When Lolo’s Debating Team Vanquished America

As coach of the UP debate team (L-R Deogracias Puyat, Pedro Camus, Carlos P. Romulo, Jacinto Borja and Teodoro Evangelista), which went around the world in 1928, Romulo began to win fame abroad. “Everywhere we went we were royally entertained and warmly welcomed,” he wrote in his autobiography. “And we won every debate.” (Photo courtesy of Romulo family)

When in 1927 the University of Oregon’s three-man debate team came to the Philippines to argue that we weren’t ready to be independent from Mother America, they were–to use the American vernacular–really asking for it.

As one scholar pointed out, “All the preparation and training the team members engaged in before and during the trip could not have prepared them for what [happened] that night.” 

Walter E. Hempstead was then a senior at Oregon, and general forensic manager. He recalled how his team went head-to-head with the University of the Philippines in what was “the most dramatic evening of [his] life.”

A staggering number of people, “mostly natives,” turned up that Friday night at the Manila Grand Opera House, and remained riveted on the grand spectacle from beginning to end. Two radio stations broadcasted the four-hour debate across Asia; and it seemed as if everybody was present, even high-level politicians and important dignitaries. The police came, too, to keep an eye on the 5,000 people inside the theater, as well as to control the additional 5,000 outside hoping to buy tickets off scalpers.

The 10,000 people who showed up that night didn’t come as fans of college-level forensic events; rather, it was the question of independence that piqued their interest and, as things turned out, incited their passions. Independence (or lack thereof) had been a flashpoint between Filipino nationalists and their American counterparts for nearly 30 years–ever since the U.S. Senate passed the Treaty of Paris, by just one vote, in 1899, a measure in which Spain basically sold “the Islands” and its “natives” to the United States for $20 million.

The Philippine question elicited intense debate even among Americans, a great many of whom felt they had no business annexing 7,000 islands on the opposite side of the globe in the first place. Those against expansionism felt it was morally reprehensible to use military and economic power to dominate another nation–and against the basic tenets of the Constitution of the United States. 

Meanwhile, those who favored colonial rule–among them some Filipinos–argued that we weren’t ready for, or were incapable of, self-government. They also feared that if the U.S. didn’t take control, another power (i.e., Japan) might.

My grandfather, Carlos P. Romulo, was the UP team’s coach in the heartfelt debate against the University of Oregon. Then 29 years old, he was probably as shocked as everybody else as spectators spontaneously erupted into “cat calls, boos, hisses, thunderous applause,” and even fist fights in the gallery.

By the time they reached home at the end of July, the UP team had drawn a combined audience of a few thousand and threatened no less than the Secretary of War and, indirectly, the president of the United States.

The “verbal battle of the century,” as the Philippine press called it, ended with the Oregon team losing by unanimous audience decision. The three American debaters traveled on to China, leaving the UP team energized and inspired–and wanting to travel around the world to continue debating the Philippine question.

Lolo had already traveled to the U.S. several times before, and he knew all too well that most “regular” Americans had no idea what a Filipino was; or, worse, they thought we were half-naked savages living in trees (no thanks, in part, to the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, which featured a 47-acre human zoo of more than a thousand Filipino tribal people). In 1919 he left on a government-sponsored scholarship to get his master’s at Columbia University. He went again three years later with the Philippine Parliamentary Mission. Led by Senate President Manuel L. Quezon, for whom Lolo served as private secretary, the 1922 mission was the second of what would be a series of eight independence missions. These culminated in the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, which designated a ten-year transition period on the way to full independence.

In addition to assisting Quezon, Lolo was working his way up the editorial ladder at The Philippines Herald. He was also an associate professor in the English department of UP, which eventually led him to teach a course in public speaking and coach the debate team.

By the end of 1927, Lolo was sending letters out to top universities in the United States, with a request for “immediate action.” 

“The youth of the Philippine Islands covet the friendship and goodwill of the youth of the United States,” he wrote, explaining the purpose of the trip. “It is by the interchange of ideas between their representatives and by contact with the national institutions of both countries that the American and Filipino students will learn to know each other, and knowing each other, understand the ideals of each nation. … We hope to present the Philippine problem free from political bias and stripped of the petty irritants and antagonisms engendered by politics, prejudice, and misunderstandings.”

Lolo hoped to tour the U.S. with the same three men who had out-debated the University of Oregon just weeks before, on the question of Philippine independence. I am not sure how he managed to pull it off, as the historic debate in Manila had “provoked so much discussion that [U.S.] Secretary of War Davis frowned on the affair and notified Henry L. Stimson, governor-general of the Philippines, that no more debates on that subject could be tolerated by the government.” But somehow Lolo managed to organize a team of the three men plus one alternate. All four–Pedro Camus, Deogracias Puyat, Teodoro Evangelista and Jacinto C. Borja–were law students; each had an impressive record of successful debates. By March 3, 1928, they were aboard the SS President McKinley, bound for Seattle, on a 15-university tour sanctioned by the U.S. Bureau of Insular Affairs.

On April 4, 1928, dressed in tuxedo, as was the custom for forensic events held in the evening, the UP debaters faced their first opponent, the Varsity Debate Quad of Stanford University, and won by audience vote 178 to 52. The main contention of the team was that the Philippines had a stable government and was capable of maintaining this government if granted independence.

From California the team traversed the country by train, crushing opponents at the Universities of Minnesota, Utah and Michigan, Illinois, as well as George Washington University and Indiana University. Their eighth debate was against the University of Wisconsin, where acclaimed writer and Philippine national artist Carlos Quirino was an 18-year-old journalism student covering the event. On April 24 he wrote that the debate tour offered audiences the opportunity of finally “hearing the Philippine question debated on a basis of first-hand information.” Three days later he wrote another story with the headline, “Philippine Team Wins in Stirring Plea for Liberty.”

On April 26, 1928, the Philippine debate team arrived at the University of Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy of the Romulo family)

When the team arrived at Miami University, Ohio, they discovered that their reputation had preceded them--and they were allowed to give speeches but not to engage in debate. Since the contest was not being sponsored by the public speaking department, the university authorities expressed concern that “any group of students [would] be outclassed by the gifted Filipinos.”

The student newspaper hinted at the real reason, however; that is, that the “political gentlemen” who had control over the state university’s annual budget might be annoyed by the topic of the debate. After all, U.S. Republican “President Coolidge [had] declared that the Philippine question [was already] settled. There [could] be … no independence for an indefinite term of years.”

By the time they reached home at the end of July, the UP team had drawn a combined audience of a few thousand and threatened no less than the Secretary of War and, indirectly, the president of the United States. They had challenged–and defeated–six of the Big Ten schools, along with several southern and eastern universities, including Cornell and Harvard. “We … were given a dazzling reception at the pier,” Lolo recalled in his memoirs. “The entire student body from the university turned out along with students of other schools, and we were cheered as heroes and draped with floral necklaces. …”

In his 1929 report to the UP Board of Regents, Lolo wrote, “Our mission was purely educational and we consistently kept out of the forbidden ground of politics.” All he wanted, it seems, was to drive home the point that Philippine independence had nothing to do with nationality or politics; it had everything to do with justice and truth.


Jacinto Borja

As a high-school junior at Silliman Institute (now Silliman University), Jacinto C. Borja was captain of the debating team. The following year he won the McIntyre oratorical contest. At the University of the Philippines, he served as editor of the Philippine Collegian in 1927-1928, and distinguished himself by winning the Palma medal in debating as well as the Quezon medal in oratory. With a strong background in writing and public speaking, he began practicing as a lawyer in 1930. Much later, in 1965, he served briefly as ambassador to Japan. He was also elected governor of his home province, Bohol.


Deogracias Puyat

Deogracias Puyat captained the 1922 winning debate team at the Manila High School while he was a senior. He went on to become the president of the UP Debating Club, a position he kept for two years. At UP he won the Kalaw gold medal in oratory in 1924 and the Quezon silver medal in oratory in 1925. He was also on the winning debating team against the University of Sto. Tomas in 1928. A native of Pampanga, Puyat was admitted to the Philippine Bar in 1929.


Pedro M. Camus

A gold medalist in his senior year at the De La Salle, Pedro M. Camus continued his winning streak while at UP. He received the Palma medal in debating in 1925 and the Quezon silver medal in oratory in 1926. He represented the college of law at the UP Student Council in 1927, and chaired the national civic movement in 1929. Originally from Manila, Camus was admitted to the Philippine Bar in 1929.


Teodoro Evangelista

Known as an eloquent speaker and gifted writer, Teodoro T. Evangelista was captain of the team that defeated the visiting team from the University of Oregon in 1927. Prior to that, after winning the individual medal in the annual debate of the Ateneo de Manila in 1924, he graduated with his liberal arts degree. From Bulacan, he served as editor of the Ateneo Monthly, a magazine well-known in high and prep schools of the United States, as well as in the Philippines.

Liana Romulo

Liana Romulo

Liana Romulo writes children's books for expatriate Filipinos. When she’s not poring over her grandfather’s papers and trying to date old photographs, she is likely to be scuba diving, practicing Ashtanga yoga, or recommending her favorite dishes to friends at the Romulo Café. A former New Yorker, she now resides in the Philippines but likes to wander the world. She has lived also in Thailand and Belgium. www.carlospromulo.org