Laurel received his law degrees from the University of the Philippines in 1915 and from Yale University in 1920. He was elected to the Philippine Senate in 1925 and appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1936. When Pres. Manuel Quezon escaped to the United States after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Laurel opted to remain in Manila. He was one of the high ranking government officials left in the Philippines.
Laurel offered his services to the Japanese Imperial Army when it occupied the country. It was because of his criticism of U.S. rule of the Philippines that the Japanese appointed him to a series of high posts during the three years of military rule. Laurel was also favored by the Japanese being the only Filipino to hold an honorary degree from Tokyo Imperial University.
During this Japanese occupation, Filipino leaders were forced to form a new government and prepare a new constitution. On September 4, 1943, the new constitution was finished. Only pro-Japanese candidates were allowed to become officials of the new government. When the Second Philippine Republic was inaugurated in front of the Legislative Building in Manila, Jose P. Laurel was the designated president. It was not a popular government because it was a puppet of the Japanese and the Filipino voters did not elect the new officials. Moreover, the new government officials were only forced to obey the Japanese orders and were not free to do as they pleased.
Laurel was not popular either during his presidency that attempts were made on his life. In his first year in office he was shot twice by Filipino guerrillas but somehow he survived. When the War was over he was charged with 132 counts of treason but somehow was never brought to trial because of the general amnesty given in April 1948. As the Nationalista Party's nominee for the presidency of the Republic of the Philippines in 1949, he was narrowly defeated by the incumbent president, Elpidio Quirino, a nominee of the Liberal Party.
Elected to the Philippine Senate in 1951, Laurel helped to persuade Ramon Magsaysay, then secretary of the department of national defense, to leave the Liberal Party and join the Nationalista Party. It was Magsaysay who later defeated Quirino in the presidential election of 1953. Laurel's controversial Presidency during the Japanese occupation overshadows his achievements as legislator, jurist, writer and administrator in the pre-war struggle for independence.
As elected senator and as delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he distinguished himself for his advocacy of women's suffrage and his sponsorship of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. Many Filipinos openly accused Laurel as a "Japanese collaborator" and branded him as a traitor. There were others, however, who believed that he had always remained loyal to the Filipino people and used his position only to protect his countrymen. His supporters claimed that Laurel did his best to make life less difficult under harsh military occupation by the Japanese Imperial Army.
When Magsaysay became the Philippine president, he designated Laurel to lead an economic mission to the United States in 1955. Laurel was tasked to negotiate an agreement to improve economic relations between the two countries.
Laurel was married to the
former Paciencia Hidalgo. He retired from public life in 1957 and died in
November 5, 1959.