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. 142-146), Wilson outlines three theories of American political culture, the moralistic political culture of New England, the individualistic political culture of the Mid-Atlantic, and the traditional political culture of the South.


Theories of American Political Culture

Theories of American political culture began with Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political historian who toured the United States extensively in the early 1830s. The tour resulted in publication of Democracy in America, which analyzed the regional character of the young nation. Of particular note, Tocqueville traced the essence of the American spirit of democracy to the Puritans, who he found exemplified the values of honest work, civic responsibility, and a more level society. Those admirable traits, he maintained, survived the course of time to become a permanent part of American character, outliving the tarnish of wars with Native Americans and other colonists, intolerance of dissenters, and infamous witch trials. Puritan ideals, Tocqueville believed, were the transformative principles that enabled the United States to eliminate royalty and nobility while lifting all classes of society to greater liberty, economic opportunity, and social mobility.

The political scientist Daniel J. Elazar identified three traditions of political culture in America, generally consistent with Tocqueville’s characterizations. New England political culture of the Puritans evolved to become moralistic political culture. This component of American character emphasizes community and civic virtue over individualism. It promotes the idea of participatory democracy and the positive role of government in addressing common problems. The Mid-Atlantic region produced individualistic political culture, which views government as a utilitarian necessity and seeks to limit its intrusion into private activities. Private initiative is held to be of higher importance than the public sphere. The South produced traditionalistic political culture, which elevates social order and family structure to a prominent role. It embraces a hierarchical society as the natural order of things, consistent with Gothic society and the Great Chain of Being. Elected leaders are respected men who use the reins of government to secure and perpetuate the existing social order. Leaders are expected to preserve traditional values and maintain limited government; they are not expected to be reformers or innovators.[1]

Elazar wanted to avoid category names with political undertones and value associations. As a result of this cautiousness, his categories are not intuitively obvious. The more intuitive names egalitarian (or humanistic), pragmatic, and fraternalistic are offered here as alternatives, as presented in Table 7a. The term “egalitarian” reflects the observations of Tocqueville and others on the orientation of New Englanders to community and a relatively level society (see Table 7b). The term “pragmatic” describes the orientation to trade, industry, commerce, and practical government prevalent in the Mid-Atlantic region. A fourth term, progressivistic, is applied to both moralistic and individualistic political cultures to reflect their greater openness to progress and support for creative, progressive, scientific, and problem-solving (creative-progressive, for short) professions. Finally, the term “fraternalistic” captures the hierarchical and paternalistic aspects of traditional southern culture, as well as the racial and cultural uniformity in the top layers of the social pyramid. The characterization of southern political culture as “paternalistic” is accurate to the Civil War, but since then it has become more fraternalistic, as political control by the agrarian elite has given way to unity—one might say “brotherhood”—in largely white, exurban subregions.[2]

Table 7a. Principal Regional Political Cultures

Elazar Categories Region of Origin Intuitive Name
moralistic New England egalitarian
individualistic Mid-Atlantic pragmatic
traditionalistic South fraternalistic

Table 7b. Principal Metropolitan Political Orientations

Metro Geography Influence Political Name
urban Enlightenment progressive
suburban Dutch trade culture moderate
exurban Gothic society conservative

The political scientist J. David Woodard has noted that urbanization, interregional migration, and economic growth have made the South less distinguishable from other regions. He notes with Elazar that civil communities are replacing traditional communities as a result of these forces. Woodard examined demographic variables, including income, education, and population diversity, and found three distinctive subgroups within the South. National states strongly resemble other states outside the region with advanced economies; they are Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia. Emergent states are those that are approaching that status; they are North Carolina and Tennessee. Others he identifies as traditional states, which retain many historical characteristics; they are the Deep South states of South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Nevertheless, Woodard identifies six facets of southern identity that “have a commanding influence” on its political culture: physical geography and climate, agrarian economy, racial legacy, religious values, one-party politics, and political leadership. Woodard, an adviser to conservative politicians, leans toward the right in minimizing the extent to which the South retains and exports racism as a normative influence on political culture, while also being accurate in his appraisal of past racism.[3]

Woodard acknowledges the pioneering scholarship of the historian V. O. Key in identifying the elements of southern political culture. A central observation in Key’s work is that the South alone produced a one-party system, one designed for the exclusive purpose of protecting white privilege. The racially focused system, however, was “ill-designed to meet the necessities of self-government” and chronically unable to solve a broader spectrum of problems. In Southern Politics, the first systematic study of southern political culture, Key wrote: “The South, unlike most of the rest of the democratic world, really has no political parties—at least as we have defined them. A single party, so the saying goes, dominates the South, but in reality the South has been Democratic only for external purposes, that is, presidential and congressional elections. The one-party system is purely an arrangement for national affairs.”[4]

In 1949, when Southern Politics was published, Jim Crow was firmly in place and white authority was internally secure. Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the one-party system in the South has adapted to defend against the internal threat of newly empowered black voters. The uniformity of white southern political affiliation, first in national politics, now at all levels, has exacted a price—weakened government set up for defensive maneuvers rather than effective problem-solving. Weak government, of course, is held up as an unchallenged ideal within the South’s one-party system. Unfettered private initiative, in that view, will lift the region from its chronic problems across a wide range of socioeconomic indicators, if only the tyranny of the federal government were removed.

