Senator Palma was born in Tondo, Manila on October 24, 1874.
He enrolled in June 1882 in a public school in Tondo. In 1885, he began his studies at the Ateneo de Manila and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1892, he began to study law at the University of Santo Tomas, and while in the university he was employed in the Office of the Bureau of Lands. Instead of joining the revolutionists in the field, he entered the government service and continued his studies.
He joined the libertarian movement as a reporter in La Independencia, the first Filipino daily newspaper, founded and directed by General Antonio Luna. When Luna died, he assumed the paper’s editorship and continued the nationalistic commitment. He also wrote for La Patria and other papers. He joined Sergio Osmena and Jaime de Veyra and founded in February, 1900, the first daily newspaper in Cebu, El Nuevo Dia.
He passed the bar examinations in 1901 but did not practice his profession right away. Instead, he founded the newspaper El Renacimiento which was first published on September 3, 1901. He practiced his law profession and at the same time taught at the Escuela de Derecho when he left newspaper work in 1903.
He started politics when he became a member and secretary of the Association of Peace. Senator Palma established his residency in Cavite and presented his candidacy as assemblyman for the province in 1907 and he successfully won said election.
In June 1909, Governor-General James A. Smith appointed him member of the second Philippine Commission and became the youngest member to serve up to 1916. He was elected as Senator for six years and represented the fourth district comprising Laguna, Manila, Rizal and Biñan. In 1917, he was appointed by Governor-General Francis B. Harrison to the Cabinet as Secretary of Interior and became the first official to hold concurrently legislature and executive positions and his term in the Senate ended in June 1922. In July 1925, he was inaugurated as the fourth president of the University of the Philippines up to 1933 the same year when he ran again in the Senate and won.
He was married to Carolina Ocampo.