In the old high school curriculum before the K-12 curriculum, Social Studies for First Year High School was Philippine History and Government. One of the course topics was the difference between nation and state.

A co-teacher used to illustrate this difference by citing the case of Yugoslavia as a state composed of nations, commenting dramatically how it was possible to love your nation but hate your state. Yugoslavia, of course, no longer exists, but a lot of new states do which were the nations that used to compose it. Most if not all accounts of Philippine general history are, I believe, histories of the Philippines as state; we don’t have general histories of the Philippines as nation.

In the case of old nations, the history of their becoming a state usually includes the history of their becoming a nation: the nation usually preceded the state. We know, however, this has not been true of what have come to be called post-colonial societies in which the reverse has usually occurred: the state has preceded the nation.

In not a few cases, the post-colonial state is still a nation in the process of becoming. Whether the Philippines is still a nation in the process of becoming is a question that all Filipinos should answer, among them historians, and we historians should answer that question only as historians can, by turning to history. One mistake we should not commit is to assume that the state is identical to the nation: the state is a legal creation; the nation is the product of history.

History is always the history of a people bound together as a society. But if history is the history of a nation coming to be, then what society is such a history the history of?

In the Philippines the answer is “towns.” This we realize when we consider Aguinaldo’s invitation to 100 town presidentes to ratify the proclamation of Philippine independence on August 1, 1898. There were no Filipino provincial governors then; there were no Filipinos who could answer for the people of a province. The history of the Philippines as the nation emerges is the history of its towns.

Philippine history as the history of Philippine towns? I imagine the specter of dull, tedious labor rising before us, but the work to be done is not, I would like to assure you, either dull or tedious.

I have recently examined the foundation dates of present-day towns that were founded in the Spanish era. The patterns which arise are fascinating: Luzon sees a steady growth in the number of towns from the sixteenth century to the present; Visayas has only a few towns going back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the numbers jump in the eighteenth and leap in the nineteenth centuries; Mindanao has very few to show for the three centuries of Spanish dominion—less than a hundred, and all, as you might expected, located along the coast of northern and north-eastern Mindanao. What is the significance of these statistics?

The significance of these statistics is something we grasp only if we realize the significance of the town itself as a social organization. The towns were new social organizations.

At the time of Rizal, the oldest towns in Laguna were around three centuries old; before them you had villages, “barangays,” which were centuries and centuries old. It is important to note that the towns were not simply large barangays. The Philippine town was a conglomeration of barangays, a territory comprising several barangays, and there was nothing like it before the coming of the missionaries.

Sometimes the sultanate of Sulu is cited as a sophisticated form of social organization compared to the modest barangay, and yet the sultanate of Sulu and its tributary barangays did not form a single society, just as the sultanate did not form a single society with China to whom it paid tribute.

The town, however, was a single society, whose ruler was not called “mayor,” but “governor,” because the Spaniards considered him the ruler of a territory. The towns were a radical development in the history of the peoples of these islands: Wherever they were established, they constituted the end of the atomized societies in Luzon and Visayas that had existed for centuries by assuming them into larger communities.

The radicalness of this development is borne out by a singular difference between barangay and town: whereas the inhabitants of a barangay tended to be all related to one another, the town was precisely composed of different families. From the vantage point of the nation in the twenty-first century, the town was obviously the first step in the direction of nationhood. It was the community in which different families learned to live together, cooperate, and contribute to a larger goal than the personal or familial; in the town citizens learned a deeper meaning of the common good. I do not think it accidental that the national community eventually bore the name of the town—bayan.

Rizal, writing at a time when there was as yet no national society, was himself partially the product of a society—precisely the town, which, on the other hand, Rizal compared to a cancer patient in the Noli me tángere. But it cannot have been all that bad, we may protest to Rizal, if it managed to produce you. Other towns produced other men during this time that we now call national heroes.

