Before they were President

During the Chief Justice’s press call back in August, this question was raised:

Which got me to thinking. Then I saw this article online, which got me to thinking. We’ve had 16 Presidents so far, two females, and what were they before they became the most high-profile beneficiaries of public housing?

Part 1: The (Nearly Uninterrupted) Reign Of Lawyers

Emilio Aguinaldo

Before he became President  of the First Philippine Republic in 1899, in fact, even before he became a military commander, Emilio Aguinaldo was already something of a chief executive. First as the cabeza de barangay of Binakayan, Cavite Viejo, at the age of 17. In 1895, at the age of 25, on the heels of a reorganisation of local governments, he became Cavite Viejo’s first gobernadorcillo capitan municipal. This was the same year that he joined the Freemasons and the Katipunan, entering the latter under the nom de guerre Magdalo.

Bonus fact, his code name was chosen in honour of Mary Magdalene – which, if you’re up to speed with all the conspiracy theories about Masonry, should come as no surprise. To be honest, I hadn’t made that connection myself. All these years, I thought Magdalo was just some archaic Caviteño word for “joining” or something.

Manuel Quezon

The first Philippine president elected in a national election, Manuel Quezon came into the highest office of the land via the Senate Presidency. Before that, he was a member of the first Philippine Assembly, in 1907. And before that, he was the Governor of Tayabas Province. And that’s where the story is.

Quezon placed 4th in the Bar Exams and promptly opened up a lucrative law practice. Eventually, he gave up the practice to become a local prosecuting attorney, eventually making a name for himself through his successful prosecution of American Francis Berry, over some shady land deals. Then, as now, that sort of high profile exposure catapulted him to the Governorship of Tayabas. And from there, Quezon never really looked back.

Sergio Osmeña

Serving under Aguinaldo as a courier and journalist, Osmeña later on founded the Cebu newspaper El Nuevo Dia. The paper ran for three years when, like Quezon, upon whose death in 1944 he became President, Osmeña became a Bar topnotcher, at No. 2.  By the way, he got his bachelor of laws from the University of Santo Tomas.

Three years later, he was elected governor of Cebu, after having served first as acting governor, then as provincial fiscal.  From the governorship of Cebu, Osmeña was elected to the Philippine Assembly where he became the first Speaker, with Quezon as his majority floor leader. When the Assembly was converted into the House of Representatives, Osmeña stayed on as speaker, eventually being tapped for the Vice-Presidency, under Quezon.

Manuel Roxas

Roxas was descended from a family that counted artists, businessmen, and various professionals among its sons and daughters. Manuel however, was clearly always on a political track. Two years after graduating with a law degree from the University of the Philippines, Roxas was on the Capiz (where he was born) municipal council. From 1919 to 1922, he was Governor of the province.

In 1922, he was elected to the Philippine Assembly, succeeding Osmeña as Speaker, and later on joining Osmeña in the US to push for Philippine independence. In 1946, after having formed the Liberal Party following a parting of ways with Osmeña, he was elected last President of the Commonwealth, seamlessly transitioning to becoming the first president of the Third Republic of the Philippines.

Hang on. If Aguinaldo was the first Prez of the First Philippine Republic, and Roxas, first of the Third … what happened to the Second Republic? Well, the Second was actually the Firipin kyōwakoku – the Japanese sponsored state established during WW2. It had a President too.

Jose P. Laurel

Laurel, a true Batangueño once almost killed a rival suitor with a ballisong. He was indicted for attempted murder but, while still a student at the UP College of Law, defended himself and won an acquittal. Apart from being a lawyer, with a Masters degree from Yale no less, was also a dedicated educator, as shown by his founding of the Lyceum of the Philippines in 1952. But back then, he started as a messenger in the Bureau of Forestry. Then he became a clerk in the Codification Committee that was tasked with codifying Philippine Laws.

After Yale, he was appointed to Undersecretary of the Interior, winning promotion as Secretary in 1922. The following year, he would resign the post in protest against the policies of the American Governor-General Leonard Wood. After a stint in the Philippine Senate, we found himself in the Constitutional Convention that drafted the 1935 Constitution. In that capacity, Laurel sponsored the Bill of Rights (bet you didn’t know that). From their, he ascended to the Philippine Supreme Court as Associate Justice in 1936, where he went on to pen such landmark decisions as Angara v. Electoral Commission, Ang Tibay v. C.I.R., and Calalang v. Williams.

