Lord Proprietor, first earl of Shaftesbury. Anthony Ashley Cooper was born at Wimborne St. Giles in Dorset, England, on July 22, 1621, the son of Sir John Cooper and Anne Ashley. Both families were of the rising landed gentry. Wimborne St. Giles, his grandfather Ashley’s estate, became his country seat and over the centuries has remained the home of the earls of Shaftesbury. After a year at Exeter College, Oxford, Ashley Cooper entered the Inns of Court in 1638. His marriage the next year to Margaret Coventry, daughter of the keeper of the great seal for King Charles I, marked the beginning of his political career.
Ashley Cooper was initially a royalist during the English Civil Wars but twice changed sides. King Charles II rewarded his role in the 1660 restoration of the monarchy by making him Baron Ashley of Wimborne St. Giles in 1661. That same year he became chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1663 the king granted the joint proprietorship of Carolina to Lord Ashley and seven other English noblemen.
The Carolina proprietors initially hoped to people their American lands with settlers from other colonies, but attempts failed. In 1669 Lord Ashley rescued the foundering colonial enterprise by persuading the other proprietors to finance a settlement expedition from England. With the aid of John Locke, who was a member of his household and secretary to the proprietorship, Lord Ashley wrote the Fundamental Constitutions for the colony and oversaw arrangements for the expedition that brought the first permanent English settlers to South Carolina. Lord Ashley was a member of the Royal Society and had a passion for experimenting with fruit trees at Wimborne St. Giles. The proprietors had high hopes for profits from their colonial enterprise, but for Lord Ashley, his “darling” Carolina was also a grand political and agricultural experiment.
During the colony’s earliest years, Lord Ashley’s political fortunes continued to rise. In 1672 King Charles II made him lord high chancellor, the highest officer in the government, and elevated his rank in the nobility by titling him the first earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury became the leader of the exclusionist party, a faction that sought to prevent the king’s Roman Catholic brother James from succeeding to the throne. In 1673 he was dismissed from office. The government came to see efforts to recruit Scots and French Huguenot settlers for Carolina as part of a treasonous plot against the king. Twice Shaftesbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but the other proprietors continued to rely on him to manage development in South Carolina. The exclusionists became known as the Whigs by 1680, and Shaftesbury can be credited as the founder of both South Carolina and the Whig Party in England.
Shaftesbury established a plantation and trading post on his twelve-thousand-acre St. Giles Seignory on the Ashley River. As his political fortunes plummeted, he considered moving to Carolina but instead in 1682 went into exile in Amsterdam, where he died on January 21, 1683.
Cheves, Langdon, ed. The Shaftesbury Papers. 1897. Reprint, Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 2000.
Haley, K. H. D. The First Earl of Shaftesbury. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968.
Lesser, Charles H. South Carolina Begins: The Records of a Proprietary Colony, 1663–1721. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1995.