Being Right

This Monday is Apolinario Mabini’s 154th birthday. This year also marks the country’s 120th as a Republic. Not a bad time to revisit the life of a man many kids today seem baffled as to why he’s always sitting down.
But seriously, Mabini deserves more from us: the country’s first prime minister, also foreign affairs minister, and Supreme Court chief justice. He wrote his own constitutional drafts for our fledgling nation and left a coherent body of political thought that students and policy makers would do well learning.
Unfortunately, certain misconceptions surround Mabini, who has been appropriated by 1970s leftists and today’s progressives and transmogrified into some sort of social justice warrior. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If at all, Mabini was the proto-conservative: welcoming change but deferring to the tried and tested, advocate of State sovereignty, strong government for national security purposes, citizen self-responsibility, and individual freedoms based on natural law and natural rights.
Indeed, Mabini shares fundamental things with another thinker who founded a nation, Alexander Hamilton: “Hamilton’s conservatism is evident, in the first place, in the way he argued for institutions like the national bank and bounties for America’s infant manufacturing sector”.
Thus, “unlike a contemporary progressive, he did not favor these things because they were new or innovative. On the contrary, he advocated them precisely on the conservative ground that they had been tried, and their usefulness proven, in other countries.” ( Carson Holloway, “The Myth of Hamiltonian Big Government,” April 2015).
Mabini’s education was admirable, thankfully starting at Letran then finishing at the University of Santo Thomas, combining a deep learning in logic and philosophy with law. It is likely there that he got his Scholastic bent.
For Apolinario Mabini was clearly a “natural lawyer”; that is, a lawyer adhering to natural law (albeit in his case mixed with Enlightenment thought).
For Mabini: “Natural law was regarded as the ‘sole foundation and sufficient reason for the justice of all human laws.’ This means that to consider an act as just (and not as merely legal) implies that there is a standard for justice. This standard was both ‘immutable and universal.’ xxx To Mabini, natural law was a law imposed upon man by virtue of his rationality.” A “positive law was not truly law insofar as it violated natural law”. (Cesar Adib Majul, Mabini and the Philippine Revolution; citing El Mensaje del Presidente McKinley).
Here, again, is a similarity with Hamiltonian thought: for the latter, the “sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
Interestingly, Mabini’s natural law compass guides his belief regarding foreign relations: “Positive international law had been used, Mabini continued, as a means by which the more powerful nations could usurp the rights of smaller nations; it has been used to ‘legitimize’ the actions of the more powerful nations.” (Majul, citing Prudencia Mal Entendida).
And in the True Decalogue, Mabini writes: “While the borders of the nations established and preserved by the egoism of race and of family remain standing, you must remain united to your country in perfect solidarity of views and interests in order to gain strength, not only to combat the common enemy, but also to achieve all the objectives of human life.”
This clear eyed, un-naive view of foreign affairs is again reflected in Hamilton: “For him, the first duty of a government is to safeguard the national interest, understood not only as the nation’s independence, power, and prosperity, but also as its reputation or honor.” (Carson Holloway, “Alexander Hamilton and American Foreign Policy,” September 2015)
Mabini believed in a virtuous people running government. This again squares with Hamilton’s, who wrote in the Federalist Papers that: “ The institution of delegated power implies that there is a portion of virtue and honor among mankind which may be a reasonable foundation of confidence.”
From his writings, Majul concludes that for Mabini, “the authority in society is the people” (citing La Trinidad Politica). This echoes John Adam’s dictum about the US constitutional system, of which our political system is in direct lineage: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Majul points out: “Mabini, like Rizal, assumed that a man could not truly be said to be free unless he was first of all moral.” And that morality “consists in having the actions of men conform to natural law.”
Accordingly, a welfare State, a where citizens are dependent on a paternalistic government, is out of the question. In the True Decalogue, Mabini preaches self-reliance and putting country above self: “Strive for the happiness of your country before your own, making her the reigning influence for reason, justice and work; if your country is happy, you and your family will also be happy.”
He was definitely not an extremist for individualism. But Mabini was no collectivist either. For him, the individual was not a mere cog for the State. Instead, he pushed for respect of and the development of each human individual. Again, from the True Decalogue: “Develop the special talents that God has given you, working and studying according to your capabilities, never straying from the path of good and justice, in order to achieve your own perfection, and by this means you will contribute to the progress of humanity.”
Mabini indeed pushed for a strong central government but it was for security against foreign enemies, not paternalism. Again, Majul: “The ostensible reason why Mabini argued for a strong Executive was that it was essential to strengthen Aguinaldo’s power and position during times when ‘the ship of State is threatened by great dangers and terrible tempests.”
This emphasis on individual and national self-reliance again parallels Hamilton’s. As Carson Holloway wrote: “The primary driver of contemporary liberalism’s demand for expansive government authority is contemporary liberalism’s egalitarianism.” However, this “is not the kind of thinking that informed Alexander Hamilton’s statesmanship. xxx The end Hamilton had in mind in advocating his policies was instead the prosperity, power and prestige of the nation — within which enterprising individuals and families could work effectively to better their condition.”
Mabini’s reliance on people’s self-governance (the True Decalogue: “Do not recognize the authority of any person who has not been elected by you and your compatriots”) and virtue inevitably led him to concluding religion as a vital moral force in governance.
Setting aside his questionable ideas on establishing a State religion, Majul makes this significant point: that Mabini “never fought religion as such and never made an effort to take away religion from the people. He believed, however, that there should be religious toleration for all. To him all forms of religious ceremonies should be permitted in the country provided that they did not violate any law or any of the moral tenets found among all men.”
For Mabini “the doctrine of the separation of Church and State was inextricably bound with the principle of religious freedom.” (citing Cuestiones Sobre las Corporaciones Religiosas)
Certainly Mabini has his flaws. He was uncomfortable playing politics. He did not suffer fools well. His personal failings allowed Emilio Aguinaldo’s lack of experience and confidence and the mestizo-illustrado class’ selfishness, lack of patriotism, and obsessive concern for their property and standing get in the way of nation building.
This article will not dwell further on an area that Nick Joaquin and others already explored. Instead, here emphasized is an undeniable value of Mabini – that in a country where academics, journalists, and policy makers have a propensity for seeing anything foreign as better and then demand that such be applied on the country, Mabini was the reverse.
Mabini knew the country he wanted and — more importantly — he knew the countrymen of the country he was trying to fashion. He was able therefore to craft a pragmatic, coherent, and defined vision of the Philippines. Any thought or policy he advocated emanated from this vision and designed to advance the country closer to it. It was never a question of making the Philippines be a copy of another country.
All things considered, even as we are, now in 2018, 120 years old as a Republic, it’s still not too late to build a better nation based on a true Filipino vision.
Perhaps the State of the Nation address, which coincidentally falls on the day of Mabini’s birth anniversary, would be a good occasion to start again.
Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.
Twitter @jemygatdula