In the different stages of the life of every nation, great men are born, not for their generation alone, but for all times, to serve as guiding inspirations for future generations. Their lives become living fountains of eternal truth and undying lessons for those who would care to pause and drink of their refreshing waters. In the course of time, they may be forgotten as mortal individuals, but the ideals and the things they stood for and represented in life will survive and remain with deathless freshness in the memory of their people. To the Filipinos, such a man is Sergio Osmeña, beloved Don Sergio, later in life known as the Grand Old Man of Cebu.

President Carlos P. Garcia, in his Osmeña funeral oration at the House of Representatives of the old Congress, said, “Your spirit will abide in the heart of the nation as long as liberty and freedom and democracy shall have meaning.”

Vicente Albano Pacis, who wrote a two-volume biography of Don Sergio, summarized his position in history as follows:

With or without erected monuments, Sergio Osmeña will live in his deeds. The life and work of so selfless a leader, so wise a statesman, so dedicated a patriot, will not fail to inspire wonder and gratitude in his countrymen so long as they will value their heritage of freedom and security to which he gave all the years of his life to win and protect.

I had the privilege of meeting Osmeña only once. I was then a student in the College of Law, University of the Philippines. The Independence Law controversy was at its height. Osmeña and Roxas had led a mission to the United States which obtained from the American Congress the enactment of the independence law, called the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law, which must, however, be accepted by the Philippine Legislature to come into force. Senate President Manuel Quezon led the opposition to the law, organizing the “antis.” Most students, myself among them, sided with the “pros” led by the Osmeña-Roxas or Osrox team. It was in a rally in the course of that campaign for acceptance of the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law that I came to know the serene Senator Sergio Osmeña.

Obviously, from that occasional contact, I learned nothing about the man. But what I have come to know since then about him, his life, work and principles, and the impression that they leave in the mind of a present-day public man—I would like to share with you today.

Sergio Osmeña was a statesman without equal, whether in his own generation or in the present. Justice Jose P. Laurel called him “a peerless Filipino statesman.”

President Manuel L. Quezon said of him: “The Vice-President (Osmeña) is a born statesman. He was 23 years old when he was elected to the First National Assembly, and even at that time he proved himself to be the greatest statesman of his day.”

Justice George Malcolm described Don Sergio thus: “Sergio Osmeña is a Christian gentleman who personifies the best in Philippine history, politics and life. He well merits the designation of foremost statesman of his generation.”

Judged by the appraisal of his contemporaries and considering the events that followed his era, I would think that Osmeña was not only the foremost statesman of his time, but the Filipino statesman of all time.

Webster defines statesman as follows: “A man versed in the principles and art of government, especially one who shows unusual wisdom in treating and directing great public matters.” This or any other definition will not tell us what a statesman is; they can merely give indications. Like beauty—its qualities cannot be encompassed in a definition. Statesmanship is a totality of attitudes, principles, acts and qualities which, taken as a whole, create the unavoidable conclusion that a person is a statesman.

Many have held high government offices but just never reach the status of a statesman. Presidents have been elected and have left outstanding records of service but have never been thought of as statesmen, whether by their contemporaries or by posterity. Men of ambition, in self-glorification, may have their images cut on rock on the mountain sides and promote the publication of countless books written by paid journalists to idolize them; but this will not make statesmen of them.

Osmeña lived a simple life, self-effacing and retiring, and was never elected as President by his people, but he is considered the greatest statesman of our race.

His life span covered the entire period of the Filipino people’s struggle for self-government and ultimate independence. His whole life was dedicated to the attainment of that national goal. He held to the unshakeable belief that national unity was essential for the success of the fight for freedom, and he made personal and political sacrifices for the sake of that unity. He was always ready to give up power and prestige in order to keep the Filipino people united on the road to national emancipation. He is thus regarded as the chief architect of Philippine independence.