In October 1898 two sergeants of the American army made a tour of towns in northern Luzon—in the Ilocos and the Cagayan River valley. They kept a diary, and the descriptions they made of the coordination among towns for receiving visitors and escorting them to the next town, the little ceremonies they observed in their civic life, the social life that the gentry in that part of the country lived, are impressive, especially given the remoteness of these municipalities from Manila: we were not the savages the Americans made us out to be.

If the town is the break from the past, the break from centuries of atomized communities whose members came from a single family, then that break proceeded steadily in Luzon in the three centuries and more of Spanish domination, but was stalled till the nineteenth century in the Visayas. It would begin in Mindanao only in the twentieth century.

What this implies about the development of civic consciousness, not to say nationalist consciousness, in these places should give us pause. The length of time that towns have been existing is important for the emergence of the nation, as civic attitudes and practices need generations to take root. (At least three, and at the end of three generations, those attitudes and practices are still fragile.)

The number of towns in a given area is just as important for the emerging nation, because we are talking about attitudes and practices that should spread to as wide a public as possible. Basically, we are talking about a transition from an old culture to a new, and such a transition will reach a happy conclusion only if it lasts long and spreads wide.

The year 1898 is telltale: we link it to our proclamation of independence, but it was also the year that saw the proclamation of the Republic of Negros, the Federal Republic of Western Visayas, and the Republic of Lucbuan. The proclamation of Philippine independence was made in Luzon, while the three others were made in the Visayas and Palawan: four different visions of society.

At the end of the nineteenth century, I do not think we could call ourselves a nation. The history of the Philippines prior to nationhood is a history of the break from the past, which occurred at different times in different places, and the history of the spread of that break. 

That history becomes complicated in the twentieth century by a series of events culminating in the establishment of the Philippine state. Rightly called the history of the Philippine state, that series of events has eclipsed the history of the Philippine nation; in fact, we have confused state with nation and taken it for granted that we are a nation, albeit a failed one, considering the many Filipinos who don’t behave as though they were part of a nation.

But is that correct? There are parts of the Philippines in which the period of atomized villages continues; others, still in the period of towns; and still others, already with a nationalist consciousness—to all of which we must add the new phenomenon of the twentieth century, regionalism.

Barangay, town, region, nation: The development of civic and nationalist consciousness in the Philippines is geographically and socially uneven, which is why it is accurate to say that we are not yet a nation or that we are a nation in progress, but to say we are a failed nation is anachronistic.

How trace the history of the nation in the twentieth century and beyond? I would like to capture the essence of that history in this Tagalog phrase: mga bayang patungo sa sambayanan.

The word sambayanan speaks of unity in diversity: that is the destination to travel to if we are to have peace, and I do have the Muslim peoples in the south in mind. The focus of the history of the Philippine nation should be “ang mga bayan” and the perspective that of the “sambayanan” toward which ang mga bayan are (hopefully) on their way.

The twentieth century was the pivotal moment of the emerging Philippine nation:

  1. its demographic geography was completed with the incorporation of the Cordillera peoples and Tausugs, Maguindanaos, and Maranaos, among others, into American-ruled Philippines;
  2. a network of roads and bridges and transportation and communication networks stretched over the archipelago which had never before been thus united;
  3. the framework of the present state that we have was erected—the legislature, the executive office, the bureaucracy, and constitutions written by representatives from all over the archipelago;
  4. two linguae francae developed—first, English; then, Filipino.

These developments are usually reduced to incidental information, so focused are we on the history of the Philippine state. The twentieth century was obviously the century of increasing socialization between ethnic groups—something rarely pointed out in our textbooks, but we are in fact witnessing the emergence of the Philippine nation. The written history of this emergence must be marked by specificity: What was the actual scope of the road-building program of the Americans? What parts of the country did the first transportation networks cover? What provinces did most of the civil servants come from? What was the literacy level of Filipinos in English by province or region? Are we cultivating trivia? No, we are watching the country emerge. And so the context in which these developments take place is important; so, too, is the perspective by which the significance of these developments will be measured.

