What 'America First' should really mean

Mid-19th-century America had an expansive view of its national mission, set forth in a piece of patriotic music so popular that it became a Fourth of July staple and was regarded by many as our national anthem, until we got an official one. The song, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" (The shrine of each patriot's devotion/A world offers homage to thee) might be regarded by some as bombastic (With the garlands of vict'ry about her/When so proudly she bore her brave crew) or even militaristic (The army and navy forever/Three cheers for the red, white and blue).

But it's a rousing song, and schoolchildren all over America belted it out with gusto until well into the past century — including two lines that resonated above all the others:

Thy banners make tyranny tremble,

When borne by the red, white, and blue.

This was more than a bit of verse; it was an idea that was very much a part of the founding of the new nation. John Adams saw the America that was to come as part of a providential design "for the Illumination of the Ignorant and the Emancipation of the slavish Part of Mankind all over the Earth." That design has not, of course, been entirely realized, in America or elsewhere. But it has stood as an ideal to be pursued, a set of principles dear to much of the world, and one of the things for which this country has been admired far more than for its power or wealth.

This history makes it all the more difficult to understand why the president of a nation that long ago set itself against tyranny now praises and consorts with so many unsavory national leaders in Europe, Asia and the Middle East — some of them outright dictators, some imposing authoritarian schemes to the extent they can get away with it, some inflicting brutal repression on their enemies — and just about all of them profiting handsomely from their positions.

Last month, homage was paid to the head of the North Korean government, an unspeakably cruel regime that has broken many promises to American presidents and may well break more. This month, President Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government and its minions have worked unceasingly to undermine faith in democracy by spreading false information, meddling in foreign elections, and sponsoring invasions of neighboring countries and, by some accounts, assassinations at home and abroad. Perhaps something good will come of Trump's missions to the maleficent. But history suggests that it takes a great deal more than one president's personality and line of palaver to advance world comity and good order.

"The United States of America was the first country in history to be officially committed to the 'pursuit of happiness' as the practical goal of politics and government," wrote author Marshall B. Davidson. "The Founding Fathers understood what they were undertaking when they took up arms in 1776. . . . They had fought not only to preserve their liberty but to justify their concepts of liberty itself. And so it was that the cause of America was set on a course toward becoming the cause of all mankind."

This is the more apt meaning of the misappropriated words "America First": America as leader of a worldwide movement toward government of, by and for the people. It needs to be revived and broadcast once again — not only to express support and encouragement for those in need of it throughout the world, but also to restore our own good reputation and our concept of what we stand for.