As Speaker of the National Assembly, he led his colleagues in the enactment of legislation to promote the economic, social, and spiritual welfare of the Filipino people, and, in the process, proved their capacity to govern themselves through their representatives. He fought against both the American Governor-General and the American-controlled Philippine Commission, to expand the powers of the National Assembly and the Filipinos in the government to the full extent that the letter and spirit of the organic law permitted, in order to proportionately reduce American authority.

The fight for recognition of Philippine prerogatives extended to the selection of our representation in the United States Congress, where we had two Resident Commissioners, with the same rights and privileges as American Congressmen except the right to vote. Although, legally, both Commissioners were elected by the Commission and the Assembly, the practice had been for the Commission to choose one and for the Assembly to choose the other, and each body just accepted the choice of the other.

Osmeña saw that this was incompatible with the principle of Filipino representation in the U.S. Congress. He claimed the right of the Assembly to approve or disapprove the choice of the Commission and not just automatically assent to it. When an election of Resident Commissioners came, the Assembly elected Manuel Quezon but rejected Benito Legarda who was the choice of the Commission. A deadlock which echoed in Washington followed. Osmeña did not yield, despite angry words from the Americans. Ultimately, after two years, the Americans and the Commission gave up Legarda and designated Manuel Earnshaw instead. The Assembly approved Earnshaw, winning the fight to have the Filipino people represented by the representatives of their choice in the American Congress. If they were to be the voice of the Filipinos in the U.S. Congress, they must be the choice of the representatives of the Filipino people.

Osmeña’s leadership in the fight for self-government and independence was challenged by Quezon in 1922, and a break was about to develop in the Filipino participation in the government. Because of Osmeña’s obsession with unity as being essential in the struggle for independence, he offered to quit from public life at the end of his term, and Quezon promised to do the same to avoid division of the people. But this was not to be. Quezon organized the separatist Partido Colectivista, forcing Osmeña to put off his retirement and resume leadership of the Nacionalista party at the behest of the loyalists of the party.

The ensuing election gave no majority to either Osmeña’s Nacionalistas or Quezon’s Colectivistas, for the Democratas also elected a sizeable number of representatives. Again, impelled by the desire for unity, Osmeña fused with Quezon and formed the Nacionalista Consolidado. In the resulting union, he agreed to be a mere Senator, with Quezon as President of the Senate, and Roxas as Speaker.

If he were an ordinary politician who just wanted power, he could have coalesced with the Democratas, but he preferred to forget the rebellion of Quezon and accept his leadership in the interest of a solid front in the continuing effort for independence. How many men, past or present, could subordinate their pride and make such personal and political sacrifice for the good of the nation?

Osmeña made another manifestation of this extreme nobility of character and love of country in 1934. As I have mentioned earlier, Osmeña and Roxas had gone to the United States at the head of an independence mission and came back with the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Independence Law. Quezon had stayed in Manila, but as leader of the Filipino people, he was kept informed by the Osrox mission of the program of the enactment of the Independence Law and its provisions.

While the bill was pending in the United States Congress, Quezon cabled the Osrox mission:

I feel confident the people will accept whatever you agree upon there.

The Legislature has placed the responsibility upon the Mission and I propose to accept the decision of the Mission and stand by it.

But when the bill had finally become a law, Quezon led the movement to reject it. He objected to the provision that would allow the United States to keep military and naval bases in the Philippines after the proclamation of Philippine Independence.

The entire people was sharply divided between “pros” and “antis.” The fight ended in the rejection of the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law by the Philippine Legislature, and the removal of Osmeña as Senate President Pro-Tempore, of Roxas as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and of other “pro” officials from their respective positions. Quezon had won, Osmeña had lost.

But later events vindicated Osmeña. During the war, while the legitimate Philippine government was in exile in the United States, headed by Quezon as President and Osmeña as Vice-President, and the Philippines was under enemy military occupation, President Roosevelt, on September 6, 1943, sent a message to the Congress urging provision for the full security of the Philippines by the establishment of American military and naval bases here after the proclamation of Philippine independence.

