Excerpt: The Ashley Cooper Plan, by Thomas D. Wilson

The Ashley Cooper Plan: The Founding of Carolina and the Origins of Southern Political Culture, by Thomas D. WilsonThomas D. Wilson offers surprising new insights into the origins of the political storms we witness today. Wilson connects the Ashley Cooper Plan—a seventeenth-century model for a well-ordered society imagined by Anthony Ashley Cooper (1st Earl of Shaftesbury) and his protégé John Locke—to current debates about views on climate change, sustainable development, urbanism, and professional expertise in general. In doing so, he examines the ways that the city design, political culture, ideology, and governing structures of the Province of Carolina have shaped political acts and public policy even in the present.

In the following excerpt from The Ashley Cooper Plan: The Founding of Carolina and the Origins of Southern Political Culture (pp. 184-186), Wilson describes the philosophy behind Cooper’s plan for cities in the American South and shows how the city planning model shifted after the Enlightenment.


Ashley Cooper’s Grand Model was the ultimate product of English colonial policy, political philosophy, and city planning prior to the Enlightenment. The Fundamental Constitutions and “instructions,” products of both Ashley Cooper and Locke, formed a body of law and policy written by two of the most astute minds of the time, tempered to be sure by the diverse opinions of the remaining seven Carolina proprietors. Within those documents, city planning (in the broad sense of the term used throughout) held an essential place in the overall design of the colony’s social structure, economy, and government.

Cities of Ashley Cooper’s time were necessary for government, commerce, and the cultural pursuits of aristocracy. City planning was essential to those purposes. But cities were not yet seen as great engines of prosperity and democracy, and they were not yet perceived as a medium capable of leveling class structure, providing education and upward mobility, or fostering creativity among the talented whether poor or wealthy. Urban democracy was still seen as mob rule, and it would continue to be seen that way until the Enlightenment, when the premise that all men are created equal became axiomatic.

When Carolina was founded in the predawn of the Enlightenment, an ordinary English citizen was expected to live in a village where life was well ordered and the lord of the manor or other person of authority looked after his people and represented them in London’s halls of power. It was a society descended from an ancient Gothic framework, one from which Ashley Cooper and Locke saw an opportunity to perfect the English ideals of balanced government, noblesse oblige, and class reciprocity on the blank slate of American wilderness.[1]

The new cities of America envisioned by the Grand Model were planned to be healthier, more efficient, and more civilized, yet reserved for the few who had some purpose to live there. Cities were to be located on rivers at points that would be healthful and central for regional development; they were to be designed with a geometry that would provide for efficient growth; they were to have public squares and river frontage set aside for civic and commercial uses; they were to have aesthetic merit; and they were to be laid out to ensure health and public safety, benefiting from the lessons of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of 1666. Cities were designed to serve a hinterland of estates and villages where most people would find fulfillment in life within their stratum in the social hierarchy. As the colony grew, it would proceed in an orderly and efficient manner, establishing economies of scale before extending into adjacent, newly formed jurisdictions; unplanned growth would not be permitted to leapfrog into new areas until services and infrastructure were in place. In today’s terminology, the model was consistent with principles of “sustainable development” and “smart growth.” Yet the plan was devised by Ashley Cooper and John Locke, fathers of republicanism and classical liberalism—the foundations of modern conservatism and libertarianism, traditions that have now turned against the planning model their idols invented.

James Oglethorpe’s plan for Georgia was a sequel to the Grand Model, consistent with it in many respects but updated with one great departure—the application of the premise that all men are created equal. The plan reveals how a new idea of the city emerged as the ideals of the Enlightenment supplanted those of Ashley Cooper’s age. The philosophy of the city that guided Oglethorpe remained fundamentally that of Ashley Cooper: it aimed to create well-designed places to support essential regional functions, but not places that would attract the multitudes and grow indefinitely. However, the now famous Oglethorpe Plan differed from the Ashley Cooper Plan in another fundamental way: it was designed to achieve equality within the framework of a yeoman society.[2]

At the time of Georgia’s founding, William Hogarth, who had earlier painted Oglethorpe’s prison committee, was painting A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress, each a series of scenes of country people falling prey to urban vices. In A Harlot’s Progress, a gullible Moll Hackabout is shown being recruited into prostitution upon arrival in the city. She becomes a common prostitute, gets arrested, contracts venereal disease, and dies at age twenty-three. In A Rake’s Progress, an unwitting Tom Rakewell inherits money, moves to London, wastes his fortune on gambling and prostitution, and winds up in prison. Both of Hogarth’s subjects become caught up in the vices of the city and are forever lost to productive society.

Even a century after the implementation of the Grand Model, and thirty-seven years after the founding of Georgia, the city was still not seen as a healthy destination for the masses, as Oglethorpe’s friend, Oliver Goldsmith, movingly persuaded his readers in The Deserted Village. The creative success of Hogarth and Goldsmith, and of so many others in their urban social circles, did not appear to strike them as ironic.

The idea that cities were the primary source of personal and societal corruption was carried from England to America where it became well established. Jefferson made his disdain for cities crystal clear: “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.”[3]

From Ashley Cooper’s time to that of Jefferson four generations later, most cities were unhealthy, unsavory places. And they only got worse over succeeding generations as the Industrial Revolution further intensified earlier urban problems. It was not until the early twentieth century produced a series of reform and design movements aimed at making cities more livable that the city could be viewed in mostly positive terms. Only then were urban ills effectively addressed through city planning, including (as the term is used here) public policy, health and zoning ordinances, development standards for tenement buildings, and a whole range of new, socially ambitious urban design paradigms, beginning in the early twentieth century with the Garden Cities movement.

Although anti-urbanism lingered into the twentieth century, the rise of the modern city began with the framework for planned cities implemented with the Ashley Cooper Plan.


From The Ashley Cooper Plan: The Founding of Carolina and the Origins of Southern Political Culture. Copyright © 2016 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Thomas D. Wilson is an urban planner, writer, and independent scholar. His book The Ashley Cooper Plan: The Founding of Carolina and the Origins of Southern Political Culture is now available.

  1. [1]Campbell, Mildred. The English Yeoman under Elizabeth and the Early Stuarts. 1942. London: Merlin Press, 1983, pp. 315, 32. Mobility in the countryside was limited.
  2. [2]Wilson, Thomas D. The Oglethorpe Plan: Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012, pp. 69, 98–100, 168–69.
  3. [3]Jefferson’s Monticello, Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787. http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/chain-email-10-jefferson-quotations#footnote1_215rsgd (accessed March 1, 2013).