Manuel L. Quezon climbs the stairs of the Palace for the first time as President, 1935.

Malacañan Palace stands as the office and the official residence of the President of the Philippines. It is “the expression, in ornamental landscaping, in concrete, wood, and stone, of the office of the presidency,” and is “the embodiment of the supreme authority in the country, indivisible, in many ways, but also imbued with a history of its own, as an almost organic institution on its own.”

And in its role as the epicenter of “the panoply of state and the minutiae of governance,” perhaps no ritual of the inauguration is so steeped in history and legend, and so symbolic of the gravitas accorded the highest office in the land, as a President’s first climbing of its main stairs.

Indeed, even the transfer of power from one president to another is affirmed through these stairs. On his successor’s inaugural, the President descends the stairs of the Palace accompanied by the President-elect—thus marking the formal act of leaving office for the incumbent. The President-elect will then symbolically mark the start of his presidency by climbing the same stairs later in the day.

The ritual climbing of the stairs—symbolizing the possession of the Malacañan Palace—was a tradition conscientiously began by President Manuel L. Quezon. As he would write in his memoirs:

“From the grandstand, I went through streets crowded with people acclaiming their first President, on to the Palace of Malacañan, the great mansion on the bank of the Pasig River which had been the seat of power of foreign rulers for many decades past. As I stepped out of the presidential car and walked over the marble floor of the entrance hall, and up the wide stairway, I remembered the legend of the mother of Rizal, the great Filipino martyr and hero, who went up those stairs on her knees to seek executive clemency from the cruel Spanish Governor-General Polavieja, that would save her son’s life.”

Quezon wanted the ritual to symbolize that, henceforth, a Filipino chief executive would be governing from Malacañan Palace, one who could walk up the stairs proudly as the leaderof his own people; at the same time, ascending those stairs would be a constant reminder to every president of the portion of the oath of office which pledges justice to every man.

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In a speech, its current occupant President Benigno S. Aquino III acknowledged the prevailing view of Malacañan Palace, that “it is a well-guarded structure, removed from everyday life: a house of power and authority whose occupants influence the lives of all Filipinos.” Although presidents of recent history have tried, in varying degrees, to “shatter” this perception, the very roots of Malacañan Palace had it looming over its constituents as a seat of power, distant and lofty.

The two most resonant stories that intertwine Malacañan’s narrative and the martyrdom of Rizal, perhaps, best embody this viewpoint. The first story has Rizal’s sisters, one evening, standing before the Palace gates that were barred to them, awaiting a glimpse of Spanish Governor-General Camilo de Polavieja. Earlier that day, Polavieja had ordered for Rizal to be shot at seven in the morning of the 30th in the field of Bagumbayan. When the sisters saw the Governor-General, they fell at his feet and plead for clemency. They were denied. Rizal would be executed by firing squad just as dawn broke on December 30, 1896—from a verdict passed within the halls of Malacañan Palace itself.

The second, more oft-recalled lore—the story that has, however unverified, lent more influence over Malacañan and its residents—was when the Palace opened its doors to Teodora Alonzo, mother of the condemned Rizal. Legend states that Mrs. Alonzo went up the grand staircase of the Governor-General’s residence, on her knees, to beg for her son’s life. This was a mother’s humbling—no thought spared for pride; abject supplication the most poignant offering to save one’s child.

The sisters’ futile attempt to lobby for their brother’s life only serves to underscore the unyielding nature of the Palace during the Spanish colonial rule. However, the eventual transformation of Malacañan Palace as an institution for the people owes much to the legend of Mrs. Alonzo. Rizal’s mother was denied, too, despite her heart-rending humbling—she would outlive her son for fifteen years. To trace this legend and to examine its resonance may well point us to the starkness of the divide between the Spaniards and the people of the archipelago they had long ruled over. That Mrs. Alonzo had dared present an entreaty—that Malacañan had relented to let her in, on her knees or otherwise—was too stirring an image to not let live on. Too chilling a reminder of the oppressions of colonial rule to not let imbue an independent state.

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For Quezon, it was necessary to ensure all the accouterments accorded the highest office of the land. Indeed, “the day Quezon took possession of Malacañan was trumpeted as an act of racial vindication. Certainly the first president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines viewed his occupancy of Malacañan on November 15, 1935 as just that; but it was also an act of personal vindication, of ambition. As early as 1917, Quezon had already expressed his intention to live in the palace, and by 1933, during the negotiations for the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act, the question of who would live in Malacañan became an important consideration.” Quezon wrote in a memorandum to Representative Butler Hare, apropos of the Palace:

[Malacañan Palace] is historically the residence of the chief executive of the Philippines, and, to give it to the High Commissioner, only emphasizes the secondary position the chief executive of the Commonwealth.

Contemporary journalist Walter Robb succinctly examines the political significance of turning over the Palace to Filipino leaders:

Quezon was ever a bit fearful that Filipinos would find this triumph of the fundamental American policy unbelievable, that they would think it is too good to be true, this evidence that their long passive resistance to every alteration of the policy [of independence for the Philippines] had actually succeeded. Quezon therefore wished to give them a sign. In the bill originally passed [the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act] he found the flaw that the American High Commissioner (during the ten-year Commonwealth, Frank Murphy’s transmutation from the governorship) would continue living in Malacañan. Quezon stuck for this to be changed, that Malacañan be the Philippine President’s residence; that is to say, his residence. So old is Malacañan as the seat of government, unless he lived there the President would have no prestige whatsoever, the people would not believe he had any actual authority, they would rate him no more than Washington’s puppet.

And so it was on “the fine, clear, and cold morning” of November 15, 1935, after he had taken his oath as president of the newly established Commonwealth of the Philippines Quezon led the crowd to Malacañan Palace. At last, a Filipino—one chosen by the very people he was to lead—was to live in the edifice that had, since time immemorial, been the seat of two colonial governments. The climbing of the stairs would henceforth signify that the chief executive was the freely-elected head of the Filipino people, one pledged to govern them with justice in contrast to the appointed colonial governors who formerly inhabited the Palace. He could stand tall as a leader elected by the people, in contrast to the chosen representatives of governments of distant lands. The ritual climbing of the stairs, at the start of a presidency, would then on remain a simple yet eloquent act reclaiming that which had once been denied Filipinos.

 

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FURTHER READING:

  • Malacañan Palace: The Official Illustrated History, by Manuel L. Quezon III, Jeremy Barns, and Paolo Alcazaren.
  • …So Help Us God: The Presidents and their Inaugural Addresses, by J. Eduardo Malaya and Jonathan E. Malaya.