Robert G. Ingersoll

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Robert G. Ingersoll
Robert G. Ingersoll - Brady-Handy.jpg
BornRobert Green Ingersoll
(1833-08-11)August 11, 1833
Dresden, New York, U.S.
DiedJuly 21, 1899(1899-07-21) (aged 65)
Dobbs Ferry, New York, U.S.
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery
OccupationPolitician, orator, lecturer
NationalityAmerican
Period19th century
GenreSatire, essay, social commentary, political commentary, philosophical literature, biblical criticism
SubjectFreethought, agnosticism, humanism, abolitionism, women's rights
SpouseEva Parker Ingersoll
ChildrenEva Ingersoll Wakefield
Maud Ingersoll Probasco
RelativesEbon Clarke Ingersoll

Signature

Robert Green "Bob" Ingersoll (/ˈɪŋɡərˌsɔːl, -ˌsɒl, -səl/; August 11, 1833 – July 21, 1899) was an American lawyer, father of the feminist Eva Ingersoll Brown, a Civil War veteran, politician, and orator of the United States during the Golden Age of Free Thought, noted for his broad range of culture and his defense of agnosticism. He was nicknamed "The Great Agnostic".

Biography[edit]

Robert Ingersoll was born in Dresden, Yates County, New York. His father, John Ingersoll, was an abolitionist-sympathizing Congregationalist preacher, whose radical opinions caused him and his family to relocate frequently. For a time, Rev. John Ingersoll substituted as preacher 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 with Finney. The elder Ingersoll's later pastoral experiences influenced young Robert negatively, however, as The Elmira Telegram described during 1890:[1]

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 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 the 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.

During 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 time prior to his Metropolis position, Ingersoll had also taught school in Mount Vernon, Illinois.[2]

Later that year, the family settled in Marion, Illinois, where Robert and his brother Ebon Clarke Ingersoll were admitted as lawyers during 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."[3]

While in Marion, he learned law from Judge Willis Allen and served as deputy clerk for John M. Cunningham, Williamson County's County Clerk and Circuit Clerk. During 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 brief time there, he accepted 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.[4] On November 11, 1856, Ingersoll caught Hall in his arms when the son of a political opponent assassinated his employer in their office.[5]

When he relocated to Shawneetown, he continued to practice law with 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 began their law practice using the name "E.C. and R.G. Ingersoll".[6] 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 alongside Cunningham's soon-to-be son-in-law, John A. Logan, the state's attorney and political ally to Hall.

With his earlier mentor Cunningham having relocated back to Marion after the land office's closing during 1856, and Logan's relocation to Benton, Illinois, after his marriage that autumn, Ingersoll and his brother relocated to Peoria, Illinois, where they finally settled during 1857.

Ingersoll was married, February 13, 1862, to Eva Amelia Parker (1841-1923). They had two daughters. The elder daughter, Eva Ingersoll Brown, was a renowned feminist and suffragist.

With the beginning of the American Civil War, he raised the 11th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry and assumed command. The regiment fought in the Battle of Shiloh. Ingersoll was later captured in a Union skirmish with the Confederates near Lexington, Tennessee on December 18, 1862, then released on his promise that he would not fight again (he resigned as regiment commander on June 30, 1863), 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 had an elected job, he was nonetheless an active participant of politics. According to Robert Nisbet, Ingersoll was a "staunch Republican."[7] 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. His radical opinions on religion, slavery, woman's suffrage, and other issues of the time effectively prevented him from ever pursuing or having political offices higher than that of state attorney general. Illinois Republicans tried to persuade him to campaign for governor on the condition that Ingersoll conceal his agnosticism during the campaign, which he refused to do.

Ingersoll was involved with several major 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 the 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 valid.[8]

The only known image of Ingersoll addressing an audience.

Ingersoll was most noted as an orator, one of 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[by whom?] never to be restless.

Many of Ingersoll's speeches advocated freethought and humanism, and often ridiculed religious belief. For this the press often attacked him, but neither his opinions nor the negative press could stop his increasing popularity. During Ingersoll's greatest fame, audiences would pay $1 or more to hear him speak, a considerable sum for that time.

