Charles Sellers, historian who upset the postwar consensus, dies at 98

Charles Sellers, historian who upset the postwar consensus, dies at 98

Charles Sellers, a historian whose work on early-19th-century America helped overturn the postwar consensus that democracy and capitalism developed in tandem by showing that, in fact, they were more often at odds, died Thursday at his home in Berkeley, California. He was 98.

His wife, historian and philosopher Carolyn Merchant, confirmed the death.

The son of a Carolina farm boy turned oil executive, Sellers drew inspiration from his own family’s rise to material wealth, even as he idealized the life they – and America – had left behind and castigated the competitive, commodified capitalist lifestyle that subsumed them. “Capitalism commodifies and exploits all life, I conclude from my life and all I can learn,” he said at a conference in 1994.

Such language often got Sellers labeled a Marxist. He wasn’t one, but he was a radical, both in his writing and in his politics – especially during the 1960s at the University of California, Berkeley, where he spent most of his career.

He was best known for his book “The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846,” published in 1991, in which he argued that the rapid expansion of capital and industry during that period did more than just create a new economy; it altered everything, including the way people worshipped, slept and even had sex.

Such changes, he posited, were largely unwelcome, and the passionate reaction of most Americans consolidated in the rise of Andrew Jackson, who as president took on the coastal elites, most famously in his veto of the Second Bank of the United States in 1832.

Sellers detested Jackson’s pro-slavery sentiment and Native American removal policies. But he argued that the primary object of the Jacksonians’ hatred was not Black people or Native Americans, but capitalism and its benefactors. He also showed that by the end of his second term, Jackson’s movement, torn by internal contradictions and co-opted by moneyed interests, had mostly collapsed.

“He saw the Jacksonians as the last great expression of a democratic sensibility doomed to be overthrown by a capitalist bourgeois sensibility,” said Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton whose own book, “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln” (2005), further developed several of the themes of Sellers’ book.

The book’s impact was profound, at least within academic history. A 1994 conference in London was dedicated to it, and the concept of the market revolution has become a fixed part of the field’s firmament.

“Sellers’ was the thesis that launched a thousand dissertations,” historian Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker in 2007. “Evidence of the market revolution seemed to be everywhere; it seemed to explain everything.”

Charles Grier Sellers Jr. was born Sept. 9, 1923, in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father, whose forebears Sellers later described as “two-mule farmers,” had moved to the city as a young man to attend business school, and by the time the younger Charles was born he was rising rapidly as an executive at Standard Oil. Charles’ mother, Cora Irene (Templeton) Sellers, worked for a church society that supported missionaries.

Charles’ parents were strict Presbyterians, and although he later disavowed religion, it colored his childhood and later drove his commitment to progressive causes. As a teenager, Charles became interested in civil rights; he later recalled attending a meeting of the NAACP at which he was one of only a few white people among hundreds of Black attendees.

He studied history at Harvard, but he delayed graduation until 1947 to join the Army. Afterward he returned to North Carolina and received his doctorate in history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1950. He taught at the University of Maryland and Princeton before moving to Berkeley in 1958. He remained there until he retired in 1990.

Sellers’ first marriage, to Evelyn Smart, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Nancy Snow. Along with his wife, he is survived by his brother, Philip; his sons, Grier and Steen; his daughter, Janet; and two grandchildren.

Among the first things Sellers did when he got to Berkeley was join the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. Working with the chapter, he fought against housing and job discrimination around Berkeley, and in 1961, he traveled with a contingent to Mississippi to support the Freedom Riders. Sellers was arrested, but he was let off with a suspended sentence.

In 1964, he was among the first and most vocal faculty members to support the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, which opposed efforts by the administration to curtail campus activism.

His involvement began when he saw one of his colleagues arrested during a protest and put in a police car. Immediately, Sellers joined several students in surrounding the car for hours.

He recalled sitting on top of the car when another colleague passed by.

“Charles, what are you doing up there?” his colleague asked.

“What are you doing down there, Waldo?” Sellers replied, paraphrasing a quotation from his hero, Henry David Thoreau, who had been imprisoned for not paying taxes as a protest against slavery and the war against Mexico. (“Waldo” referred to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who visited Thoreau in prison.)

Sellers’ radicalism won him few friends among the faculty, but the soft-spoken Southerner became an inspiration for Berkeley’s more militant students. He introduced Malcolm X when he came to speak on campus, and he later spoke to a crowd of 7,000 at an anti-Vietnam War rally.

His activism did not disrupt his scholarship. During the 1960s, he produced two volumes of a projected three-book biography of President James K. Polk, the second of which, “James K. Polk, Continentalist: 1843-1846” (1967), won the prestigious Bancroft Prize.

Sellers spent the next two decades working on “The Market Revolution,” which he did not publish until a year after he retired.

The book is nevertheless evocative of the 1960s counterculture – both in its depiction of a precapitalist America awash in communal living and free love and in its rejection of the work of postwar academic historians who, Sellers said, tried to hide the reality of class conflict in early America behind a veil of democratic consensus.

“I took alarm when historians armed the United States for Cold War by purging class from consciousness,” he said at the 1994 conference in London. “Muffling exploitative capital in appealing democratic garb, their mythology of consensual democratic capitalism purged egalitarian meaning from democracy.”

“The Market Revolution” made waves even before publication. It had been commissioned as a part of the Oxford History of the United States series, but the editor of that series, C. Vann Woodward – likewise a liberal, Southern historian who trained at Chapel Hill – rejected it as too critical and pessimistic about early American history.

Oxford University Press eventually published the book, but outside the series. It drew intense admiration, but it also generated immense criticism – for example, historian Daniel Walker Howe, who had studied briefly under Sellers, wrote an entire book, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848” (2005), that many saw as a direct critique of Sellers’ work.

“That 1960s flavor is what bothers a lot of people about ‘The Market Revolution,’” Amy Greenberg, a historian at Pennsylvania State University, said in an interview. “But he’s a writer as much as a historian, and the picture he’s drawing is an idealizing of the time.”

Although he conducted extensive research for the third volume of his Polk biography, Sellers never finished it. Instead, several years ago, he gave his voluminous notes to Greenberg, which she used to write “Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk” (2019).

[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]

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