And then WW2 happened.

Elpidio Quirino

Like all the Presidents who came before him, Quirino was practically a career politician. But he had a much more colourful history before he got caught up on the Presidential track. He studied painting (hence ‘colourful’) at the Universidad Ilocano, and later became an elementary school teacher in Ilocos Sur.

When he eventually moved to Manila, he became a Junior Computer (back in 1900s, of course, “computer” meant something slightly different so don’t be imagining a Quirino-themed IBM) at the Bureau of Lands, and as a clerk in a high school principal’s office. On earning his Civil Service eligibility, he worked as a property clerk at the Manila Police Department. After passing the Bar in 1915, he traded up and became a Clerk at the Philippine Commission, where he eventually met then Senate President Manuel Quezon. In short order, he became Quezon’s personal secretary which eventually paved the way for Quirino to dive deep into the politics of his time, culminating in the Vice-Presidency under Roxas. When Roxas died, Quirino succeeded him as President, later winning the Presidency in his own right, in 1949. Quirino then stood for re-election in 1953 but lost, thus ending the streak of lawyer presidents.

Ramon Magsaysay

An automobile mechanic (so be more respectful of your mekaniko, folks) who became a guerrilla leader during the Pacific war, Magsasay was appointed to the military governorship of Zambales. In college, Magsaysay first got into a pre-med course. Then he studied engineering, supporting himself as a chauffeur (so be more respectful of your driver, folks). Eventually, he graduated with a Commerce degree (so be more respectful of people who keep shifting courses, folks) and went to work as a mechanic for Florida bus company (so be more … you know what? Just respect everybody, alright?), which may or may not be related to the Florida Bus Lines you must all know about.

When WW2 came, he joined the motor pool of the 31st Infantry Division of the Philippine Army. In 1942, with the Fall of Bataan, Magsaysay took to the hills and continued fighting against the Japanese, eventually proving instrumental in clearing the Zambales coast prior to the landing of the liberating Americans in 1945.

Apart from being the first Philippine president who wasn’t a lawyer, Magsaysay was also the first to be born in the 20th century. He was the one who is most often quoted as having said that those who have less in life should have more in law. Unfortunately, he died in a plane crash long before he saw that ideal fulfilled. What’s even sadder, , if I may say, is that even if he had lived to be a hundred, he still wouldn’t have seen the full flowering of his vision.

He was also the first to wear a barong tagalog to his inauguration, and under his Presidency, the Philippines deemed Asia’s second cleanest and most well-governed country. Take that!

Carlos P. Garcia

The Bard from Bohol, the Prince of Visayan Poets, Garcia succeeded to the Presidency upon the death of Magsaysay, and essentially re-started the trend of career politicians and lawyers becoming big kahuna. The difference, though, was that this Silliman University graduate didn’t practice law the first chance he got. Instead, he taught for two years at the Bohol Provincial High School and amazed Boholanos – and basically everyone – with his gift of poesy (yes, that is an actual word).

He finished out Magsaysay’s term, and governed as President in his own right until 1961.

Diosdado Macapagal

Unlike most of his predecessors, Macapagal wasn’t born into privilege. He was the son of tenant farmers who, nevertheless managed to graduate with an associate degree from the University of the Philippines, while working part time in the Bureau of Lands. Apart from receiving financial aid from a  wealthy family, Macapagal was also aided by his brother-in-law Rogelio de la Rosa; together, they would act and produce Tagalog operettas.

In 1941, after receiving his Masters in Law – he would also later earn doctorates in Law and Economics in 1947 and 1957 respectively – he worked as a legal assistant to Quezon, while teaching Law at the University of Santo Tomas. His shining moment came ten years later, in 1951, when he debated – in his capacity as Chairman of the Philippine Delegation to the UN – Andrei Vishinsky, the Russian foreign minister. From then on, he was on the fast track to the Presidency.

Ferdinand Marcos

Continuing with the resurgent trend of lawyers as Presidents, Marcos first drew fame as the law student convicted of murdering his father’s political enemy, winning acquittal from the Supreme Court, and then going on to score a near perfect Bar exam score of 98.8%.

However, that Marcos was also the Marcos who was an orator, a debater, and writer for the student paper; who was a member of the University of the Philippines’ swimming, boxing, and wrestling teams; and who, during the war, might or might not have (depending on who you believe) run a successful guerrilla outfit. After the war, Marcos spent two years as a corporate lawyer


To be continued…

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