Rindfleisch on Wilson, 'The Ashley Cooper Plan: The Founding of Carolina and the Origins of Southern Political Culture'

Thomas D. Wilson
Bryan Rindfleisch

Thomas D. Wilson. The Ashley Cooper Plan: The Founding of Carolina and the Origins of Southern Political Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Figures, tables. 320 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-2628-4; $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-2890-5.

Reviewed by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)
Published on H-SC (September, 2016)
Commissioned by David W. Dangerfield

The Man with the Plan: Ashley Cooper, Early Carolina, and the Foundations of Southern Political Culture

In this remarkably nuanced analysis of the Ashley Cooper Plan, Thomas D. Wilson explores the ideological and sociopolitical development of the South Carolina colony in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in addition to connecting the Cooper vision to modern-day politics and discourse. Wilson begins by asking a very basic question, why does “American history ... neglect Ashley Cooper while celebrating other visionary founders such as Roger Williams, William Penn, and James Oglethorpe” (p. ix)? As Wilson convincingly demonstrates, Cooper’s “social and economic framework” for the Carolina colony was the most “comprehensive in its underlying philosophy ... [and] detail” when compared to other “colonial founding documents” (pp. ix, 2). In fact, he argues that the Cooper Plan and the Enlightenment idealism behind it created “a template for a political culture that would adapt and evolve” over the course of 350 years, a social and political model that remains relevant today (p. 2). Wilson then concludes that the study of Cooper’s vision “offer[s] inquisitive audiences practical new insights into the genesis of present-day political divides” and opens up avenues for “attaining mutual understanding, if not agreement” within our politically contentious society today (p. ix). Needless to say, Wilson’s book is ambitious. At times it succeeds in its aims, particularly when examining the ideological inner workings of the Cooper Plan and its implementation in early South Carolina, but in other cases it misses the mark.

The Ashley Cooper Plan is actually two books in one. The first book is all about Anthony Ashley Cooper (the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury), his protégé John Locke (yes, the Enlightenment philosopher), and their “Grand Model” for the Carolina colony. Cooper and Locke viewed early Carolina “as a blank slate for launching a utopian colony,” in the same vein as New England, Rhode Island, Georgia, and Pennsylvania (p. 1). Cooper and Locke sketched out their vision in extraordinary detail for the Carolina colony, unlike their plans for those other colonies. They imagined a society that combined the best of Enlightenment idealism with England’s political and social structures. More particularly, they intended the Carolina colony to embody “balanced government, societal harmony, sustainable prosperity, impartial justice, and religious tolerance” (p. 3). However, the social organization of the Carolina colony was quite distinctive and at times counterintuitive to their “Grand Model,” a product of Cooper’s lived experiences as well as his tinkering with Locke’s ideals. For instance, Cooper was greatly disillusioned by Oliver Cromwell’s failed republican experiment during the Commonwealth era, but at the same time he abhorred royal absolutism. As a consequence, Cooper favored a “Gothic society,” a manorial system that revolved around a “pyramidal socioeconomic hierarchy” (pp. 32, 64). At the top were the Lords Proprietors (hereditary nobility and the officers of the colony) followed by the “Landgraves” and “Caciques” (under nobility), and then the “Lords of Manors” (large plantation owners) who together commanded the majority of land in Carolina. In contrast, the “Lesser Freemen” (such as merchants and skilled laborers) owned small plats of land in the colony, whereas the “toiling classes” (the “Leetmen” and “Slaves”) owed their labors and lives to the proprietors and planters (p. 72). Cooper believed this social structure was glued together by “class reciprocity,” or the mutual dependencies and expectations that bound each group to one another, which he assumed “promote[d] order, safety, liberty, and prosperity” (p. 83). In other words, Cooper desired a “traditional and virtuous English society” in Carolina (p. 2).

The Cooper Plan was more than just a political, social, or economic vision; it established a “regional development plan” for expanding the Carolina colony throughout the South (p. 106). On the one hand, Cooper and Locke created the infrastructure for a grand city, what became “Charles Town,” which they wanted to embody the ideals of their “Grand Model.” From street grids and town lots, to the rules and regulations that governed the city, the urban design of Charleston pivoted around building and sustaining a social hierarchy. In short, Charleston was intended to be a “Gentry Capital” (p. 116). On the other hand, Cooper and Locke were attuned to intellectual concerns about the “advancement [and] spread of civilization” via cities, which in Enlightenment and republican thought were often seen as centers of corruption and vice (p. 29). Therefore, both men subscribed to the ideals of the “agrarian state” (a precursor to Jefferson’s republican vision), in which the towns surrounding Charleston—those designated as the “rural” communities—should be protected from the urban infection and allowed to act independently. Consequently, the “Grand Model” privileged a bifurcated urban and rural dynamic in Carolina, in which the many communities outside of Charleston balanced the deficiencies and corruptions that were characteristic of urban centers in Enlightenment and republican ideologies. From there, Cooper and Locke hoped to imitate this model throughout the rest of the South. While Wilson admits that such idealism faltered, as “the Ashley Cooper Plan was never fully implemented,” it did, however, evolve over time (p. 12). This was particularly true when it came to the introduction of African slavery into Carolina during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. With the influx of enslaved peoples into the colony, the “Grand Model” was transformed into an “oligarchic frame of government that empowered a class of plantation elite with near-absolute power over a class of enslaved laborers,” yet still remaining true to “Gothic” social structures (p. 46). These changes within the “Grand Model” paved the way for a distinctive “racial mythology” in Carolina, in which race replaced class as the most important element of social organization in the colony, and allowed white slave-owners to claim “slavery as a positive good” (p. 129). Altogether, Wilson concludes that the Cooper Plan ultimately “succeeded in settling a frontier colony, forming a rigidly hierarchical society, and designing towns partly in accordance with its original principles” (p. 12).

