This study explores the intellectual development of Anthony Ashley Cooper, First Earl of Shaftesbury, from boyhood to the end of a long career in public office, an ending which marked his shift into bitter opposition leadership. Shaftesbury has received outstanding attention from biographers. The story of the political opposition of his last decade, which sparked the formation of an early Country, or Whig, Party, is standard to any political survey of Stuart England. But an emphasis on Shaftesbury’s always colorful political career and sometimes radical policies have tended to swamp a more comprehensive exploration of his ideas and intellectual commitments. The result has sometimes been his dismissal as a political chameleon bankrupt of intellectual conviction, yet just as often he has been hailed as a crucial figure in sweeping movements of political thought, from liberalism, to both Whig and Tory ideologies, to the Florentine republican inheritance. Moreover, the exact same qualities ascribed to Shaftesbury have tended to be conferred on the Country politics that he was famous for championing late in life, and almost always Stuart historiography has regarded that Country politics as something fundamentally oppositional, though loyal, to government carried out in the king’s Court.
The study argues that Shaftesbury inherited a conservative vision of English politics with roots in the Plantagenet past, a worldview that pictured government as a combination of top-down kingly authority and legitimacy, the Court, meeting a public virtue nursed on the land and through local government, the Country. This harmonious, balanced medieval vision is the Country politics that Shaftesbury tried to further in his political career, but he found England unhinged by the convulsions of the Civil War and an incomplete religious and political settlement at the Restoration. He consistently searched for a new settlement, and in doing so he drew from intellectual sources that he had encountered in his education or public offices—Arminian free will, legal equity, Venetian conciliarism, Protectorate theories linking property and power, and more. The result was an eclectic set of often radical principles that few other Englishmen of his time could have completely shared, yet principles forwarded at the service of a desire to restore the harmonious bonds of Court and Country lodged deep in the English past.