Have you heard the saying “What would Jesus do?” Who hasn’t? In the 1990s the phrase became a fad among evangelical Christians, who printed the abbreviation WWJD? on bracelets, t-shirts, and posters, spawning in turn a host of mocking pop culture imitations. WWJD can provide a useful lens for looking at evangelical consumer culture of the late twentieth century. But the phrase can also serve as a parable about contemporary copyright law.

The phrase “What would Jesus do?” originated in a novel titled In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, published in 1897 by Charles M. Sheldon. Sheldon was a Congregational minister in Topeka, Kansas, and a Progressive concerned with Christianity’s relationship to the social politics of his day. His book is a parable about the Reverend Henry Maxwell, a minister to a wealthy middle-class congregation. Maxwell comes into contact with a poor man who owes his plight to industrialization, and is thereby jarred from his complacency about social issues. He challenges his congregation to seriously consider the question “What would Jesus do?” in all their actions. As his congregation takes up the challenge, their views on politics, class, race, charity, and corporations fall in line with the social gospel.

The long reach of Sheldon’s In His Steps was due in large part to its message, which appealed to both mainline and evangelical Christians, and to its simple though not particularly literary prose. But its long reach was also due to a simple mistake by Sheldon’s publisher: the book was never properly copyrighted.

In the 1890s, copyright was opt-in, not opt-out. In order for a book to be copyrighted, the publisher had to register it with the federal government. Chicago Advance, Sheldon’s publisher, incorrectly registered the copyright, and so the book was available in the public domain. Many publishers issued their own editions of In His Steps, which sold widely. About the sales of the book, Paul Boyer writes:

Owing to a defect in the copyright, sixteen different publishers soon had editions of the book in the market, and by the summer of 1897, 100,000 copies had been sold. And this was merely the beginning. While Sheldon’s own later estimate of 30,000,000 sales is overdrawn, Frank L. Mott, tabulator and chronicler of American best-sellers, suggests that a figure of 6,000,000 for total world sales would probably not be far amiss, with perhaps 2,000,000 of these in the United States.

To be sure, In His Steps would not have been a bestseller simply because of a mistake in the copyright registration. Sixteen publishers would not have issued the book unless it appealed to the reading public. Nor can the resurgence of WWJD? in the 1990s be attributed to the book’s being in the public domain—by that time the book would have long been out of copyright no matter what. And it is worth noting that the book was a best_seller_: the failure of copyright registration did not mean that the book was available for free, just that Sheldon made hardly any royalties from it. Even today, the book is available for purchase in many editions, though it is available free from several sources.

But would the explosive sales and long-standing popularity of Sheldon’s In His Steps have been possible if the book had been subject to, say, the Copyright Act of 1976, or the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, or, worse, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act? If the point of copyright is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing forlimited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries,” perhaps there is something to be learned from the case of Charles Sheldon and his novel—a fitting parable for a Progressive reformer, indeed.

Murphy, Andrew R. Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 232 pages. ISBN: 978-0-19-532128-9.

Most Americans do not know the word jeremiad, but it is a familiar term to scholars of early American religion. To them the term indicates a type of sermon preached in seventeenth-century New England. These sermons lamented that New England had broken the covenant with God made by its founders. If New England continued its decline, God’s judgment loomed, but if New England repented, then it would receive God’s blessing. But even if most Americans do not know the term jeremiad, they are probably familiar with the genre. In sermons or political speeches, they have heard the idea that America is a Christian nation that has disobeyed God and so faces divine judgment. The old genre of the jeremiad is still very much a part of American discourse.

In his recent book, Prodigal Nation, Andrew Murphy has done much to advance our understanding of the American jeremiad. In the first part of the book, he gives the history of three jeremiads: the Puritan Jeremiad in the seventeenth-century, the jeremiads before and during the Civil War, and the jeremiads of the Christian Right from the 1970s to the present. Murphy’s book is the first work (to my knowledge) to study the jeremiad over the entire scope of American history. Murphy has not written the whole history of the jeremiad—he leaves out revolutionary America, the early republic and the War of 1812, most of the jeremiads of the South, and the entire century between the Civil War and the 1960s—but by considering the jeremiad over the long term, Murphy has given us a better understanding of the genre than can be gained from examining it in only one period.

In the second part of the book, Murphy analyzes the American jeremiad with the tools of a political scientist. He cogently argues that there are two American jeremiads, which he terms the traditionalist jeremiad, and the progressive jeremiad. The traditionalist jeremiad, which is typically religious, calls for a return to the literal past through repentance and renewed obedience. This type of rhetoric, which could be stereotyped as a sermon preached from 2 Chronicle 7:14 in November or July, most obviously fits the genre of the jeremiad. But Murphy also identifies a progressive jeremiad. That jeremiad, which is typically secular, calls not for a literal return to the past but for a renewal of America’s past ideals. For example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech called for a return to the ideals of racial equality implicit in the Declaration of Independence, the “text” for his sermon.

Identifying a particular jeremiad as traditional or progressive can be difficult, given the constant realignments of conservatism and liberalism in American political history. But by pointing out that two competing rhetorical traditions share the same genre, and thus some of the same basic assumptions, Murphy has provided a key insight into American politics and religion, both present and historical. Perhaps that insight can contribute to refuting the false assumptions of the jeremiad tradition, and to bridging the increasing gap between conservatives and liberals in political discourse.