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."[9]

Susan Jacoby credits Ingersoll for the revival of Thomas Paine's reputation in American intellectual history, which had decreased after the publication of The Age of Reason published during 1794-95. Paine postulated that men, not God, had written the Bible, and Ingersoll included this work in his lectures on freethinking. As the only freethinker of his time with a wide audience outside of the unbelieving circle, he reintroduced Paine's ideas to a new generation.[10]

Ingersoll died from congestive heart failure at the age of 65. Soon after his death, his brother-in-law, Clinton P. Farrell, collected copies of Ingersoll's speeches for publication. The 12-volume Dresden Editions kept interest in Ingersoll's ideas alive and preserved his speeches for future generations. Ingersoll's ashes are interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 2005, a popular edition of Ingersoll's work was published by Steerforth Press. Edited by the Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page, "What's God Got to Do With It: Robert Ingersoll on Free Speech, Honest Talk and the Separation of Church and State" brought Ingersoll's thinking to a new audience.

Friendship with Walt Whitman[edit]

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."[11]

The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death during 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric.[12]

In popular culture[edit]

Ingersoll statue in Peoria, Illinois.

Works[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Wilson, Rufus R. (16 March 1890). "A Sketch of the Life of America's Most Noted Agnostic by Rufus Wilson". The Elmira Telegram. Retrieved 2018-09-16.
  2. ^ 1887. History of Gallatin, Saline, Hamilton, Franklin, and Williamson Counties, Illinois. Goodspeed Publishing Co. 557, 585. As of 1887, Judge McBane still had in his possession Ingersoll's letter of inquiry regarding the school dated May 16, 1853.
  3. ^ Milo Erwin. 1876. History of Williamson County, Illinois. 250.
  4. ^ Kittredge, Herman E., A Biographical Appreciation of Robert G. Ingersoll, Ch. 2.
  5. ^ Eva Ingersoll Wakefield, ed. 1951. The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll, New York: Hallmark-Hubner Press, Inc. 18–19.
  6. ^ Kittredge, Ch. 2. 1911.
  7. ^ McCarthy, Daniel (2012-11-21) Outsider Conservatism, The American Conservative
  8. ^ Myers, John Myers, "The Prince Of Swindlers", American Heritage, August 1956 (7:5). Updated link retrieved 2011-05-11.
  9. ^ Ingersoll, Robert G. (1915). "The Great Infidels". The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, in Twelve Volumes, Volume III. The Dresden Publishing Company. p. 319. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  10. ^ Jacoby, Susan. "Freethought's Forgotten Hero". Point of Inquiry. Center for Inquiry. Retrieved July 6, 2017.
  11. ^ Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman's Conversations with Horace Traubel, Gary Schmidgall (Editor), 2001, University of Iowa Press, Page 81.
  12. ^ The Book of Eulogies, Phyllis Theroux (Editor), 1977, Simon & Schuster. Page 30.
  13. ^ Majors, Harry M. (1975). Exploring Washington. Van Winkle Publishing Co. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-918664-00-6.
  14. ^ National Park Service (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  15. ^ Abbott, Lyman (1890). "Flaws in Ingersollism". The North American Review. 150 (401): 446–457. JSTOR 25101967.
  16. ^ Association, Michigan Congregational (2 December 1892). "The Congregational Churches of Michigan: For the First Fifty Years of Their Organization Into a State Association ; Addresses Delivered, Papers Read and Reports Made at the Jubilee Meeting Held at Jackson, May 19-22, 1892". order of the Association. Retrieved 2 December 2017 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ Wendling, George Reuben (2 December 1883). "Ingersollism: From a Secular Point of View. A Lecture Delivered in Association Hall, New York; Music Hall, Boston; in Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and in Over Six Hundred of the Principal Lecture Courses of the United States and Canada". Jansen, McClurg. Retrieved 2 December 2017 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ James Baird McClure (2 December 1879). "Mistakes of Ingersoll: As Shown by Rev. W. F. Crafts, Bishop Charles E ..." Rhodes & McClure. Retrieved 2 December 2017 – via Internet Archive.
  19. ^ Renken, Leslie. "Ingersoll statue restored by FFRF". Freedom From Religion Foundation. Peoria Journal Star. Retrieved 24 October 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Eric T. Brandt, Timothy Larsen, "The Old Atheism Revisited: Robert G. Ingersoll and the Bible," Journal of The Historical Society, vol. 11, no. 2 (2011), pp. 211–238.
  • Eugene V. Debs, "Recollections of Ingersoll," Pearson's Magazine, vol. 37, no. 4 (April 1917), pp. 302–307.
  • Susan Jacoby, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
  • Orvin Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll a Biography. Citadel Press, 1962.
  • Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Metropolitan Books, 2004.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
office abolished
Attorney General of Illinois
1867–1869
Succeeded by
Washington Bushnell