Reversing his 1934 position on the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law, Quezon agreed to this. In a cable to General McArthur in Australia, he called the message “marvellous” and “contains everything you and I have considered necessary for the freedom and future security of the Philippines.” Thus, Joint Resolution No. 93, was passed by the U.S. Congress, and signed by President Roosevelt on June 29, 1944. It provided that the United States was to be granted military bases in an independent Philippines. Both Quezon and Osmeña welcomed it. It should be remembered that such bases were the reason given by Quezon for his opposition to the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law, and the consequent split of the Filipino people into “pro” and “anti” camps in 1934.

But more significant than the vindication of Osmeña by history was his statesmanship after the smoke of the pro-anti battle had subsided. Quezon had gone to the United States after the rejection of the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law to work for a different independence law. But he came back with the same law under a new name, the Tydings-McDuffie Act. It had the same provisions as the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law, minus the military reservations. This was accepted by the Philippine Legislature. It provided, like the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law, for a 10-year transition period under the Commonwealth Government.

The election of the first President and Vice-President of the Commonwealth followed.

Once again, Osmeña, the apostle of national unity, chose to forget what Quezon had done and coalesced with him. Quezon ran for President and Osmeña for Vice-President on the coalition ticket. He received 18% more votes than Quezon in that election. If Osmeña had chosen to run for President under a party that would unite all anti-Quezon forces, he might have been elected President. But he believed that the new transition government that would usher the Philippines into the family of nations needed national unity more than ever. So he again agreed to play second fiddle to Manuel Quezon for the sake of the country.

To the end of his relationship with Quezon, he subordinated himself to what he believed was demanded by the good of the country. Both were re-elected in 1941, but Quezon’s term was limited by the Constitution to a maximum total of eight years from his election in 1933, expiring in 1943, while Osmeña had a full four-year term from his re-election, or until 1945.

They were in the United States when Quezon’s term was to expire. Quezon wanted to continue in office even after the eight-year period, claiming that the Philippine Constitution was not in force due to the war. Osmeña was willing to yield in the interest of the unity of the government in exile because of the war. By Joint Resolution No. 95 of the United States Congress, the terms of Quezon and Osmeña were extended until the moment of Philippine independence. Thus, again, the statesman in Osmeña prevailed, and it was not until after Quezon’s death on August 1, 1944, that he took his oath as President, nine and one-half months later than the time designated by the Philippine Constitution.

Thus, the most striking events in Osmeña’s life consistently revealed his quality as a statesman. But to be a statesman, one must have been elevated to public office, usually by election, or pass the stage of being a politician. What is a politician? I had some early experiences that gave me some idea of what a politician is or is conceived to be.

In 1941, I became a candidate for Congress in one of the districts of Manila under the Young Philippines youth party. President Quezon, head of the Nacionalista Party, called me to Malacañan and offered to ensure my election. He would instruct the Nacionalista leaders in my district to support me, if I promised that once elected I would not oppose his administration measures. I asked what those measures would be, but he said he could not tell me then because circumstances in the future would determine what measures should be presented to Congress. I told him then that I could not make a promise on something I did not know, and so I did not get his support. As he showed me to the door, he put his arm on my shoulder, and said: “Tolentino, you are a good man, but not a politician.” As I looked back years later, I realized he must have meant that I could have promised and obtained his support, but need not keep my promise after being elected.

This was made clearer to me by another President in 1949. I was a member of the Code Commission when the Nacionalista Party, in convention, proclaimed me as official candidate in the third district of Manila. So I immediately sent my resignation to President Quirino. He called me to Malacañan to dissuade me from running for Congress under the banner of the Nacionalista Party, which was then the opposition, offering to appoint me as Justice of the Court of Appeals. He would sign the appointment and administer my oath then and there. The temptation was strong. I told him that if only the offer had come a week earlier, I would have grabbed it, because I was not really interested in politics, but that I had given my word to NP President Amang Rodriguez and Senator Jose P. Laurel, who was running for President, that I would run under the NP if it proclaimed my candidacy in the absence of any other aspirants in my district.

