Robert Ingersoll

Robert Ingersoll (1833 – 1899) was a Civil War veteran, American political leader, and orator during the Golden Age of Freethought, noted for his broad range of culture and his defense of agnosticism. He was nicknamed ‘The Great Agnostic.’ He was born in upstate New York.

His father, John, was an abolitionist-leaning Congregationalist preacher, whose radical views forced his family to move frequently. For a time, Rev. Ingersoll filled the pulpit for American revivalist Charles G. Finney while Finney was on a tour of Europe. Upon Finney’s return, Rev. Ingersoll remained for a few months as co-pastor/associate pastor under Finney.

The elder Ingersoll’s later pastoral experiences influenced young Robert negatively, however, as ‘The Elmira Telegram’ described in 1890:  ‘Though for many years the most noted of American infidels, Colonel Ingersoll was born and reared in a devoutly Christian household. His father, John Ingersoll, was a Congregationalist minister and a man of mark in his time, a deep thinker, a logical and eloquent speaker, broad minded and generously tolerant of the views of others. The popular impression which credits Ingersoll’s infidelity in the main to his father’s severe orthodoxy and the austere and gloomy surroundings in which his boyhood was spent is wholly wrong. On the contrary the elder Ingersoll’s liberal views were a source of constant trouble between him and his narrow-minded parishioners. They caused him to frequently change his charges, and several times made him the defendant in church trials. His ministerial career was, in fact, substantially brought to a close by a church trial which occurred while he was pastor of the Congregational Church at Madison, Ohio, and at which his third wife appeared as prosecutor. Upon this occasion he was charged with prevarication and unministerial conduct. The evidence adduced—the trial is one of the abiding traditions of the dull little town of Madison—was of the most trivial and ridiculous character, but the committee which heard it decided that though he had done ‘nothing inconsistent with his Christian character,’ he was ‘inconsistent with his ministerial character,’ and forbade him to preach in the future. Elder John went before the higher church authorities and was permitted to continue his clerical labors. However, he soon removed to Wisconsin, going from there to Illinois, where he died. The Madison trial occurred when young Robert was nine years old, and it was the unjust and bigoted treatment his father received which made him the enemy, first of Calvinism, and later of Christianity in its other forms.’

In 1853, ‘Bob’ Ingersoll taught a term of school in Metropolis, Illinois, where he let one of his students, the future Judge Angus M. L. McBane, do the ‘greater part of the teaching, while Latin and history occupied his own attention.’ At some point prior to his Metropolis position, Ingersoll had also taught school in Mount Vernon, Illinois. Later that year, the family settled in Marion, Illinois, where Robert and his brother Ebon Clarke Ingersoll were admitted to the bar in 1854. A county historian writing 22 years later noted that local residents considered the Ingersolls as a ‘very intellectual family; but, being Abolitionists, and the boys being deists, rendered obnoxious to our people in that respect.’ While in Marion, he studied law under Judge Willis Allen and served as deputy clerk for John M. Cunningham, Williamson County’s County Clerk and Circuit Clerk. In 1855, after Cunningham was named registrar for the federal land office in southeastern Illinois at Shawneetown, Illinois, Ingersoll followed him to the riverfront city along the Ohio River. After a short time there he took the deputy clerk position with John E. Hall, the county clerk and circuit clerk of Gallatin County, and also a son-in-law of John Hart Crenshaw. On November 11, 1856, Ingersoll caught Hall in his arms when the son of a political opponent assassinated his employer in their office.

When he moved to Shawneetown, he continued to read law under Judge William G. Bowman who had a large library of both law and the classics. In addition to his job as a clerk, he and his brother opened their law practice under the name ‘E.C. and R.G. Ingersoll.’ During this time they also had an office in Raleigh, Illinois, then the county seat of neighboring Saline County. As attorneys following the court circuit he often practiced along side Cunningham’s soon-to-be son-in-law, John A. Logan, the state’s attorney and political ally to Hall. As the trial of Hall’s assassin dominated the scene and with his earlier mentor Cunningham having moved back to Marion following the land office’s closing in 1856, and Logan’s move to Benton, Illinois, after his marriage that fall, Ingersoll and his brother moved to Peoria, Illinois, where they finally settled in 1857.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, he raised the 11th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry and took command. The regiment fought in the Battle of Shiloh. Ingersoll was later captured, then released on his promise that he would not fight again, which was common practice early in the war. After the war, he served as Illinois Attorney General. He was a prominent member of the Republican Party and, though he never held an elected position, he was nonetheless an active participant in politics. According to Robert Nisbet, Ingersoll was a ‘staunch conservative Republican.’ His speech nominating James G. Blaine for the 1876 presidential election was unsuccessful, as Rutherford B. Hayes received the Republican nomination, but the speech itself, known as the ‘Plumed Knight’ speech, was considered a model of political oratory. (Franklin Roosevelt probably used it as a model for his ‘Happy Warrior’ speech when nominating Alfred E. Smith for president in 1928). His radical views on religion, slavery, woman’s suffrage, and other issues of the day effectively prevented him from ever pursuing or holding political offices higher than that of state attorney general. Illinois Republicans tried to pressure him into running for governor on the condition that Ingersoll conceal his agnosticism during the campaign, which he refused to do on the basis that concealing information from the public was immoral.

Ingersoll was involved in several prominent trials as an attorney, notably the Star Route trials, a major political scandal in which his clients were acquitted. He also defended a New Jersey man charged with blasphemy. Although he did not win acquittal, his vigorous defense is considered to have discredited blasphemy laws and few other prosecutions followed. Ingersoll represented the noted con-artist, James Reavis, the ‘Baron of Arizona’ for a time, pronouncing his Peralta Land Grant claim airtight.

Ingersoll was most noted as an orator, the most popular of the age, when oratory was public entertainment. He spoke on every subject, from Shakespeare to Reconstruction, but his most popular subjects were agnosticism and the sanctity and refuge of the family. He committed his speeches to memory although they were sometimes more than three hours long. His audiences were said never to be restless. Many of Ingersoll’s speeches advocated freethought and humanism, and often poked fun at religious belief. For this the press often attacked him, but neither his views nor the negative press could stop his rising popularity. At the height of Ingersoll’s fame, audiences would pay $1 or more to hear him speak, a giant sum for his day. In a lecture entitled ‘The Great Infidels,’ he attacked the Christian doctrine of Hell: ‘All the meanness, all the revenge, all the selfishness, all the cruelty, all the hatred, all the infamy of which the heart of man is capable, grew blossomed, and bore fruit in this one word–Hell.’

Ingersoll enjoyed a friendship with the poet Walt Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. ‘It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass… He lives, embodies, the individuality, I preach. I see in Bob [Ingersoll] the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light.’ The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman’s death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet’s funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric.

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