There are, to my mind, three key developments in the twentieth century (there may be more) that have affected ang mga bayan deeply: the first is education, the second migration, the third the emergence of cities.

The break from the past, in the sense of the foundation of municipalities that were conglomerations of barangays, continued to occur in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao in the twentieth century, but in another sense. The break from the past was now the result of the foundation of high schools and universities throughout the archipelago.

Historians agree that the catalyzing factor for the generation of Marcelo del Pilar and Rizal, the first generation to dream of a single society encompassing the archipelago, was the education they received in high school and university. Rizal marked the threshold of the new society to be established. Education at the secondary and tertiary levels is crucial to the development of civic and nationalist consciousness.

What has been done for the Spanish era—the listing of all surviving Spanish-founded towns with their foundation dates—must be done for high schools, colleges, and universities in the twentieth century by town and province, if it has not been done yet. In the uneven increase and spread of high schools, colleges, and universities we see the modern Philippine society taking shape. To these schools must be credited the hundreds of young people who gave up their lives happily for the country during the Japanese invasion and occupation. To them must be credited the emergence of a modern Philippines from a technical and technological point of view, in spite of the fact that, throughout most of the twentieth century, only a small percentage of the population actually availed of high school and college education. I have no doubt the free high schools available since 1986 will revolutionize Philippine society.

Earlier, I mentioned how the “break from the past” took place in Mindanao only in the twentieth century. That would pose a problem as far as the development of civic and nationalist consciousness is concerned, but a solution to that problem has been effected by the migration of ethnic groups from Luzon and the Visayas—Ilocanos, Tagalogs, Ilonggos, Cebuanos.

In general, migration in significant numbers within the country, which has been going on since the late nineteenth century, has not usually been given the importance it should have, considering that the sambayanan should be characterized by unity in diversity.

Mindanao was not the only destination of migrants within the Philippines. Even more relevant to unity in diversity is a third radical development that began only in the second half of the twentieth century: the rise of cities.

I would define the Philippine city as a large community—mammoth in the case of Metro Manila—composed of different ethnic groups, and this sort of community is once again new to these islands.

In the city, different ethnic groups find themselves constrained to live and work together, and in that sense, the city is a microcosm of the Philippine nation in the process of becoming. The histories of migration within the Philippines and of the emergence of cities are histories we must write with the same specificity with which we should write the history of schools in municipalities and provinces. That unevenness should be there, the slow or fast growth should be noticeable, because the history of Metro Manila is not the history of the Philippines, just as the history of Cebu is not the history of the Visayas and northern Mindanao.

I have hardly said anything about the history of the Philippines as a state, and that has been deliberate as I have wished to focus on the history of the Philippines as a nation. Nevertheless, these two histories are not parallel lines that will never meet.

 As with so many other themes of Philippine history, Rizal has anticipated their intersection. At the end of the Filibusterismo Fr Florentino complains that the Filipino people are lacking in faith but not in vices, with little appreciation for human dignity and civic virtue.

This criticism is ironic if we consider that at the time of the writing of the Fili we were only four years away from the Philippine Revolution and six from June 12, 1898. We were on the cusp of establishing, or at least wanting to establish, the Philippine state, a state that would be based on the appreciation for human dignity and civic virtue. It is precisely during this time that the first critiques of traditional Philippine societies appear: I have in mind, aside from the ending of the Fili, Andres Bonifacio’s Decalogue, Emilio Jacinto’s Cartilla, and Apolinario Mabini’s own version of the Decalogue. Their common theme, a powerful river running just beneath the surface of their exhortations, is an ethical change.

Is this ethical concern, noble as it may be, of any relevance to historians? Rizal links it to the very viability of social life, of civic life. In that long speech of Fr Florentino at the end of the Fili, he tells Simoun:

I do not mean to say that our freedom should be won by the edge of the sword, the sword counts for very little in modern use, but, yes, we have to win it by meriting it, elevating reason and the dignity of the individual, loving the just, the good, and the noble to the point of dying for it.

