Colonel Funston, and the backbone of the insurrection had been broken, Filipino guerrillas were still active. Americans and Filipinos were still killing each other and the American press continued to carry lurid and gory tales of alleged Filipino brutalities and atrocities. As a consequence American public opinion was bitterly anti-Filipino.
“Most Americans, including prominent Republicans and Democrats, believed that your people were unfit for self-government,” Congressman Cooper went on. “In fact, many of them, including our leading newspapers and responsible statesmen, were convinced the Filipinos were barbarians, pirates, and savages.”
Then he recalled the day when, as chairman of the house Committee on Insular Affairs, which handled Philippine legislation, and as principal author of the Bill of 1902, he made his sponsorship speech. The date was June 19.
“Soon after I’d started speaking,” he recounted, “gentlemen on both sides of the House stood up and demanded to be heard. They badgered and interrupted me often. Finally I refused to yield the floor. I made a long speech; I covered every phase of the Philippine problem—economic, social, political, and Philanthropic. But the strongest argument which I had to demolish was the claim that the Filipinos were savages unfit for self-government. Therefore, I had to address myself especially to this particular point; and, just as President McKinley looked upon God for guidance, so I called upon your Rizal for support. He didn’t fail me.”
The Congressional record for that day chronicles that Congressman Cooper opened his argument against the detractors of the Philippines as follows:
“Everyday we hear men declare that the people of the Philippines are ‘pirate,’ ‘barbarians,’ ‘savages,’ ‘incapable of civilization’. . . newspapers of prominence have repeatedly endorsed this view.
“Mr. Chairman, I am not here to join in this cry so often hear. . . . Before we say that the Filipino people are barbarians and savages whose future is hopeless, we should remember the past and not forget how largely human beings are the products of environment. . . . Think of their history! For three hundred hopeless years they had seen Spanish officials treat office merely as a means by which to rob the helpless people. For three hundred years they lived under a government which deliberately kept the mass of the people in ignorance, which deliberately sought to close to them every avenue of social and political advancement; a government under which it was well-nigh useless for a man even to attempt to acquire property, because his accumulations furnished only so much more of temptation and opportunity for the rapacity of government officials; a government which punished even the most respectful protest against its infamous executions with banishment or death. . . .
“What the Filipinos think, what they feel what they do, are only the natural results of what they have undergone. Yet, sir, despite this environment, this deprivation, this wrong and contumely and outrage, this unfortunate race has given to the world not a few examples of intellectual and moral worth—men in the height of mind and power of character.”
Then the talked of Rizal:
“It has been said that if American institutions had done nothing else than furnish to the world the character of George Washington, ‘that alone would entitle them to the respect of mankind.’ So, sir, I say to all those who denounce the Filipinos indiscriminately as barbarians and savages, without possibility of a civilized future, that this despised race proved itself entitled to their respect and to the respect of mankind when it furnished to the world and character of Jose Rizal.”
Briefly, he narrated the life of the hero from his birth in Calamba to his sentence to death by a Spanish court-martial in Manila.
“On the night before his death, he wrote a poem,” Cooper continued. “I will read it, that the house may know what were the last thoughts of this ‘pirate,’ this ‘barbarian,’ this ‘savage,’ of a race ‘incapable of civilization’!”
With eloquence and feeling, Cooper recited Mi Ultimo Adios as translated into English by Derbyshire. When the last line, “Farewell, dear ones, farewell! To die is to rest from our labors,” had faded away, there was a long, deep silence. Then the entire House broke into prolonged applause.
“Encouraged by the demonstration,” Congressman Cooper continued his narration to me, “I plunged into my climax. Even now I can remember the words; I fairly thundered them:
“Pirates! Barbarians! Savages! Incapable of civilization. How many of the civilized, Caucasian slanderers of his race could ever be capable of thoughts like these, which on the awful night, as he sat alone amidst silence unbroken save by the rustling of the black plumes of the death angel at his side, poured from the soul of the martyred Filipino? Search the long and bloody roll of the world’s martyred dead, and where—on what soil, under what sky—did Tyranny ever claim a nobler victim?
“Sir, the future is not without hope for a people which, from the midst of such an environment, has furnished to the world a character so lofty and so pure as that of Jose Rizal.”
Now visibly tired from his memory and oratorical exertions, he rested. Yet, though faintly panting, his seamy face wore more than the suggestion of a smile. He was reliving his years of power and triumph, and he was happy. His next words confirmed what his countenance had already proclaimed.
“The result was a complete triumph for Rizal, the Filipinos and justice,” he said, “and, I think I should add in all candor, myself.”
He stopped to savor the thought with relish.
“The story and poetry of Rizal did something to the House akin to a miracle,” he continued. “Your great patriot made congressmen — as well as senators — forget the Philippine insurrection and remember only your people’s travails. Rizal kindled a light by which, for the first time, Americans had done in 1776. Out of Rizal’s life and labors there was born an American-Philippine kinship that he has endured.” Almost as an after-thought, he added, “In the voting on the bill which followed shortly, American statesmen gave Rizal a sizeable majority: the measure was soon ready for the signature of the President. Theodore Roosevelt for, alas, the gentle McKinley had been assassinated the previous years.
I could not help asking him a question. For even as we were talking the Quezon-Wood quarrel raged in Manila and produced serious repercussions in Washington. “A kinship that has endured, Mr. Congressman?” I inquired rhetorically.
“Don’t ever worry for a moment.” he replied, raising a thin hand in a reassuring gesture. “The basic American policy in the Philippines is embodied in law and honored in practice. It is gradual self-government inevitably leading to independence. Having gathered the momentum of time, there’s no turning it back. Men are mere incidents; America’s policy is a matter of national honor.
“The law of 1902 gave your people their first adequate opportunity to show their political capacity. And your statesmen — Osmeña, Quezon and others — have vindicated your people and justified the faith of those of us who, in 1898-1902, saw in the Filipino with his bolo, not a brute savage, but a man defending his motherland and his freedom. You’ve made good. No American can alter that record — ever.
“And when you’re free at last — and I hope it’ll be before I die — you’ll honor Rizal even more. For he not only awakened the Filipinos and wrote finis to Spanish imperialism but also lighted the way for America.”
The interview was over. Nothing more needed to be said. We shook hands. He sank back in his chair and I turned and left.