The second part of The Ashley Cooper Plan is the legacy and modern-day ramifications of Cooper and Locke’s “Grand Model,” or what Wilson describes as the “descendant plans that shaped growth for generations, and remains present in America today” (p. 12). For instance, Wilson traces the influences that Cooper’s vision had on the urban design of Washington, DC (the L’Enfant Plan of 1791), and the Land Ordinances of 1785 and 1787. Both events were critical to the creation of the United States and “embrace[d] an urban vision” articulated by Cooper and Locke, which “matched [the new nation’s] predominant rural character [and] building cities with strong centers,” and thereby “inherit[ing] the social hierarchy of the Ashley Cooper Plan” (p. 15). In addition, Wilson argues that Carolina’s oligarchical and slave-owning society—with its racial mythos and rural-urban divide—spread outward from South Carolina to encompass the rest of the Old South during the nineteenth century, creating a regional “class pyramid and physical and social segregation” between blacks and whites (p. 140). Within this Cooper-inspired world, Wilson demonstrates, the Cooper Plan provided the impetus for a distinctive “Southern Political Culture” that was rooted in social hierarchy, race-based segregation, and a “culture of resistance to outside authority” (loosely related to the urban-rural gulf) that later flourished in the Jim Crow South (p. 136). In fact, Wilson even stipulates that this “Southern Political Culture” migrated to the northern and western parts of the United States between the 1930s and 1960s, as white southerners relocated to the Northeast, Midwest, and southern California (p. 178). Ultimately, Wilson attributes the Republican revival of the 1960s to this “Southern Political Culture,” given the Republican Party’s emphasis on “southern class pyramid psychology” (p. 141).

According to Wilson, we still see the legacies of the Ashley Cooper Plan and “Southern Political Culture” today. As he suggests, the roots of modern-day conservatism, or “Republican political culture,” stem from several sources, including the “southern political idiom of white supremacy and racial segregation,” which can be traced back to the changes wrought in Cooper and Locke’s “Grand Model” (pp. 53-54, 193). In addition, Wilson identifies one of the present-day tensions between liberals and conservatives as a direct consequence of the Cooper Plan, in which liberals perceive the urban center as the “path leading to urbanization, industrialization, and education and upward mobility for the masses,” whereas conservatives distrust and view the city as a place of vice and infection (p. 98). Wilson even contends that the “Southern Political Culture” manifests on a global scale, as evident by conservative opposition to the United Nations Agenda 21 for “sustainable [environmental] development.” As Wilson states, rather than collaborating with other nations in hopes of a “better world,” conservatives instead view that resolution as a “conspiracy by foreign and domestic enemies of liberty to end national sovereignty, impose tyrannical socialistic rule, and force Americans to live in high-density containment areas in the name of the false god of environmentalism” (p. 200). All of this builds up to Wilson’s dramatic conclusion where he states that he intends to “restore meaningful dialogue” to modern political discourse in the United States, by suggesting we need to “learn to speak each other’s languages” (pp. 186, 258). To do so, he provides “five strategies for rational as well as intuitive communication ... when confronted with counterfactual claims,” so Americans might be “brought back from the brink of extreme decisions driven by conspiracy hysteria” (p. 248).

Needless to say, this is where my skepticism reaches its climax. I do not doubt the validity of Wilson’s claims or his ability to tease out the nuances of the Cooper Plan or its modern-day implications, but it all seems rather diffusive and amorphous. If the fundamental tenets of modern conservative ideology and politics, the Republican rebirth of the 1960s-80s, Jim Crow segregation, the antebellum South and plantation slavery, the long history of southern resistance to federal and northern interventions, and so on can all be traced back to the Cooper Plan, then what is not indebted to Cooper’s vision when it comes to southern history, culture, and thought? To play devil’s advocate, then, has the author put the “Grand Model” and the South Carolina colony on a pedestal? With that said, I am thoroughly convinced that the Cooper Plan is important to early southern history and that it has had a lasting impact on the United States, as Wilson illustrates with the L’Enfant Plan of 1791 and the Land Ordinances. But beyond that, I question the lasting legacy of the “Grand Model” throughout all of American history. Instead, the Cooper Plan seems to be only one part of a much larger narrative that explains the longue durée of southern history, slavery, political culture, and conservatism. It should also be noted that the author’s conclusions about modern-day political discourse is timely, but his attempts to provide a way for people to “listen and reason with” one another—which “needs to be augmented with an understanding of the rhetorical devices used by the Right, a mastery of facts of history related to those devices, and a new and effective use of language with emotional as well as factual content”—all seem rather simplistic (p. 248). I agree with the author that modern politics lacks compromise and understanding, but to suggest a “new” way of communicating to each other strikes me as unsophisticated.

With all of that said, Wilson offers an engaging and important look at the ideological model that shaped the early South during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Wilson successfully argues, “historical designs like the Ashley Cooper Plan are often viewed as artifacts” rather than as living or evolving models that informed how people constructed the world around them long after the initial implementation of such plans (p. xi). Based on Wilson’s work, historians will come to know the name of Cooper and put him in the same lineup as Williams, Penn, and Oglethorpe as the premier utopian idealists of early America. But to say that “Cooper’s perspectives and ideology remain with us today” is a bit overdramatic and extreme (p. ix). However, this should not detract from Wilson’s intellectual contributions and insights into the early history of the Carolina colony and the South.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=46967

Citation: Bryan Rindfleisch. Review of Wilson, Thomas D., The Ashley Cooper Plan: The Founding of Carolina and the Origins of Southern Political Culture. H-SC, H-Net Reviews. September, 2016.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46967

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