Robert Green Ingersoll:
The Great Agnostic
The following short biography is intended to primarily to educate the reader as to the history and character of one of the greatest members of the human family. Several men throughout U.S. history have borne the epitaph "The Great Agnostic", but there is only one man to whom this title was originally ascribed. His name was Robert Green Ingersoll. He is not well known today, yet he was the foremost public orator and political speechmaker of late 19th century America-- and perhaps the best-known American of the post-Civil War era.
· Section two gives an overview of his birth, his parentage, especially his father, who was an impassioned revivalist-a congregational minister with legions of converts. His mother was an ardent abolitionist before it was fashionable to be one. It also recounts his education, and his early career as a lawyer.
· Section three chronicles his time in the Civil War, his victories and defeats.
· Section four relates his rise to become the most famous public orator in U.S. history, speaking to tens of thousands of listeners at a time, making millions of dollars (much of which he gave to charitable causes). He became the terror of the pulpit, reviled by the clergy, slandered by the religious media, and yet the friend of presidents, and the friend of great men and women such as Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Known as the "American Infidel", he went on to become the first Attorney General of the State of Illinois.
It is my sincere hope that this report educates people regarding Robert G. Ingersoll, a man who has been ignored by modern historians for far too long.
II. THE EARLY YEARS
In Dresden New York, on August 11th 1833, Robert Green Ingersoll was born. We know little of his ancestry, for Ingersoll was not impressed with lineage. "I know little of my ancestors," he wrote, "not much more than they do about me." His mother and father, John and Mary, were ardent abolitionists. His mother was the first to sign a petition, which she also circulated, for the abolition of slavery in Washington D.C. Her father was a judge in the county court, and her grandfather served in the Revolutionary War, and as she put it, "had sense enough and courage enough to be a Universalist if any were saved, all would be."
When he was young, they moved often, due to his father's ministry. John Ingersoll preached abolitionist sermons so fiery that congregations often dismissed him. Three years was the longest they spent in any town. Robert learned to read and write when he was five, and learned Latin, Hebrew and Greek. In later years, he denounced "the acquisition of useless, dead languages."
His early schooling was in one-room schoolhouses, where twenty five to fifty children of mixed ages sat on primitive benches. As a youngster he avoided speaking in public, after an incident of stage fright left him silent and tearful before an expectant audience. As he reached his late teens, he became enthralled with poetry, most notably Shakespeare, Burns, Shelly, Poe, Byron and Keats. He often said, "Shakespeare is my bible, Burns is my hymnbook."
In September of 1852, when he was 19, he moved to Mount Vernon, Illinois, to find a teaching job. Although successful, this did not last long. Robert went to Marion, Illinois to be with his ailing father, who had come down with pneumonia. Robert resented the way his father was treated by his congregation. The Reverend Ingersoll was a fervent and unrelenting man who refused to temper his abolitionist views. It did not take long before pro-slavery churchgoers forced him out of town. Robert's resentment toward slavery advocates would come to manifest itself later in life.
While in Marion with his father, Robert took up employment as assistant to the clerk of the county courts. In his spare time he began to study law. This did not last long either, as the Reverend was now was well and wanted to travel south by horse and buggy, to preach and to get a look at slavery first hand. So they went first to Tennessee, then continued on their way to Alabama.
Figure 1. Ingersoll in 1876
After they had seen their fill, they returned to Marion, meeting up with Robert's brother Clark. They had plans to go into law together. They studied together, and on December 20th, 1854 they were both admitted to the bar in Illinois. They both then went to Peoria, and there they thrived as lawyers, first dealing with the newly emerging Union-Pacific railway system, which had just arrived in Peoria, then becoming among the very few attorneys specializing in criminal law.
III. THE CIVIL WAR
On April 12th, 1861, at 4:30 in the morning, the bombardment of Fort Sumpter began, and so began the Civil War. One of the most active citizens in Peoria was Robert Ingersoll. He was much in demand as a public speaker for Union rallies. He sponsored a resolution that prohibited boats carrying provisions to the South from passing through Peoria on the Illinois River.
