Charles Sellers, 98, Historian Who Upset the Postwar Consensus, DiesHistorians in the News
tags: obituaries, political history, radical history, Charles Sellers
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 on Thursday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 98.
His wife, the historian and philosopher Carolyn Merchant, confirmed the death.
The son of a Carolina farm boy turned oil executive, Dr. 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 Dr. 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 worshiped, 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.
Dr. Sellers detested Jackson’s pro-slavery sentiment and Indian 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 Dr. Sellers’s 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.
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