Then I heard the President’s words that shocked me. He said: “Tolentino, political promises are not meant to be kept. Think of yourself first.” Looking back after many years, I realized that if I had agreed to be Court of Appeals Justice then, and broken the promise I had given to Amang Rodriguez and Senator Jose Laurel, I would have become by mere seniority and automatic promotion, Supreme Court Chief Justice for a long time.

Our ordinary concept of a politician would include the ideas imparted to me by these two Presidents. But more than these, the term carries the connotation of stooping to questionable, improper, or even unlawful methods and devices to win an election. It means adherence to the rule that “the ends justify the means,” or “there is no substi­tute for victory,” or “win by hook or by crook.”

Osmeña was not this kind of politician. He was of a different mold, an ethical politician, who conducted himself with dignity and honor. He placed principle, honesty and justice, above his own personal or political advantage or benefit.

As President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, he often took over the duties of Senate President during the absences of Quezon whenever the latter was hospitalized, here or abroad, for his tuberculosis. During those long periods of Quezon’s absence, Osmeña could have plotted and maneuvered to grab the Presidency of the Senate. But if it was ever suggested or occurred to him, he brushed the thought aside, for he was not one to double-cross a friend or resort to political machinations to advance his interests. He was an honorable politician.

We are living witnesses today to practices in politics which are justified by the saying “all is fair in love and war—and in politics.” Even now we have men in public office who are there by questionable means. We have to tax our brains to devise legislation intended to insure fair, free, honest, and orderly elections. But as we enact such laws to guarantee that the people’s voice will be given effect, we still have some misgivings that the implementation of such laws may not match their intention. We have political leaders, even in high places of government, who are not concerned with the people’s will but preach the doctrine of “victory at all costs.”

There are some who have come to regard the public office to which they had been elevated by the people as their private property in which they have a vested right, like a castle over which they have complete dominion, to be defended and kept at all costs, even to the death—of those who may threaten their hold. Even important policies of government are adopted, not for the people’s welfare but to perpetuate themselves in office. They forget that public officers are temporary beneficiaries of the people’s trust, which may be transferred at each given time, to whomsoever the people, in the exercise of sovereignty, may wish.

Osmeña was a true advocate of clean and honest elections. To him, democracy was not just a word to use in orations but the real key to the happiness of a people. He was constantly aware that public office belongs to the people, to be bestowed upon those whom they may choose to favor, and the people’s will must not be subverted by any means.

When Roxas ran against him for the Presidency shortly after the war, he told his leaders to conduct the campaign honorably, with honesty and fairness, otherwise, he warned them, he would not serve even if elected. To him, the high principles in which he believed were paramount. He kept them regardless of political consequences because they were more important to him than public office.

He endeavored to educate his people by example in the practice of democracy. In his July 4th speech in 1955, he said:

I wish to commend upon the Filipino people that old and trite but, nevertheless, still true saying, ‘Vigilance is the price of liberty.’ We must cultivate a vigorous public opinion . . . Only through discussion and debate, through dissent and concurrence, can the wisdom of a race be churned from the depths of its genius and character . . . Let us not only talk of democracy but also practice it courageously and responsibly.

In his last political battle, when Roxas defeated him for the Presidency, when the people seemed to have forgotten his lifelong service in the fight for independence, when he was denied by popular vote the honor of becoming the first President of the independent Philippine Republic, of which he was the leading architect, Osmeña accepted the people’s verdict with dignity and honor. He immediately conceded the election to Roxas. He recognized his defeat as a practical demonstration of the working of the principle of majority rule in a democracy, a principle of which he was a fervent advocate.

Thus, Osmeña was never elected by his people to the Presidency, but he stands head and shoulders over those who were later to occupy that high office. He was a public official par excellence, an ideal public servant in deed and in word.

Today, we have men in public office who seem to regard public service as a means for the advancement of personal interests, for the enrichment of relatives and close associates, popularly known as cronies, in complete disregard of the people’s welfare and in blatant betrayal of the public trust. We have public servants who behave as masters of the people, doing what they will, not caring at all for how the people feel.