On April 22nd, Ingersoll sent a telegram to the Governor asking permission to raise a regiment of one thousand men. The offer was accepted, and during the next six months, Ingersoll was responsible for raising three regiments. He met with Union generals in St. Louis, and was commissioned as a Colonel.
About the same time, he met the woman who was to become his wife, Eva Parker, a woman of vigorous intellect. At this time, Ingersoll still accepted the God of his childhood, at least at first glance. But Eva, and her whole family, had unorthodox views on religion, and many other subjects, and they were followers of Paine and Voltaire. Eva could not take seriously the idea of a God made in the image of Man.
Ingersoll's first military conflict was a two-day battle, the Battle of Shiloh, in Tennessee. In this one battle, more American soldiers died than in all previous wars combined. Yet it resulted in a Union victory. Then came Corinth, another victory, in which hundreds of prisoners, as well as a great quantity of arms and stores, were taken.
In December of 1862, Robert Ingersoll became the Chief of Cavalry of the Union forces under general Sullivan, in Jackson Tennessee. News reached them of a large rebel force crossing the Tennessee River, thirty miles away. Only thirteen hundred Union troops were stationed in Jackson. It would take days for help to arrive. Ingersoll was ordered to engage the enemy, however strong, and delay them until reinforcements could come. Colonel Ingersoll had six hundred and fifty men, only one hundred and fifty of whom had ever fired a gun in earnest. They did not have long to wait. They attempted to hold the rebels at the bridge, and repelled three assaults, but eventually the bridge was overrun. One account reported that the number of rebel cavalry at "no less than ten thousands."
Figure 2. Civil War portrait, 1862
Robert was taken prisoner and held for four days. During his captivity, he was asked to make a speech for his captors. Upon his parole, he returned to Jackson, where General Sullivan told him that he had saved the town for the Union; reinforcements had arrived. The rebels had tried to take Jackson, but were repelled with serious loss of men and equipment. In June, Robert resigned his commission. "Because," he said, "I have seen enough of bloodshed and mutilation."
Back in Peoria, with his wife and brother Clark, life resumed. But trouble was brewing in the form of anti-war sentiment. Many people wanted to end the war and have immediate and unconditional peace with the South. The call went up to leave: "the country the way it is, and the Constitution the way it was." This meant that slavery would be left intact. "From thousands of pulpits," he wrote, "slavery is declared to be a divine institution." Ingersoll knew that the North would eventually prevail in the war, unless their cause was weakened from within. So he began doing what he did best: he spoke before large crowds, urging their support for the war, and making the clearest possible arguments against slavery that people had ever heard. His reputation as an orator continued to grow during this period.
IV. THE INFIDEL
In March of 1865, Robert admitted that he had been reading Paine, Voltaire, Comte, and other rationalists. It is suspected that his wife had some influence on him. People attending his public speeches began hearing phrases like:
· "There has been an outpouring of the Holy Ghost in [Peoria]. I suppose from that that the Holy Ghost is a liquid substance."
· "War and theology were the business of mankind."
· "In the sixteenth century a man was burned in France because he refused to kneel to a procession of dirty monks."
· "The histories were all written by the monks and bishops, all of whom were intensely superstitious and equally dishonest."
· "Credulity occupied the throne of reason and faith put out the eyes of the soul."
· "Religion can never reform mankind because religion is slavery."
Despite all this, he was appointed as the first attorney general of Illinois in 1867. His speechmaking played a vital role in his brother Clark's successful run for the Illinois congress.
Figure 3. A colorized picture of Ingersoll later in life
In 1868 he was considered for the state's Republican nomination for governor, but he was "passed over" when he would not agree to make fewer speeches on controversial subjects-from women's rights to religion. "We need men with moral courage to speak and write their real thoughts, and to stand by their convictions, even to the very death," he said.
Figure 4. An ad for one of Ingersoll's speeches
As the years passed, his public speeches gained more and more of an anti-religious edge. His popularity continued to grow. Candidates sought out Ingersoll's oratorical services keenly. He campaigned for every liberal party Presidential candidate from Grant to McKinley. Yet because of his blunt and controversial opinions, Ingersoll was never appointed to public office by any of the politicians whose election he helped to secure.