Renato Constantino ridiculed these words of Rizal, comparing Rizal’s freedom to a medal pinned on a boy scout for good behavior. But wisdom is justified by her children.

What Rizal meant by “freedom” was not independence, but civic freedoms. He saw these as guaranteed by institutions, precisely the institutions of the state(!), and he saw that the institutions would be useless if the citizens they were to serve would not value those freedoms with their own lives, if those freedoms were not, in short, supreme values for them. What would be the use of independence if the slaves of today were to become the tyrants of tomorrow?

Rizal’s worst fears have come true. As soon as the American watch dogs of our democratic institutions had left the country, we distorted these institutions into instruments of the traditional datu culture. The struggle for social justice, which we might date from the Sakdal uprising in the late 1920s morphing into the problem with the Hukbalahap and continuing today in the clashes between the NPA and the present government, may be read as a deep dissatisfaction with the present state and its institutions, and so, too, the migration of Filipinos, whether for work or to seek a new home. 

The civil society movement that arose with the assassination of Ninoy in 1983 may be likewise read as a deep dissatisfaction with the distortions made to our political institutions: that is the significance of EDSA 1, the jailing of two presidents, the Napoles case and the PDAP, among others.

Today we frequently call this phenomenon the mismatch between our political institutions and our culture. We frequently blame the Americans for the mismatch, but we too are to blame, for not heeding Rizal.

The truth is that our schools have largely turned a blind eye on these writings. How many do a close reading of the “Cartilla”? Or of Mabini’s introduction to his “Verdadero decálogo”? It is wrong, however, to regard this mismatch as a clash of cultures. Rizal, Bonifacio, Jacinto, and Mabini grounded their criticism of traditional Philippine society on ethics, and ethics for Rizal was above culture, or should I say intimior cultura, deeper than culture. What is at stake, he points out in chapter 33 of the Fili, is nothing less than our understanding of what the human being is.

The present state and its institutions challenge the emerging nation to develop the values that its institutions presuppose. Since Marcos’s declaration of martial law, we find ourselves in a period we may call “Wrestling with Institutions.” We are testing our institutions, trying to understand them. The disagreement between the President and the Supreme Court is but the latest chapter in this period of Philippine history. But that is what makes Philippine history fascinating and exciting: we are seeing the emergence of a modern nation before our very eyes.

Let me encapsulate this brief paper in two points expressed by its title: “Local history is national history, and national history should be local history.”

By “local history is national history” I mean that, while the Philippine nation is still coming to be, the history of communities in the Philippines as they evolve toward nationhood is our national history; by “national history should be local history” I mean that general developments applying to the entire Philippines should be particularized in terms of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

Philippine general history, at the moment, should be a history of the Philippine nation in statu nascente with the Philippine state constituting the framework in which that birth is taking place.

(A paper read at the Philippine Studies Association Conference on “Philippine Studies in the 21st Century : Mapping the Shifting Terrains of Inquiry,” November 12, 2014, National Museum, Manila.)


The University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P) conferred the highest academic rank of full professor on historian and playwright Dr. Paul Arvisu Dumol during its 21st University Day on August 15, 2016. Dumol is a full-time faculty member of UA&P and teaches courses in Philippine History and Rizal. In 2012, he received the Gawad Rizal from the National Historical Commission for his work in Rizal Studies and in the propagation of Rizal’s ideas. He wrote The Metaphysics of Reading Underlying Dante’s Commedia: The Ingegno and translated into English rare manuscripts that became published as The Manila Synod of 1582: The Draft of its Handbook for Confessors. The classic Ang Paglilitis ni Mang Serapio, described as “the most frequently performed one-act play in Filipino,” was written by Dumol when he was in high school.

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