Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos: Counselor of the Nation

Jose Abad Santos (2) copyPresent day Filipinos are surely familiar with the thousand peso bill. Perhaps not everyone, however, may be conscious of the significance of the three heroes portrayed on it. Those portrayed on the bill are the foremost Filipino martyrs of the resistance against the Japanese occupation of World War II, namely Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos, whose death we commemorate today, Josefa Llanes Escoda, and General Vicente Lim.

Jose Abad Santos was born on February 19, 1886, and was raised in Pampanga at the height of the Philippine Revolution against Spain. Part of the first generation of Filipinos sent to study in American Universities, Abad Santos returned with a law degree and honed his formidable legal mind as legal counsel for the Philippine National Bank and the Manila Railroad Company.

He served as Secretary of Justice under various American Governors-General, first under Governor-General Leonard Wood from 1922 to 1923. During the “cabinet crisis” of 1923, the Filipino members of the cabinet, Abad Santos among them, relinquished their posts to protest Governor-General Wood’s handling of the Conley Case.

He was subsequently re-appointed to the Justice portfolio in 1928 and served under Governors-General Henry L. Stimson, Dwight F. Davis, and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. until his appointment as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1932.

In 1938, Abad Santos was appointed Secretary of Justice for the third time by President Manuel L. Quezon, who had long trusted Abad Santos because of his remarkable legal expertise and steadfast temperament. Quezon had often sought his advice on matters of state, and Abad Santos additionally served as chief writer for President Quezon’s speeches and statements.

On July 16, 1941, Abad Santos was re-appointed to the Supreme Court by President Quezon. War broke out on December 8, 1941, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, and the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. The Commonwealth Government was informed it would have to evacuate Manila, which would be declared an Open City to spare the population from enemy bombardment. At the same time, the evacuation of the government required the reorganization of the Philippine government to address the situation. This was undertaken on December 22, 1941, when the Commonwealth War Cabinet was organized by virtue of Executive Order No. 396.

On December 24, the elderly Chief Justice Ramon Avanceña retired, giving President Quezon the opportunity to appoint a new Chief Justice.  President Quezon appointed Abad Santos as Chief Justice, hours before the Commonwealth War Cabinet evacuated Manila for Corregidor. In the reorganization under Executive Order No. 396, Chief Justice Abad Santos was appointed Secretary of Justice and Finance. That afternoon, the Commonwealth War Cabinet took the S.S. Mayon to Corregidor.

President Quezon and Vice President Sergio Osmeña had been re-elected to a second term in the November 1941 elections and had fled to the island fortress of Corregidor to take refuge from the incessant Japanese bombing raids. On December 30, outside Malinta Tunnel, Abad Santos administered the oath of office to Quezon and Osmeña for their second term as President and Vice President.

On December 24, 1941, President Manuel L. Quezon administered the oath of office to Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos, who also became Acting Secretary of Justice and Finance, in the Social Hall of Malacañan Palace. They are surrounded by: Philippine Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of National Defense, Secretary of Public Works and Communications and Secretary of Labor Basilio J. Valdes, Executive Secretary Jorge B. Vargas, Jose P. Laurel and Benigno S. Aquino. Behind them can be seen the Rest House (now Bahay Pangarap) across the river in Malacañang Park. This photo was colored by the PCDSPO.

On Chief Justice Abad Santos’ 56th birthday on February 19, 1942, the Commonwealth War Cabinet prepared to leave Corregidor, to establish the government in unoccupied areas of the Philippines. On February 20, 1942, aboard the submarine Swordfish, President Quezon and his War Cabinet, including Abad Santos, set out for Antique. The enemy forces had yet to occupy the Visayan Islands. They reached San Jose de Buenavista, Antique on February 21, then Iloilo on February 22. From there they traveled to Bacolod City on February 23, Guimaras on February 24, and back to Bacolod on February 25.

It was in Negros Oriental that Abad Santos demonstrated his unwavering patriotism: when President Quezon invited the Chief Justice to join his government-in-exile in Washington, D.C., Abad Santos replied, “If you will excuse me, Mr. President, I prefer to remain, carry on my work here, and stay with my family.” President Quezon would appoint Abad Santos as his “delegate”–effectively Acting President of the Commonwealth Government.

Abad Santos bade goodbye to the President for the last time in Zamboangita Point and returned to Bacolod. From Bacolod, Abad Santos and Manuel Roxas flew to Dumaguete on April 5, 1942, where they parted ways—Roxas flew to Mindanao, and Abad Santos proceeded to Cebu by boat to oversee the civil government in the area.

On April 10, 1942, upon hearing the news of the fall of Bataan, Abad Santos evacuated to Naga, a town south of Cebu City. Upon learning that the Japanese forces had landed in Cebu, he planned to return to Negros by way of Toledo, a port town on west coast of Cebu, but this route had been blocked by the Japanese. Abad Santos and his men were captured in the hinterlands of Barili, Cebu on April 11, 1942.

(His last days and his execution are discussed at length in a separate briefer.)

When he declined to take an oath of allegiance to Japan, or to cooperate with the Japanese government, he was ordered executed. On May 2, 1942, the date he was to be killed, he spent his last moments with his son Pepito (Jose Abad Santos Jr.), reminding him not to cry. “Show these people that you are brave. It is a rare opportunity for me to die for our country. Not everybody is given that chance.” Before he left his son for the last time, he instructed Pepito to take care of the remaining members of his family. His last words were: “Tell them to live up to our name. God bless you, my son.”

The country’s finest leaders of the Commonwealth era are often presented as a troika: Manuel L. Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, and Manuel Roxas. All had stellar political careers, achieved supremacy through the legislative and executive spheres of power, and had served as President. Yet all were robbed of the glorious martyrdom in the make of Jose Abad Santos, who died in defiant service to the country. One of his successors, Chief Justice Manuel V. Moran called Abad Santos the “counselor of the nation.” While his tenure as Chief Justice may have been short and his stint as acting President has often been relegated to dusty history books, Jose Abad Santos, to those who turn to his life, patriotism, and selfless sacrifice, is an exemplar of fidelity to the Filipino nation.