Between 1865 and 1899 Ingersoll traveled the country on more than a dozen tours in which he would pack the largest theaters of the day at the admission price of one dollar-a substantial amount in that day. Ingersoll had numerous four-hour lectures committed to his memory. No human being had ever been seen and heard by so many people-or would be until the advent of motion pictures and radio. His subjects ranged from religion and art, from political and moral issues of the day to the lives of famous patriots and scientists. Among his best-known speeches were:
· Some Mistakes of Moses
· What Must We Do To Be Saved?
· Eight Hours Must Come (regarding an eight hour work day)
· What Would You Substitute for the Bible as a Moral Guide?
· The Agnostic Christmas
· The Bigotry of Colleges
· God in the Constitution
· Heretics and Heresies
· Jesus Christ
· The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child
· A Few Reasons for Doubting the Inspiration of the Bible
· Myth and Miracle
· Sabbath Superstition
· The Truth
· What Infidels Have Done
· Why I am an Agnostic
Figure 5. The only known photograph of one of Ingersoll's speeches
Ingersoll was beloved by outstanding people in all walks of life. Among his admirers were president James Garfield, poet Walt Whitman, President Ulysses S. Grant, industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, inventor Thomas Edison, preacher Henry Ward Beecher, and women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Ingersoll especially impressed Mark Twain. After hearing Ingersoll speak, he wrote his wife: "He poured molten silver from his lips. What an organ is human speech when it is employed by a master!"
In 1896 a man named C.B. Reynolds of New York was brought to trial for "blasphemy" for saying: "This Bible describes God as so loving that he drowned the whole world in his mad fury; an all-wise, unchangeable God, who ran out of patience with a world which was just what his own stupid blundering had made it, knew no better way out of the muddle than to destroy it by drowning!" Ingersoll defended this case, unsuccessfully. During the trial he said, "I deny the right of any man, of any number of men, of any church, of any State, to put a padlock on the lips. For my part, I would not wish to live in a world where I could not express my honest opinions."
Ingersoll died of heart failure on July 21, 1899 at Dobbs Ferry-on-Hudson, New York. He was 65 years old. He was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, where his large grave marker can still be seen. A larger-than-life statue of the man was erected in a public park in Peoria, where it stands to this day.
Figure 6. The statue of Ingersoll
Figure 7. Ingersoll's grave
Some notable quotations:
· A fact never went into partnership with a miracle. Truth scorns the assistance of wonders. A fact will fit every other fact in the universe, and that is how you can tell whether it is or is not a fact. A lie will not fit anything except another lie.
· Few nations have been so poor as to have but one god. Gods were made so easily, and the raw material cost so little, that generally the god market was fairly glutted and heaven crammed with these phantoms.
· Give to every human being every right that you claim for yourself.
· Happiness is not a reward - it is a consequence. Suffering is not a punishment - it is a result.
· Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.
· If a man would follow, today, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would follow strictly the teachings of the New Testament, he would be insane.
· It is a blessed thing that in every age someone has had the individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions.
· It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.
· Surely there is grandeur in knowing that in the realm of thought, at least, you are without a chain; that you have the right to explore all heights and depth; that there are no walls nor fences, nor prohibited places, nor sacred corners in all the vast expanse of thought...
· The notion that faith in Christ is to be rewarded by an eternity of bliss, while a dependence upon reason, observation, and experience merits everlasting pain, is too absurd for refutation, and can be relieved only by that unhappy mixture of insanity and ignorance called 'faith.'
Shortly after Ingersoll's death, his brother-in-law Clinton P. Farrell collected and published his complete works. The lavish 12-volume set was known as the "Dresden Edition," named for the town of Ingersoll's birth. The Dresden Edition went through numerous printings. Today, it is difficult to find Ingersoll's works in any library or in any bookstore, even though he has never been out of print. Those who would disagree with him have persecuted his writings ever since they appeared in print.
Figure 8. Ingersoll and his grandchildren
Larson, Orvin. (1993). American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll. Freedom From Religion Foundation, P.O. Box 750, Madison, WI, 53701.
The Secular Web. Robert G. Ingersoll Historical Library, Complete http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/index.shtml.