Not Sergio Osmeña. When he presented his Cabinet to the people upon his return to the Philippines with General MacArthur and the restoration of the Philippine Government in Manila, he said:

We shall reestablish . . . a social and political system . . . in which government officials and employees are not the masters of the people but their servants, acting as necessary instrumentalities through which the public good and the individual welfare may be advanced and safeguarded.

All his life, he considered that the power and influence that went with public office must be used only to promote the people’s welfare and never for self-aggrandizement. He used power to attain what he believed to be the highest good of country and people, and never to advance his political or private fortune, or the interests of his own associates and relatives.

Listen to the words of his erstwhile political enemy, Senator Mariano Cuenco, in an article entitled “Osmeña and Public Morality,” written on the occasion of Don Sergio’s birthday on September 9, 1958:

Little has been said of his (Osmeña’s) honesty, irreproachable integrity, and high sense of propriety . . . During the formative years of our national life, no Filipino could be appointed to the bench, the Cabinet, or any other high office in the government without satisfying the high standard of public morality set and exemplified by Osmeña himself . . . (his) sense of propriety restrained him from appointing fellow Cebuanos to positions in the government . . . Friendship to him is one of the priceless treasures of life. Yet friendship even with his closest friends ended when the interest of the people began.

The level of public morality follows not the hypocritical preachings or empty exhortations of leaders but the standard or pattern set by their example. Even his bitter political enemy, Senator Cuenco, acknowledged that the high standard of public morality of his time was set and exemplified by Osmeña himself.

The post-Osmeña era has been characterized by a gradual breakdown of public morality. After Osmeña came the beer scandal, the Chinese-quota scandal, the import-control scandal, the sudden unexplained wealth of public officials, and rampant graft and corruption in practically all levels of public service.

The tragedy of this national calamity is that the people have become so cynical that the decline in public morality seems to be accepted and tolerated as an unavoidable fact. Berate a small employee for petty graft and he justifies his action by pointing to officials higher up in government. One of my disappointments as a legislator is the fact that the anti-graft law, which I authored with pride and high hopes, is now better-known for its violation than for its enforcement. Officials with unimpeachable integrity are now looked upon with doubt, or like strange creatures from another planet.

Leaders must change for this national malady to be cured and a high moral order in public life revived. Public morality is like a stream flowing from a spring at the mountain top. Once the source is polluted, the entire stream, including its branches and rivulets, will become polluted.

Conversely, once the spring is cleansed and its purity restored, all the waters of the whole stream will be purified.

I thank God that in this critical period of our national life we have a Don Sergio to reestablish by his own example the high values in public service that we have lost.

9 September 1985

* * *

Arturo M. Tolentino was born in Tondo, Manila, on 19 September 1910. He studied at the University of the Philippines (1928-34, 1938) and the University of Santo Tomas (1936-38), earning degrees of Master of Laws and Doctor of Civil Law. In a varied career in public service, he was a member of the Code Commission (1948-49), congressman (1949-57), and senator (1957-73). A member of the Batasang Pambansa (1978, 1984), he was again elected to the Senate in 1992. In the field of foreign affairs, he was appointed ambassador extraordinary in 1973, named Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in 1978 and Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1984, and represented the Philippines in various world assemblies, including the United Nations General Assembly.

            Arturo M. Tolentino was born in Tondo, Manila, on 19 September 1910. He studied at the University of the Philippines (1928-34, 1938) and the University of Santo Tomas (1936-38), earning degrees of Master of Laws and Doctor of Civil Law. In a varied career in public service, he was a member of the Code Commission (1948-49), congressman (1949-57), and senator (1957-73). A member of the Batasang Pambansa (1978, 1984), he was again elected to the Senate in 1992. In the field of foreign affairs, he was appointed ambassador extraordinary in 1973, named Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in 1978 and Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1984, and represented the Philippines in various world assemblies, including the United Nations General Assembly.