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Robert Green Ingersoll

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Robert Green Ingersoll

For other people named Robert Ingersoll, see Robert Ingersoll (disambiguation).
Robert G. Ingersoll
Born Robert Green Ingersoll
(1833-08-11)August 11, 1833
Dresden, New York
Died July 21, 1899(1899-07-21) (aged 65)
Dobbs Ferry, New York
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery
(Section 3, Lot 1620, Grid S-16.5)
Occupation Politician, orator, lecturer
Nationality American
Period 19th century
Genres Satire, essay, social commentary, political commentary, philosophical literature, Biblical criticism
Subjects Freethought, Agnosticism, Humanism, Abolitionism, Women's rights, Literature
Spouse(s) Eva Parker Ingersoll
Children Eva Ingersoll Wakefield,
Maud Ingersoll Probasco
Relative(s) Ebon Clarke Ingersoll

Signature

Robert Green "Bob" Ingersoll (August 11, 1833 – July 21, 1899) was a lawyer, a Civil War veteran, political leader, and orator of United States during the Golden Age of Freethought, noted for his broad range of culture and his defense of agnosticism. He was nicknamed "The Great Agnostic."

Life and career

Robert Ingersoll was born in [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 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.[1]


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."[2]

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.[3] On November 11, 1856, Ingersoll caught Hall in his arms when the son of a political opponent assassinated his employer in their office.[4]

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".[5] 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.

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.

Ingersoll was married, February 13, 1862, to Eva Amelia Parker (1841-1923). They had two daughters. Ingersoll was a great believer in the importance of family life.

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."[6] 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.[7]


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."[8]

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 (Section 3, Lot 1620, Grid S-16.5).

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

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."[9]

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.[10]

In popular culture


  • In his Devil's Dictionary American journalist and writer Ambrose Bierce included his own version of the Decalogue in which the second commandment is, "No images nor idols make/for Robert Ingersoll to break."
  • In A.B. Simpson's 1890 book, Wholly Sanctified, the prominent New York City pastor and founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance writes of wanting to read Ingersoll's lectures with a view to answering them, but was so repulsed after reading one page that he "dared not go farther." Simpson referred to Ingersoll as "this daring blasphemer."[11]
  • In William Faulkner's short story Beyond an old man leaves his body at the moment of death and visits a sort of ante-purgatory where he encounters the shade of a man who may be Robert Ingersoll. The old man accosts Ingersoll, "So you too are reconciled . . . to this place." Ingersoll replies, "Ah . . . reconciled."[12]
  • In Sherwood Anderson's 1920 novel Poor White, "Robert Ingersoll came to [a small Midwest town] to speak . . . , and after he had gone the question of the divinity of Christ for months occupied the minds of the citizens."
  • In Sinclair Lewis's 1927 novel Elmer Gantry, a burly college student named Elmer Gantry who is heavily under the influence of his agnostic friend Jim Lefferts undergoes a seeming miraculous conversion to Baptist Christianity and is immediately invited to speak before an audience. At Lefferts' suggestion, Gantry uses as inspiration for his first sermon a speech by Robert Ingersoll which commences, "Love is the only bow on life's dark cloud". Gantry decides not to credit Ingersoll, who would be infamous to his audience, and reflects, "Rats! Chances are nobody there tonight has ever read Ingersoll. Agin him. Besides I'll kind of change it around."
  • The town of Redwater, Texas, was originally named Ingersoll in honor of Robert Ingersoll when it was founded in the mid-1870s; the current name was adopted after a revival meeting held in the town in 1886.
  • Ingersoll's "After Visiting the Tomb of Napoleon" is quoted in Born Yesterday.
  • In P. G. Wodehouse's book "The Mating Season", PC Dobbs, who happens to be a fervent Agnostic/Atheist, left the County Talent Show at the local hall early because he didn't like the entertainment and went home to "smoke a pipe and read Robert G. Ingersoll".
  • Colonel Bob Mountain in Washington state was named for Robert Ingersoll.[13]
  • His birthplace, known as the Robert Ingersoll Birthplace, or Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.[14]
  • The following Ingersoll statement is quoted on the inside cover of the Godley and Creme album "Consequences":
"There are in nature neither rewards nor punishments, there are consequences."
  • Ingersoll's brand of agnosticism was labelled "Ingersollism" by his intellectual contemporaries, including congregationalist Lyman Abbott,[15] Congregationalist minister John P. Sanderson,[16] Illinois scholar and lawyer George Reuben Wendling[17] and others (such as a collection of refutations of Ingersollism published in 1879 by Chicago publishers Rhodes and McClure).[18]

Works

  • RobertGreenIngersoll.org
  • The gods and other lectures (New York : D. M. Bennett, 1876)
  • Some mistakes of Moses (Washington, D.C. : C. P. Farrell, 1879)
  • Walt Whitman (New York, The Truth Seeker Co, 1890)
  • Col. Ingersoll's reply to his critics in the N.Y. "Evening Telegram." (Toronto : J. Spencer Ellis, 1892)
  • Shakespeare, a lecture (New York, Farrell, 1895)
  • Abraham Lincoln, a lecture (New York, Farrell, 1895)
  • Voltaire, a lecture (New York, Farrell, 1895)
  • Great speeches of Col. R. G. Ingersoll; complete (Chicago : Rhodes & McClure, 1895)
  • "Why I am an agnostic" (1896)
  • 12 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)

References

Notes
Further reading
  • Tim Page, editing Robert Green Ingersoll, What's God Got to Do with It? : Robert Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk and the Separation of Church and State, Random House (August, 2005), trade paperback, ISBN 1-58642-096-8
  • Orvin Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll a Biography, Citadel Press (1962)
  • Eric T. Brandt, Timothy Larsen, "The Old Atheism Revisited: Robert G. Ingersoll and the Bible," Journal of The Historical Society, 11,2 (2011), 211–238.
  • Susan Jacoby, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, Yale University Press (2013)

External links

  • Project Gutenberg
  • Complete works online
  • Library of Congress
  • Robert Green Ingersoll Museum
  • Works by Robert G. Ingersoll at the Secular Web
  • Ingersoll's biography
  • Ingersoll Chronology Project, that tracks his speaking career
  • Council for Secular Humanism
  • Large selection of quotations
  • Ingersoll on sabbath superstition
  • Find a Grave
  • Bloomington, Illinois newspaper)

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