Manuel Quezon was the oldest child of Spanish mestizo parents living in the small town of Baler on the east coast of Luzon island. At nine the young Quezon was sent to San Juan de Letran College, where he completed his secondary education and finished his bachelor of arts degree. He then went on to the University of Santo Tomás to study law.
In 1899, Quezon interrupted his studies to join Emilio Aguinaldo in the nationalist struggle against the United States, which had gained the Philippines from Spain after the Spanish-American War. After Aguinaldo surrendered to the United States in 1901, Quezon returned to law school and passed the Philippine bar in 1903.
He subsequently set up his own law firm in his home province of Tayabas. Quezon's populist leanings were evident in the way he made wealthy clients pay high fees while he provided free legal services to the poor.
Quezon entered politics in 1905 when he ran for the office of provincial governor in Tayabas. Two years later he won a seat in the newly created Philippine assembly. He became the majority floor leader, with Sergio Osmena from Cebu as speaker.
This marked the beginning of a long political collaboration with Osmena. The next year Quezon and Osmena established the Nacionalista Party, although Osmena remained its recognized leader through the early 1920s.
Quezon traveled outside the Philippines during this period, attending the International Congress of Navigation in St. Petersburg in 1908, visiting New York, and lunching with President Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1909, the Philippine assembly elected Quezon resident commissioner to the United States. He would hold this post for the next seven years. During this time he learned English and focused his energies on winning independence for the Philippines. By the time he returned to the Philippines in 1916, his efforts had helped lead to the passage of the Philippine Autonomy Act, commonly known as the Jones Act.
The Jones Act led to a reorganization of the Philippine legislature on the U.S. model and opened up new avenues for Quezon's political advancement. In 1916, having first won a senate seat, he was elected president of the senate by his fellow senators, a position he held until 1935.
Exploiting the preamble of the Jones Act and inspired by the rhetoric of President Woodrow Wilson, Quezon led a team to Washington, D.C., in 1919 to lobby for independence. A new presidential administration in the United States in the post–World War I period doomed Quezon's mission.
In 1934 Quezon returned from yet another mission to the United States after the passage of the TydingsMcDuffie Act by the U.S. Congress, which created a 10-year transitional Philippine Commonwealth prior to full independence. The following year Quezon was elected president of the commonwealth, with Osmena as his vice president.
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved Quezon's request for the assignment of General Douglas MacArthur to help create a Philippine army as the country prepared itself for eventual independence in 1946. Quezon and MacArthur had a long-standing relationship dating back to 1903. In fact, in 1929 Quezon had lobbied hard for MacArthur to succeed Henry Stimson as governor-general of the Philippines. Quezon named MacArthur field marshal and military adviser to the Filipino president.
In November 1941, as the threat of war loomed, Quezon was reelected president, with Osmena as his vice president. A month later the Japanese military swept into Southeast Asia and invaded the Philippines. Quezon and Osmena were evacuated to Corregidor, from which they were taken to the United States.
In Washington, D.C., Quezon and Osmena established a commonwealth government in exile. Manuel Quezon would not return to the Philippines. He became bedridden by the tuberculosis that had plagued him for years and died in Saranac Lake, New York, on August 1, 1944. He was survived by his widow, Aurora Aragon Quezon, and his three children. His body was carried back to the Philippines and interred at the Manila North Cemetery. It was then moved to the Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City.