- The Ashley Cooper Plan: The Founding of Carolina and the Origins of Southern Political Culture by Thomas D. Wilson
In this ambitious, if not entirely satisfying, book, Thomas D. Wilson seeks to connect the political philosophy of Anthony Ashley Cooper, first Earl of Shaftesbury, and his protégé John Locke to the current political debates and divides of our time. Wilson defines Ashley Cooper's philosophy as "Gothic republicanism" (p. x). Ashley Cooper's plan for Carolina included a hierarchical structure that continued feudal ideas of class reciprocity. In Wilson's telling, the rapid expansion of slavery in South Carolina destroyed the ideas of reciprocity, leaving behind the hierarchy and with it an emphasis on personal liberty. This "fraternalistic" political order came to dominate the slave South and was later embraced by Richard M. Nixon in his southern strategy (p. x). Eventually fraternalism merged with the rising white evangelical movement among those who left cities for suburbs and exurbs to create modern conservative politics. Race is central to this understanding of American politics. In Wilson's analysis fraternalism stands in contrast to the egalitarian political order ushered in by the Enlightenment and embraced by today's progressive [End Page 394] classes. The transition to a politics of equality, created in large part by Locke himself, in other parts of the United States is a key to understanding American political history and our current political divisions.
Wilson constructs much more than a history of early South Carolina politics. In some of the strongest sections of the book, he challenges the notion that South Carolina was a "colony of a colony," arguing that the Barbadian influence was limited and that the organization of the colony was based on Ashley Cooper's plan (p. 123). Wilson connects the colony's seventeenth-century founding to American independence and to the nation's current political conflicts. He follows these ideas to the present day, incorporating philosophy, communications theory, political science, and sociology to try and create a unified history of political disputes in the United States.
As befits an urban planner, Wilson argues that the interplay between urban and rural spaces is crucial to the economic and social order in both spaces. He demonstrates how cities have been planned by elites throughout American history and that Ashley Cooper saw his design of Charleston, South Carolina, as central to his plan for the colony. Wilson sees much of the current opposition to so-called smart growth and other plans to manage climate change, congestion, and sprawl—all of which are interconnected—as rooted in a white embrace of the suburbs. Unlike most commentators, he traces that mentality back to the seventeenth century.
Wilson's ultimate goal is to empower community leaders, such as urban planners and zoning board members, who are seeking to make the case for responsible growth and development with the tools and especially the vocabulary to communicate their ideas and to respond to criticisms that such planning amounts to government takeover, socialism, and a loss of control. Many would agree that establishing a dialogue to deal with these urgent crises is important. Yet, convincing opponents of smart growth by using an appeal for community rooted in seventeenth-century political philosophy and South Carolina history seems unlikely to prove effective.
The author's goals are laudable, but ultimately he falls short. As a work of history, there are too many assumptions rooted in a simplified understanding of the American past and of southern history in particular. In many places the historiography feels thin and the historical analysis too limited. That does not take away from the many provocative ideas Wilson puts forth and the imaginative ways he seeks to use history to understand and improve the present.