As the only American territory with representation in Congress to ever achieve its independence, the Philippines’ transition from colonial status to freedom is intertwined with the history of the archipelago’s Resident Commissioners to Congress. Located about 8,600 miles from Capitol Hill, the Philippines became part of the United States’ insular orbit following back-to-back wars for independence, first against the Spanish (and aided by the United States), and then against the United States which claimed sovereignty over the islands following the Treaty of Paris, with major combat operations lasting from 1899 to 1902. This Edition for Educators highlights Filipino Resident Commissioners, who represented the territory as Members of Congress during the first half of the twentieth century.
Throughout the nineteenth century, generations of leaders in the Philippines had sought independence for the island nation, and for the vast majority of its people. After the Philippines fell under America’s imperial orbit at the turn of the century, certain territorial officials worked with federal lawmakers and the State Department to set up a new government. In 1934, Congress and the territorial legislature approved the Philippine Independence Act, which authorized the creation of a new Philippine constitution. But before the split became official, World War II cruelly intervened. Japan invaded the Philippines, and, at the behest of American officials, the commonwealth government went into exile in the United States. After U.S. troops seized control of Manila in 1944, Congress committed to rebuilding the islands with a new trade deal and a large rehabilitation package. The Philippines became an independent country in 1946.
To date, the nearly 40-year succession of Philippine Resident Commissioners—the 13 who served from 1907 to 1946—account for the second largest group of Asian Pacific Islander Americans in Congress, second only to the 17 individuals who have represented Hawaii.
“The Philippines, 1898–1946”
At the conclusion of the Philippine-American War, the United States established a territorial government for the islands via the Philippine Organic Act of 1902. Included in the legislation was a provision to send two statutory representatives to Congress to represent the Philippines. Acting more as diplomats and lobbyists than voting representatives, the Philippines’ Resident Commissioners worked to shape policies that affected the islands’ economy while seizing opportunities to gain more autonomy. This essay describes the formation of a territorial government and the establishment of the Resident Commissioner position. It also features sections on the Filipino-led independence movements amid both world wars and the Great Depression. You can learn more about the work of statutory representatives in this blog post.
Constitutional Amendments, Treaties, Executive Orders, and Major Acts of Congress Referenced in Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress, 1900–2017
Philippine Resident Commissioners worked on important legislation that affected their constituents such as the Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916, known commonly as the Jones Act, which gave the territorial government more control over the island nation, and the Philippines Independence Act of 1934, which set a firm date for complete independence. You can learn more about these statutes by using this chart listing the constitutional amendments, treaties, executive orders, and acts of Congress referenced in Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress, 1900–2017.
Manuel L. Quezon
Although he once fought against the United States in the early 1900s, Manuel Quezon quickly catapulted himself into a Resident Commissioner seat by the sheer force of his personality and natural political savvy. Quezon’s tenure as Resident Commissioner culminated with the passage of the Jones Act of 1916, which guaranteed greater autonomy for the Philippines for the remainder of its existence as a colony. After leading the Philippine senate for seventeen years, Quezon became the Philippine Commonwealth’s first president in 1935.
“On every occasion which I have addressed the Congress . . . I have declared that immediate, absolute, and complete independence is the desire of the great majority of the 12,000,000 inhabitants of the [Philippine] islands,” Resident Commissioner Isauro Gabaldon told colleagues in a House Floor speech. “Nothing less than this . . . will be satisfactory.” A former provincial governor and two-term member of the Philippines’ national assembly, Gabaldon served as Resident Commissioner for eight years. Using the power of media to plead the Philippines’ case for freedom, Gabaldon engaged American critics within Congress and the media in defense of his constituents.
As the first Resident Commissioner to represent the Philippines after it became a commonwealth in 1934, Quintin Paredes worked to revise the economic relationship between his native archipelago and the American mainland. Paredes championed Philippine independence, constantly reminding policymakers of his home’s history as a valuable and vital trading partner. He worked at every level of public service as a budget official and prosecutor before serving as speaker of the Philippine national assembly.
Joaquin Miguel “Mike” Elizalde
Born in the capital city of Manila, Joaquin Elizalde studied in Europe before returning to the Philippines where he subsequently built a business empire. As a result of his success, Philippine president Manuel Quezon selected Elizalde as an economic adviser in 1937. One year later, Quezon appointed Elizalde Resident Commissioner to the United States. During his tenure in Washington, Elizalde worked to protect the islands’ economy in the run-up to independence scheduled for 1946. He also advocated for Filipinos living and working in America, particularly on the West Coast and in Hawaii. During World War II, Elizalde served as an adviser to Quezon and his cabinet, all of whom fled to the United States when the Japanese military occupied the Philippines. After the Philippines became an independent nation in 1946, Elizalde became the Philippines’ first ambassador to the United States.
Photo of the 65th Congress (1917–1919)
On March 20, 1918, 264 Members of this Congress gathered for a group photo on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol. Among the Members who posed for this panoramic portrait were Resident Commissioners Jaime de Veyra and Teodoro Yangco of the Philippines. Other prominent Members included Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri and Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman ever elected to Congress.
The New Delegates from the Philippines to the United States Congress
In this 1908 image, Benito Legarda and Pablo Ocampo are featured with President William Howard Taft and Clarence Edwards, head of the Bureau of Insular Affairs. Elected by the Philippine legislatures, Legarda and Ocampo worked with Members of Congress and the Taft administration to reduce tariff rates that would negatively affect the Philippines’ economy.
Philippine President Elpidio Quirino Addresses the House of Representatives
As the first president of an independent Philippines to address Congress, Elpidio Quirino’s appearance was the culmination of five-day state visit to the United States on August 9, 1949. After the speech, the House held a formal reception in Quirino’s honor.
Teodoro R. Yangco Postage Stamp
In the 1970s, the Philippine government issued a series of stamps honoring notable citizens, including former Resident Commissioner Teodoro Yangco. Known as the “Rockefeller of the Philippines,” Yangco, whose business acumen and wealth made him the islands’ leading philanthropist, enjoyed a brief term as a Resident Commissioner in the House.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory