history, political economy

(Non-)Independence and the Imperial Rights of Colonials

(This post first came out in Common Rhetoric in 7/2014.)

Trumbull - Declaration of Independence (1819)

(John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence [1819])

There is not one, but (at least) two Fourth of Julys. July 4, 1776: Thirteen colonies declare Independence from the British Crown, constituting the United States of America (“united” in original document). What are the grounds for this declaration? First, what did it do? The Declaration absolves the colonies from all allegiance to the British Crown, dissolving all political connection between the colonies and the State of Great Britain, thereby constituting free and independent States, separate and equal to Great Britain, mutually pledged and united with each other. Why did the colonies do this? The Declaration lists the British King’s history of repeated injuries and usurpations, oppressions that have been petitioned by the colonies, only to be answered not by redress but by repeated injury, part and parcel of the British Crown’s establishment of an absolute Tyranny over the colonies (interchangeable with “States” in the document). What gives the colonies—declaring themselves as States—the right to do this? The principle: All men are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights secured through the institution of government, which the People have a Right and duty to alter and abolish should government become destructive of this end, which manifests in abuses and usurpations.

July 4, 1946: U.S. President Harry S. Truman grants recognition to the Philippines, hitherto an American colony, as a separate and self-governing nation, under the control of the government instituted by the people, duly prepared by Americans to assume this obligation. The terms of this recognition of independence are laid down in the Treaty of Manila (Treaty of General Relations) of 1946. Is the Fourth of July, then, a double celebration, the celebration of the Independence of two States, of the colonized and the colonizer? That is, is American Independence also Filipino Independence, tying the fate of two peoples as intricate, inextricable? American and Philippine independence—are these two Fourth of Julys the same? What makes them different, in fact, fundamentally opposite? The Philippines had already declared its Independence on June 12, 1898, in a war the Philippines waged against Spain, a previous colonizer. The U.S., an ally of the Philippines due to the fact that it was itself in conflict with Spain over Cuba, refused, however, to recognize this Declaration uncannily similar to its own (colony against the empire), negotiating instead with Spain the Treaty of Paris of December 1898, which ceded the Philippines and other Spanish colonies to the U.S. This led to the long, bloody, and bitter armed conflict between the U.S. and Filipino revolutionaries known as the Philippine Insurrection or the Philippine-American War (1899-1902/1913) and, eventually, the U.S. colonization of the Philippines. Only 48 years later, in 1946, did the U.S. finally recognize the independence of the Philippines with a treaty that nonetheless ensured continued postcolonial American control of the Philippines on the same day that the founding fathers, using the tenets of democracy, declared themselves free.

Most of this history, including the Philippine-American War that resulted in the death of 34,000 to 220,000 Filipinos, is forgotten or minimized in the official narratives, hidden in the self-image of the first Fourth of July. If independence is not declared but granted, and not by the self, in which the colonizer declares the form of this independence in the time that it sets, and puts things in place to ensure postcolonial control, is it Independence? If Independence derives its legitimation from the principle of democracy, but then refuses to recognize the very same Independence of a colored people, thereby betraying that, perhaps, its basis was not democracy after all, is it Independence? If independence is recognized, but not on the self-proclaimed date of the state becoming independent (June 12), but on the date of the colonizer’s own Independence (July 4) serving to erase the former and one’s own self-declaration and to engrave on this “independent” state the mark of the colonizer, to imprint on Philippine independence the shadow of American colonization, what is Independence?

What were American statesmen thinking, allowing a colony to absolve allegiance from it—but without, as the Treaty of General Relation hints, dissolving all connection—on the same day that it declared Independence? It can’t be that the American brand of Independence is universal, as the independence granted to the Philippines (July 4) is precisely, thanks to the treaty these statesmen negotiated, not the Independence the Americans themselves declared, especially since they rejected the Independence that the Philippines had already declared for itself (June 12). If anything, the choice of the day alludes to the first Fourth of July, and, given what the Americans were doing in the second, functions to mock it, as the U.S. has, by the time of the second, clearly reversed its position, framing injury and usurpation as Independence, occupying the role of the former oppressor, only against which, it has to be remembered, it declared itself.

How can this be repaired? How can Independence be salvaged as truly deriving from democracy, for the sake of the Filipino and, even more so, of the American (which is not to say that the Filipino is the only contradiction in the American claim on democracy and Independence)? How can the Fourth of July be true to itself? In The Decolonized Eye, Sarita See points out that ever since its violent inclusion to the United States in the Philippine-American War, the Philippines has caused no end in confusion for the U.S., leading the U.S., not knowing how to reconcile its possession of a colony with its principle of democracy, to designate the Philippines as “foreign in a domestic sense” (Supreme Court in 1901) (xii). The contradiction of this designation of Filipinos as “nationals” but “noncitizen aliens” has seeped into deportation cases throughout the twentieth century, in which in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g. Rabang v. I.N.S.), longtime “illegal” Filipino residents in the United States argued that they or their ancestors were born in the Philippines during the American colonial period and that, as such (akin to British citizenship clauses from colonial America), they qualify for American citizenship (xix). Needless to say, the U.S. Court rejected this reasoning, in the process maintaining the denial of American empire and the contradiction not only of the status of the Philippines in America, but of Independence itself.

Despite the contradictory status of the Philippines, however, only one conclusion seems logical—precisely the opposite of what the Court found. If the Philippines is not Independent, then it’s still a part of the empire; as such, Filipinos (both in the U.S. and the Philippines) are American citizens. If the Philippines is Independent, then Filipinos would not be illegal residents in America since they wouldn’t be here in the first place (an inversion of the postcolonial aphorism, “We are here because you were there”), at least not with the same status; if the basis of Independence is indeed democracy, then an Independent state like the U.S. would surely not exclude people, especially those coming from a fellow Independent state, through the paranoid and un-democratic use of the juridical concept of citizenship. But this second point (and, to some extent, the first) is fallacious, as it is clearly not the case, not how history has turned out: the Philippines is independent, but not Independent; the basis of America is and is not democracy. This is the doubleness that any commemoration of the Fourth of July true to itself needs to spark.


Jefferson, Thomas et al. “The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” The Charters of Freedom. National Archives. Web. 3 July 2014. <http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html >.

See, Sarita Echavez. The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009. Print.

Truman, Harry S. “Proclamation 2695 – Independence of the Philippines.” The American Presidency Project. Ed. Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley. Web. 3 July 2014. <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=58813 >.


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