The cultural geographer Donald Meinig concurred with Elazar’s three primary political cultures in his acclaimed work, The Shaping of America. Meinig, however, is more specific about the influence of South Carolina: “This South Carolinian style of politics emerges so blatantly and becomes such a powerful force in the affairs of the Republic that we must acknowledge it as a distinct political culture, even though it does not appear in Elazar’s comprehensive scheme but remains submerged in the broader ‘traditionalistic’ [category].” However, like many authorities on political culture, Meinig traces southern political culture back through Carolina to Barbados (see the conclusion to Chapter 3 for a summary of the counterargument to this position).[5]

The historian and journalist Colin Woodard developed an alternate typology in an analysis of the spatial patterns of American political culture. In American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, published in 2011, Woodard delineated regions that correspond closely with those of Elazar. Traditionalistic political culture in Elazar’s typology corresponds to three of Woodard’s regions—Deep South, Tidewater, and Greater Appalachia. Similarly, Elazar’s moralistic and individualistic cultures closely match Woodard’s Yankeedom and Midlands categories. Woodard delineates newer political cultures in the western United States, but he acknowledges the influence of the earlier cultures. Woodard’s Deep South political culture was begun in Charleston and shaped by the Barbadians, apparently with none of Ashley Cooper’s Gothic society surviving. Woodard’s work built on the earlier work of the political strategist Kevin Phillips (The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969) and the cultural journalist Joel Garreau (The Nine Nations of North America, 1981).[6]

The historian David Hackett Fischer traced the origin of four American folkways to regional counterparts in England. Folkways include political culture, but they also encompass religion, settlement patterns, language, and many other facets of culture. The Puritans of East Anglia brought their folkways to Massachusetts in the migration that occurred between 1629 and 1641. People of the distressed south of England populated Virginia between 1642 and 1675, implanting their folkways in that region. The people of England’s North Midlands brought their folkways and beliefs to the Mid-Atlantic region between 1675 and 1725. Finally, immigrants from England’s north borderlands brought their folkways to the American backcountry over the course of the eighteenth century. These primary influences blended with other cultural and geographic influences to form America’s unique mix of regional cultures. In Fischer’s view, however, South Carolina became “a distinct culture region, but it never developed into a major cultural hearth.”[7]

The conclusion that there are four regional folkways linking Britain with America is compelling, and on close examination enriches (rather than contradicting) the thesis that Carolina produced one of America’s three primary political cultures. The Scots-Irish who populated much of America’s backcountry began arriving in large numbers in the early 1700s, forming a fourth “great folk migration.” More than a quarter million people migrated in the eighteenth century, the largest migration up to that time. They came from the north of Ireland and the border region of Scotland and England and brought with them a tradition of independence, libertarianism, and militant Christianity, as well as a legacy of “incessant violence [that] shaped the culture of the border region.” Many arrived in Philadelphia and other cities, but quickly moved into the backcountry. They settled throughout the South, and by the end of the century many were living in the Carolinas. Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun were among the descendants of borderlands immigrants.[8]

Fischer describes the Scots-Irish as xenophobic, negrophobic, and anti-Semitic, but also hostile to the large plantation slaveholders and the state governments they controlled. The “strong mood of cultural conservatism” among them persisted from the seventeenth century to the present. They had an “intense concern for equality of esteem,” individual autonomy, and “natural freedom,” as they referred to their nearly ungoverned frontier way of life. They became known as “crackers,” a term of disparagement brought from England. They subscribed to the principles of “minimal government, light taxes, and the right of armed resistance to authority” for infringement of liberty. Their “intolerance for contrary opinions” made their advocacy of those principles a ready source of conflict. An attraction to the backcountry was consistent with Daniel Boone’s desire for “elbow room.” It was an expression of natural freedom and a facet of libertarianism—frontier improvisation versus the orderliness of settlement in New England and cities on the Atlantic Coast.[9]

These were the same people of the backcountry described by W. J. Cash and Bertram Wyatt-Brown. As individuals, they fiercely defended the equality of their social status while perversely aiming to become more like the plantation elite they despised. The relationship between elite class and backcountry “crackers” became symbiotic over time, as the former established new state governments modeled after South Carolina across the Deep South and the latter populated those states. As Cash wrote, “The tradition of aristocracy met and married with the tradition of the backwoods.” Together they forged a region that was proslavery, agrarian, and anti–federal government.[10]


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.

  1. [1]Elazar, American Federalism, 93–102.
  2. [2] The concept of “brotherhood” as applied here suggests a parallel with South Africa’s Broederbond, the extensive, informal network that gradually restored Afrikaner political power and implemented apartheid.
  3. [3]J. David Woodard, New Southern Politics, 6–19.
  4. [4]Key, Southern Politics, 16.
  5. [5]Meinig, The Shaping of America, 1:269, 2:292.
  6. [6]Colin Woodard, American Nations, 5–10, 83–91; see also the map preceding the introduction and 14 for acknowledgment of Phillips and Garreau.
  7. [7]Fischer, Albion’s Seed; for overviews of the thesis, see 3–11, 787 (chart), 805–7, 816–18.
  8. [8]Ibid., 605–6, 609, 613–18, 626, 633–39, 642–46.
  9. [9]Ibid., 650–51, 754, 758, 778, 780, 782.
  10. [10]Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, 38; Cash, The Mind of the South, 72.