Charlie Sellers, 1923-2021
By David A. Hollinger
Charlie Sellers was a highly distinctive member of the Berkeley History Department from the time of his arrival in 1958 through his retirement in 1990. His publications made him one of the profession’s premier historians of nineteenth-century America, properly celebrated for his James K. Polk: Jacksonian, 1795-1843 (1957) and James K. Polk: Continentalist, 1843-1846 (1966). Charlie soon established himself as a teacher of legendary skills and conscientious devotion to both his graduate and undergraduate students. He worked closely with his Teaching Assistants in his survey course in US History before 1865. His teaching commitments extended to his editing of the Berkeley Series in American History, dozens of pamphlets containing primary sources designed for use in undergraduate courses. With his colleague, Henry F. May, he wrote A Synopsis of American History, a mini-textbook intended to be used in connection with primary sources and thematic lectures.
Charlie’s passionate political commitments and accompanying activism contributed to the distinctive figure he cut in the Department and on Campus. He was among the leaders of the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, volunteered as a Mississippi Freedom Rider and was arrested in 1961 at the Jackson Airport with a group of black and white protesters for refusing to leave the ‘white’s only’ waiting room. Sellers was an early supporter of the Free Speech Movement in 1964 and an eloquent critic of the Vietnam War.
Although he had originally planned a third volume on Polk, Charlie put that project aside in the 1980s to work on the book for which he is now the most remembered, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, completed just as he retired and then published the following year, in 1991. By the time he retired, however, Charlie made no secret of his annoyance with what he took to be academia’s slow and tepid response to the social injustices in American society. He cut back sharply on his involvement in teaching and service, and became increasingly engaged with politics. People who came to know him in these later years were often surprised to learn from me and others of my generation what strong institutional and professional commitments Charlie displayed in the 1960s.
Twenty-three years after he retired, in 2013, his wife, the environmental historian Carolyn Merchant, organized a 90th birthday party at which she creatively brought together Charlie’s two communities, the political activists of his later years and the academics with whom he had only episodic contacts since the 1980s. As one of the latter, I was moved to be again in contact with him. I was able to remind all assembled of what a privilege it had been to hear Charles Grier Sellers, Jr., lecture on the panic of 1819 and other favorite topics of his.
For a more detailed account of Charlie’s professional career, I recommend the excellent obituary in The New York Times.