The political philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution demands a government that puts the good of the American people first, in securing their rights and pursuing their common good. This stands in contrast to the notion today, often pushed by conservatives, that America instead stands for universal ideals that ultimately demand the subordination of the good of American citizens to the good of non-citizens.
The Universalist Mission: Americans Second
In contemporary American political discourse, there are two common presentations of the American founding. One casts the founding as thoroughly racist, sexist, etc. (choose your buzzword), in order to guilt Americans into trying to prove how much they have “progressed” beyond such a dark age of bigotry. The other presentation casts the founding as fundamentally universalist in order to inspire Americans to adhere to the progressive ideals of a golden age — ideals that today involve trying to make third-world foreigners into first-world Americans, often by bombing their countries and moving them to America as refugees. The two disparate presentations are reconciled somewhat by the claim that the American founders, though not thoroughly progressive themselves, expressed progressive ideals that the American people today must fulfill somehow.
Although the “dark age” presentation, or myth, might be associated primarily with discourse on the left, and the “golden age” myth with discourse on the right, in truth the establishment left and right use both myths in pursuit of the same policies. Foreign interventionism is pushed either as a duty to minorities to atone for past racism (typically, past inaction on behalf of some other minority group, hence the mantra “Never Again”), or as a duty to mankind in the defense of universal ideals (whether “liberal” or neoconservative, take your pick). For similar reasons, people are encouraged to accept open borders and mass immigration.
The common thread, left and right, is a demand that the American people set aside what is good for themselves and instead pursue what is good for non-Americans. Whether one is escaping a dark, racist past, or seeking to uphold the latent anti-racist ideal of an earlier golden age, the lesson of American political history is the same: Foreigners come first, Americans second (if at all).
This is partly why the advent of the “America First” motto in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign resulted in so much wailing and gnashing of teeth among members of the ruling class — across the political spectrum. Conservative Charles C.W. Cooke called “America First” an “empty slogan” that merely appealed to people’s feelings, adding that he had “a lot of sympathy” with those on the left who objected to its use. In other words, the motto was strategically savvy, but not worth taking seriously as an idea.
But Trump’s insistence on putting the American people first is actually more in line with the political philosophy of the American founding than establishment conservatives’ misguided universalist dream of foreign interventionism and open borders. America First (or, rather, Americans First) is implicit in the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
“Americans First” in the Declaration and Constitution
The Declaration states, “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” Moreover, when “any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends” (that is, destructive of securing rights), “it is the Right of the People […] to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Setting aside the matter as to what rights are, and precisely how they are to be secured by government, it is at least evident that the Declaration refers to a government securing the rights of its citizens, not people in general. In other words, people form a government to serve their own good — to secure their rights, and to effect their safety and happiness — not to serve the good of those who are alien to the community.
Likewise, the preamble to the Constitution concerns the benefits to the American people, not non-citizens throughout the world (emphasis mine): “We the People of the United States, in Order to […] secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The blessings of liberty are to be secured “to ourselves and our Posterity,” meaning to Americans, their children, their children’s children, and so on, not to the posterity of the entire world. No government mandate to secure the rights or liberties of non-citizens, or to pursue their interests, is to be found in either the Declaration or the Constitution.
In short, America’s founding documents demand the pursuit of policies benefiting Americans. Wars, if they must be fought, should be fought to secure Americans’ rights. Immigration policy is best if it keeps Americans safe. Trade deals ought to be crafted to benefit Americans. The rights, liberties, and common good of the American people come first.
Note that the foregoing analysis does not deny that other peoples throughout the world have rights. It’s just that the duty of securing those rights falls upon those peoples themselves, not Americans or the U.S. government. As it happens, the Declaration is decidedly non-interventionist in regard to such matters. Its preamble states that each nation has a “separate and equal station,” and its conclusion recognizes the power of such “Free and Independent States” to conduct their own affairs as they see fit. It is neither the duty nor the right of Americans simply to impose their vision of government upon other nations. As John Quincy Adams described the matter, in a speech commemorating the 45th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration, America is “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Responses To Some Common Objections
Isn’t that selfish? It’s no more selfish for a government official to serve his fellow citizens than it is for a man to work for his employer, or a father to care for his children, or a club president to use members’ dues to fulfill the requirements of his office. The person in each example is only doing his duty. Imagine people forming a club and collecting dues, only to discover that their elected officers had given the money away to some other cause. They’d be angry with them, and rightly so. People form associations to serve particular ends. And the ends of any government involve the good of the citizens it is supposed to serve.
That said, it is entirely possible that helping another nation might ultimately be for the good of one’s fellow citizens. For example, it might be necessary to form a temporary alliance against a common threat, as a means toward the end of protecting one’s own nation. Moreover, there is nothing in the Americans First conception of government that prevents citizens helping non-citizens in their private capacity.
Can’t we afford to do more for others? America is trillions of dollars in debt, and many of its own people are poor, hungry, homeless, and without proper medical and psychiatric care. Americans need to get their own house in order. Then maybe they can demand that the government misappropriate funds to serve the good of non-citizens.
Even so, isn’t it better to put others above yourself? A government official who is performing his duties properly is putting others — his fellow citizens — above himself. Keep in mind that we’re dealing with relationships wherein people have duties to one another. If you can barely feed your own son, would it be right for you to take away his dinner and give it to a stranger? No. You have an obligation to take care of him. And a government has an obligation to protect the people. For it to put others first isn’t altruism, but a dereliction of duty.
But what about our principles? As it happens, “our principles” (as expressed in the founding documents) demand instituting and preserving a government that protects the rights and pursues the common good of American citizens. It has only been in recent years that this conception of government has become controversial — and not only that, but controversial among the very people who claim to abide by the ideals of the American founding. For example, in response to Trump’s inaugural address, Jonah Goldberg wrote,
Up until very recently, American exceptionalism — i.e., we are a creedal nation dedicated to certain principles reflected in our founding documents — largely defined the conservative understanding of patriotism.
Trump, however, sees America more as an identity than an idea.
There is a sleight of hand here in shifting from identifying a nation as “dedicated to certain principles reflected in our founding documents” to identifying that nation as “an idea.” As it happens, the principles of America’s founding documents, as described above, identify the nation not as “an idea” but as a people whose good is to be served by the government, and this is Trump’s stated view. The trick played by establishment conservatives such as Goldberg has been to remove the American people from the picture altogether, and replace the defense of that people with the defense of an amorphous universalist ideology — and then pretend that this has always been America’s stated purpose. But, as argued above, the truth is quite to the contrary.