Why June 12 Is Different from Other Days

Engraving of the Battle of Manila Bay between the Spanish and American navies.

My generation of Filipinos grew up celebrating Independence Day on July 4th, the day the United States “granted” the Philippines its freedom in 1946. But in the mid-sixties, Independence Day was changed to June 12, in recognition of the declaration of freedom from Spain in 1898 by a fledging Filipino government headed by President Emilio Aguinaldo.

Three important events occurred at around 4:00 p.m. on that fateful afternoon in Kawit, Cavite, Aguinaldo’s hometown. The declaration of independence from Spain was read, formalizing Philippine sovereignty. The Filipino people, for the first time, heard the Philippine National Anthem. They also saw, for the first time, their flag hoisted from the balcony of Aguinaldo’s home.

Mrs. Marcela de Agoncillo had sewn the flag in April that year during her stay in Hong Kong where her husband was exiled. It took five days to finish, and Mrs. Agoncillo incorporated aspects of Philippine and even Cuban history in the flag’s design. 

Fernando Amorsolo's painting, depicting the making of the Philippine flag

The white equilateral triangle harkened to the triangle of the Katipunan, the revolutionary movement that first declared war against Spain in 1896. The three stars represented the major island groupings of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. The eight rays of the sun honored the first eight provinces that revolted against Spain. The general outline of the flag was adapted to conform to the outlines of the Cuban flag, in solidarity with the island nation that also revolted against Spain. The colors red, white and blue were noted in declaration of independence as a token of “profound gratitude towards that Great Nation (United States) for the disinterested protection she is extending to us and will continue to extend to us.” 

With an American takeover looming, the Filipino revolutionary leadership hastily declared Philippine independence.

When the flag was unfurled, the “Himno Nacional Filipino” was heard for the first time. Weeks before this historic day, Aguinaldo requested a new acquaintance, Professor Julian Felipe, to compose a national march that would be “serious and majestic.” Felipe in his own account would write that he “purposely injected in musical composition some melodic reminiscences of the Spanish Royal March in order to preserve the memory of the old metropolis; a characteristic that is noticeable, though vaguely, in the initial measures of the Marcha Nacional.”  The day before Independence Day, after Felipe played his composition several times to Aguinaldo and his staff, they resolved to adopt the composition as the “Marcha Nacional Filipina.”

The anthem was played over a year without verses until Jose Palma, a poet-soldier and editor of the La Independencia, decided to write the verses entitled “Filipinas.” It was published in his newspaper on September 3, 1899. Ironically, the hymn was conceived, written and played while Spain was still the colonizer of the period. A year later, when the verses were included, the Philippine-American War was at its height, and the verses were anti-American imperialist in sentiment.

General Emilio Aguinaldo

On June 5, Aguinaldo issued a decree stating that June 12th would be proclaimed as Independence Day and called on all of his military commanders to assemble in Kawit, Cavite to witness the proceedings. Historians say the proclamation was a last-ditch political effort to preempt U.S. plans to lay claim to the islands.

An invitation was sent to Commodore George Dewey whose fleet was stationed in Manila Bay. Dewey, citing “Mail Day,” excused himself, but Colonel L. M. Johnson, the highest-ranking American officer on land at the time, attended.

Attorney Ambrosio Rianzares Bautista, an adviser to Aguinaldo, wrote the declaration of independence in Spanish. It was entitled “Act of Proclamation of Independence by the Filipino People.” This document, kept until recently in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., cites the arrival of Magellan on Philippine shores as the beginning of colonial subjugation. Magellan and other Spanish conquerors are described as duplicitous and furthering the injustices and oppression that faced Filipinos. The Spanish friars are noted as “avaricious” and blamed for the abuses that led to the Katipunan insurrection of 1896.

Declaration of Philippine Independence and flag raising ceremony at the Aguinaldo mansion, June 12, 1898.

The document highlights the revolutionary government’s success in routing the Spaniards in many provinces, which gave the revolutionaries the basis to “…proclaim and solemnly declare, in the name and by the authority of the inhabitants of these Philippine Islands, that they are and have the right to be free and independent; that they are released from all obedience to the crown of Spain; that every political tie between the two is and must be completely severed and annulled; and that like all free and independent states, they have complete authority to make war, conclude peace, establish treaties of commerce, enter into alliances, regulate commerce, and execute all other acts and things that Independent States have the right to do.”

There were 158 signatures affixed to the document, including Colonel L.M. Johnson’s, the lone foreigner attending the event. Latter-day nationalists deplored the controversial line in the document, which stated that the Philippine declaration was “under the protection of the mighty and humane North American Nation.” Eight months later, this deference would be shattered with the start of the Philippine-American War.

The preparations leading to that eventful day, the display of the first Philippine flag and the playing of the national anthem give credence and dignity to this holiday. It would be a short-lived government, but it was the Filipinos’ first practice of sovereignty.


This article was first published in Filipinas Magazine, June 1993.

John L. Silva

John L. Silva

John L. Silva is the executive director of the Ortigas Foundation Library in the Philippines, which has an extensive collection of rare Filipiniana books, periodicals, photographs, maps and documents. He is also an author and a collector of vintage photographs.