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001. 546 pages. ISBN: 0374528497.

Most self-described intellectuals have joined a discussion club at some time or another. Though a few intellectual clubs have left their mark, such as the Holy Club of John and Charles Wesley or the Inklings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein, most groups disband, leaving behind few records and even less influence. Scarcely any informal gathering of intelligentsia can claim to have promulgated a new philosophy that remade a nation.

But that influence is what Louis Menand claims for the Metaphysical Club, a gathering of intellectuals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872. Started by Chauncey Wright, a brilliant, talkative, but shiftless philosopher of science, the club claimed as members Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce, among others. Their name was a joke, though a bitter one, for the members all hated metaphysics. The record of the club is scanty—it is mentioned only in a letter by James and an unpublished work by Peirce—and its life short, but from that circle of thinkers originated pragmatism. By his title Menand means not just the club proper but all the connections among the pragmatists. For example, the fourth member of the broader club is John Dewey, who was a boy in New Hampshire during the club’s existence but who later showed the influence of pragmatism.

The idea that a club of intellectuals could have such broad influence is thrilling (at least, for intellectuals), but Menand traces their influence back to a more fundamental and pervasive cause: the Civil War. Though the Civil War caused few changes in government compared to, say, the English Civil War, it did give rise to the new philosophy of pragmatism. Menand’s thesis is that in shattering the lives of Americans, the Civil War shattered not just the ideas that provoked the war but the very idea of what ideas are.

Pragmatism’s definition is familiar, and in defining it Menand does not break any new ground. The Civil War proved to pragmatists that ideas can fail, and had. Only ideas that worked, as judged by society, could claim to be true. To put it metaphysically, as the pragmatists would not, ideas have no independent ontological reality; to quote Menand, “Ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools—like forks and knives and microchips—that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves” (xi).

Menand’s genius is his ability to explain pragmatism though biography. Most of the book describes the lives of Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey. Each is the subject of a major section of the book; only the last section deals topically with pragmatism’s implications. Menand describes a host of other thinkers too: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chauncey Wright, Louis Agassiz, Learned Hand, W. E. B. DuBois, and Franz Boas, to name just a few. He argues implicitly that pragmatism cannot be understood apart from the lives of the pragmatists. Menand’s method fits the pragmatists, for they thought ideas were not higher metaphysical reality but a means of managing life.

Menand’s sketch of Holmes is perhaps his best, and so it is a suitable example of his method. Holmes rejected the anti-abolitionism of his father and broke Harvard College’s regulations so that he could join the Union Army—he volunteered to serve an idea. That idea produced horrific consequences, however, as Holmes experienced war’s suffering. Holmes’s friend Henry Livermore Abbott proved his valor despite being an open Copperhead, and Holmes concluded that one could do his duty divorced from his ideas. Menand brilliantly reconstructs how Holmes reconsidered his philosophy in a hospital after being wounded at Ball’s Bluff; Holmes concluded that he needed no religion and forsook his former beliefs. Holmes was reacting against the war but also against transcendentalism and abolitionism—the ideas that caused it. Menand concludes, “The lesson Holmes took from the war can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence” (61). Holmes famously wrote, “In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire,” and Menand has showed how.

Menand demonstrates how the lives of the other philosophers provoked their philosophies too. He marshals in support such disparate episodes as James’s expedition to Brazil with celebrity scientists Louis Agassiz, Peirce’s testimony about probability in a cause célèbre over a forged will, and Dewey’s struggles with New Hampshire transcendentalism and Hegelianism. Since Holmes was the only one who fought in the Civil War, Menand’s connection between war and the Metaphysical Club is clearest with him, but he extends the connection to his other three main subjects too.

Pragmatism influenced many fields, but Menand seems to cover them all. In discussing Supreme Court justice Holmes, Menand explains the influences of his philosophy on his jurisprudence. Holmes argued that law was not what judges discover but what judges make it. Holmes thus tried to preserve individuals’ right, lest the certitude of any group destroy the nation. He also favored judicial restraint, on the theory that judges could be no more certain of justice than the legislatures. A large part of Menand’s book is given to discussing science and mathematics. He finds mathematical principles of statistics and probability, such as the law of errors, to have been an important influence on Pierce’s pragmatism. Another area that science influenced was racism. Menand’s explanations of the different theories of monogenism and polygenism and how evolution led to racism are among the more enlightening parts of his book. Menand also touches on religion in relation to James’s famous The Varieties of Religious Experience, education in relation to Dewey’s attempts at educational reform, and academic freedom in relation to Dewey’s involvement with the American Association of University Professors.

If any criticism can be made of Menand’s work, it is that his pragmatists are too similar. I do not mean that his biographical sketches are the same—they are all masterful—but that his pragmatists hold essentially similar philosophies. Their similarities, however, did not preclude philosophical differences. Menand points out, for example, that James was willing to give place to religion so long as that idea worked for the individual, but Holmes could make no room for religion. What Menand does not point out is that Dewey had real differences with Holmes, James, and Peirce: first, he never completely shook off his early Hegelianism, and second, he lived so much longer into the twentieth century than the others that he was subjected to a great many different influences.

But to pursue this criticism too far is to mistake Menand’s purpose. Menand never purports to offer a nuanced philosophical discussion of pragmatism (and the reader is doubtless grateful). Rather he seeks to explain historically how the Civil War changed how Americans thought about ideas. At that he has succeeded.