Popular memory, as captured by Wikipedia, currently credits Woodrow Wilson with coining the phrase “America First” during his 1916 presidential campaign. Wilson certainly popularized it, in a 1915 speech urging native-born Americans to view hyphenate immigrant Americans with suspicion and to demand of naturalized citizens: “Is it America first, or is it not?” But he didn’t originate it.
At an 1855 “American convention” held in Philadelphia, the American Party adopted a platform that would have sweepingly denied political and civil rights to immigrants. Speaking during a downpour, a nativist politician from New York told the crowd, to cheers: “American as I am, I decidedly prefer this rain to the reign of Roman Catholicism in this country … I, as an American citizen, prefer this rain or any other rain to the reign of foreignism … I go for America first, last and always.”
“America first, last and always” may sound simply patriotic, but since the 1850s it has consistently invoked nativist restrictionism and economic protectionism, and often urged isolationism. It has often accompanied anti-immigrant violence and conspiracy theories. In 1876, an anti-Catholic editorial called on every American “in this Centennial year, to renew the declaration of independence, to declare himself and the nation free, as it ought to be, from the thraldom of every foreign power — whether England or Rome — and to begin again where our forefathers began, with America first, last and always.”
During the latter decades of the 19th century a widespread belief developed that Britain supported free trade as part of a secret plot to thwart the growth of American industry; Republicans responded with a protectionist tariff and “America First.” Well before Wilson, in 1888, Benjamin Harrison promised home labor and protectionism under the “Republic Banner” of “America First, the World Afterwards!” in an election fought over tariff policy.