Shortly after I published this piece I came across a significant piece of information, so standby. Really significant. Don’t go away.
In an article in the Philippine newspaper Inquirer of 13 June 2012, Rodel Rodis wrote: “Dewey, under specific orders from Navy Undersecretary Theodore Roosevelt to not make any commitments to Philippine independence, dispatched an artillery colonel, L.M. Johnson, to represent him….”
Dewey did no such thing. Johnson’s identity has generated a number of fallacies, from being Dewey’s secretary to being a US Army colonel to being a retired US Army veteran. He was none of these, he may not even have been a United States citizen, and as is often the case with fallacies his real story is far more interesting. In October 1898, for instance, he was arrested for smuggling arms to Aguinaldo. I bet that wasn’t in your history book!
Would a US Army Colonel be a mere secretary to a US Navy Commodore? Vanishingly unlikely.
So what do we really know about a man whose sole claim to fame is that he signed the Philippine Declaration of Independence?
According to RM Taylor’s The Philippine Insurrection Against the United States: “(Aguinaldo sent invitations to Dewey, who did not come to the declaration) It was, however, important to Aguinaldo that some American should be there whom the assembled people would consider a representative of the United States. “Colonel” Johnson, ex-hotel keeper of Shanghai, who was in the Philippines exhibiting a cinematograph [Davis cite here], kindly consented to appear on this occasion as Aguinaldo’s chief of artillery and the representative of the North American nation. His name does not appear subsequently among the papers of Aguinaldo. It is possible that his position as a colonel and chief of artillery was a merely temporary one which enabled him to appear in a uniform which would befit the character of the representative of a great people upon so solemn an occasion.” (Page 55).
Taylor was citing an 1899 book, “Our Conquests in the Pacific by Oscar King Davis, a correspondent for the New York Sun who arrived in Manila aboard the UST Australia with General Anderson on 1 July 1898. That actual mention of Johnson gives far more information about Johnson, which cross-references with other known information about him and suggests that Taylor was being somewhat disingenuous in his analysis of why Johnson was feted at Malolos and supposedly signed the declaration.
Other than the mention of Johnson in the Declaration of Independence, that is about as far as ever gets into the history books. Taylor is wrong on several counts.
If we follow up Taylor’s citation, from Oscar King Davis’s we find this brief gem of information:
“… on the morning of the 6th (July, 1898) we started, five newspaper men, an interpreter, and ” Colonel” Johnson, an American soldier of fortune, who is here as Aguinaldo’s chief of ordnance. He ran a hotel—the Astor House—in Shanghai for a while, and came down here on a cinematograph proposition. Now the insurgents are guarding his machine in Lipa, and he is showing them how to handle smooth-bore cannon here. We had with us Mr. Oharvet, a Frenchman, born in New York, who was Johnson’s partner in the cinematograph. He speaks Spanish fluently”. (Page 107)
By this time, then, the Declaration had been signed – on 12 June – and Johnson was actively fighting the Spanish under Aguinaldo.
So, let’s take a look at Mr. Johnson and how he came to play his role in the Philippine Revolution against Spain.