October 17, 2021

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Charles G. Sellers, Historian Who Upset the Postwar Consensus, Dies at 98

Charles G. Sellers, Historian Who Upset the Postwar Consensus, Dies at 98

Charles G. Sellers, a historian whose work on early-Nineteenth-century America helped overturn the postwar consensus that democracy and capitalism developed in tandem by displaying that the truth is they had been extra typically at odds, died on Thursday at his house in Berkeley, Calif. He was 98.

His spouse, the historian and thinker Carolyn Service provider, confirmed the demise.

The son of a Carolina farm boy turned oil govt, Dr. Sellers drew inspiration from his family’s rise to materials wealth, at the same time as he idealized the life they — and America — had left behind and castigated the aggressive, commodified capitalist way of life that subsumed them. “Capitalism commodifies and exploits all life, I conclude from my life and all I can be taught,” he stated at a convention in 1994.

Such language typically received Dr. Sellers labeled a Marxist. He wasn’t one, however he was a radical, each in his writing and in his politics — particularly through the Sixties on the College of California, Berkeley, the place he spent most of his profession.

He was greatest recognized for his e book “The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846,” revealed in 1991, wherein he argued that the speedy growth of capital and trade throughout that interval did extra than simply create a brand new economic system; it altered every thing, together with the best way folks worshiped, slept and even had intercourse.

Such adjustments, he posited, had been largely unwelcome, and the passionate response of most Individuals consolidated within the rise of Andrew Jackson, who as president took on the coastal elites, most famously in his veto of the Second Financial institution of the US in 1832.

Dr. Sellers detested Jackson’s pro-slavery sentiment and Indian removing insurance policies. However he argued that the first object of the Jacksonians’ hatred was not Black folks or Native Individuals however capitalism and its benefactors. He additionally confirmed that by the tip of his second time period, Jackson’s motion, torn by inside contradictions and co-opted by moneyed pursuits, had principally collapsed.

“He noticed the Jacksonians because the final nice expression of a democratic sensibility doomed to be overthrown by a capitalist bourgeois sensibility,” stated Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton whose personal e book, “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln” (2005), additional developed a number of of the themes of Dr. Sellers’s e book.

The e book’s impression was profound, at the very least inside tutorial historical past. A 1994 convention in London was devoted to it, and the idea of the market revolution has grow to be a hard and fast a part of the sphere’s firmament.

“Sellers’s was the thesis that launched a thousand dissertations,” the historian Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker in 2007. “Proof of the market revolution gave the impression to be in all places; it appeared to elucidate every thing.”

Charles Grier Sellers Jr. was born on Sept. 9, 1923, in Charlotte, N.C. His father, whose forebears Dr. Sellers later described as “two-mule farmers,” had moved to the town as a younger man to attend enterprise faculty, and by the point the youthful Charles was born he was rising quickly as an govt at Customary Oil. Charles’s mom, Cora Irene (Templeton) Sellers, labored for a church society that supported missionaries.

Charles’s dad and mom had been strict Presbyterians, and although he later disavowed faith, it coloured his childhood and later drove his dedication to progressive causes. As a teen, Charles grew to become enthusiastic about civil rights; he later recalled attending a gathering of the N.A.A.C.P. at which he was one among only some white folks amongst a whole lot of Black attendees.

He studied historical past at Harvard, however he delayed commencement till 1947 to hitch the Military. Afterward he returned to North Carolina and acquired his Ph.D. in historical past from the College of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1950. He taught on the College of Maryland and Princeton earlier than shifting to Berkeley in 1958. He remained there till he retired in 1990.

Dr. Sellers’s first marriage, to Evelyn Sensible, led to divorce, as did his second, to Nancy Snow. Alongside together with his spouse, he’s survived by his brother, Philip; his sons, Grier and Steen; his daughter, Janet; and two grandchildren.

Among the many first issues Dr. Sellers did when he received to Berkeley was be part of the native chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. Working with the chapter, he fought towards housing and job discrimination round Berkeley, and in 1961 he traveled with a contingent to Mississippi to assist the Freedom Riders. Dr. Sellers was arrested, however he was let off with a suspended sentence.

In 1964 he was among the many first and most vocal school members to assist the Free Speech Motion at Berkeley, which opposed efforts by the administration to curtail campus activism.

His involvement started when he noticed one among his colleagues arrested throughout a protest and put in a police automobile. Instantly, Dr. Sellers joined a number of college students in surrounding the automobile for hours.

He recalled sitting on high of the automobile when one other colleague handed by.

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

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

Dr. Sellers’s radicalism received him few pals among the many school, however the soft-spoken Southerner grew to become an inspiration for Berkeley’s extra militant college students. He launched Malcolm X when he got here to talk on campus, and he later spoke to a crowd of seven,000 at an anti-Vietnam Warfare rally.

His activism didn’t disrupt his scholarship. Throughout the Sixties he produced two volumes of a projected three-book biography of President James Ok. Polk, the second of which, “James Ok. Polk, Continentalist: 1843-1846” (1967), received the celebrated Bancroft Prize.

Dr. Sellers spent the subsequent twenty years engaged on “The Market Revolution,” which he didn’t publish till a yr after he retired.

The e book is however evocative of the Sixties counterculture — each in its depiction of a precapitalist America awash in communal dwelling and free love and in its rejection of the work of postwar tutorial historians who, Dr. Sellers stated, tried to cover the fact of sophistication battle in early America behind a veil of democratic consensus.

“I took alarm when historians armed the US for Chilly Warfare by purging class from consciousness,” he stated on the 1994 convention in London. “Muffling exploitative capital in interesting democratic garb, their mythology of consensual democratic capitalism purged egalitarian that means from democracy.”

“The Market Revolution” made waves even earlier than publication. It had been commissioned as part of the Oxford Historical past of the US collection, however the editor of that collection, C. Vann Woodward — likewise a liberal, Southern historian who educated at Chapel Hill — rejected it as too crucial and pessimistic about early American historical past.

Oxford College Press ultimately revealed the e book, however outdoors the collection. It drew intense admiration, nevertheless it additionally generated immense criticism — the historian Daniel Walker Howe, who had studied briefly beneath Dr. Sellers, wrote a whole e book, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848” (2005), that many noticed as a direct critique of Dr. Sellers’s work.

“That Sixties taste is what bothers lots of people about ‘The Market Revolution,’” Amy S. Greenberg, a historian at Pennsylvania State College, stated in an interview. “However he’s a author as a lot as a historian, and the image he’s drawing is an idealizing of the time.”

Although he carried out intensive analysis for the third quantity of his Polk biography, Dr. Sellers by no means completed it. As a substitute, a number of years in the past he gave his voluminous notes to Dr. Greenberg, which she used to put in writing “Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk” (2019).

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