Ingersoll, Robert Green (1833-1899)

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Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899)



A Question of Faith. The most famous critic of religion during the Reconstruction period was the son of an Orthodox cleric. Robert Ingersoll was born on 11 August 1833 in Dresden, New York, where his father, Congregational minister John Ingersoll, was serving a church. His mother, Mary Livingston Ingersoll, died when Robert was two years old. The Reverend Mr. Ingersoll remarried, and when his second wife died, married a third time. During Roberts youth, the family moved frequently as his father sought a secure pastoral position. The moves took them from Ohio to Wisconsin to Illinois. Such frequent moves could have disrupted the Ingersoll childrens education, but their father taught them at home. By the time he turned eighteen, Ingersoll was a teacher himself, working in Waverly, Tennessee. In 1854 he and his elder brother, Ebon, began reading law at the office of a local lawyer and Democratic politician. In 1860 Ingersoll secured his reputation as a public speaker by substituting for the main orator at an Independence Day celebration with only a few hours notice and preparation time.

Military Service. Ingersolls wartime experiences led him to question authority. When the Civil War broke out, he organized a volunteer cavalry regiment, of which he became a colonel. He saw action at Shiloh, Tennessee, and Corinth, Mississippi, before he was captured on 18 December 1862, by Confederate cavalry commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest. Ingersoll received a parole and made his way back to Union lines, where he was assigned the command of prisoners of war awaiting exchange. When no exchanges were arranged, Ingersoll resigned his commission and returned to Illinois to practice law with his brother. His abiding memory of the Civil War was what he considered to be incompetent military leadership that refused to fight for the real purposes of the war, emancipation and the disempowering of the South. He began to question all authority and soon developed a reputation as an agnostic, or one who believes that humans can know nothing positive about the existence of God.

Politics. Back in civilian life, the Ingersoll brothers performed a political service for the Republicans. The Ingersolls had been Union Democrats and were unmoved by the Copperhead movement in Illinois. On 25 March 1864 Illinois Republican congressman Owen Lovejoy died. His district was reconfigured, and Ebon Ingersoll ran successfully for the vacancy as a Republican, partly because of his brothers abilities as a stump speaker. Together the Ingersolls helped bring the Union Democrats into the Republican fold and strengthen the Grand Old Party in Illinois. Ingersoll, who had been the chief speaker at services memorializing Stephen Douglas in 1861, performed the same function at services for Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Reconstruction. Ingersoll achieved his only political office in this period; his friend Richard J. Oglesby, governor of Illinois, appointed him attorney general of the state, a position he held from 28 February 1867 to 11 January 1869. In March 1868 he allowed the Chicago Grant Club to place his name in nomination as governor of Illinois. Historians have thought that rumors of his agnosticism led to his defeat, but actually his lack of a firm political base in Illinois seems to have been the cause. He nevertheless remained interested in politics and delivered his most famous speech in 1876. That summer, he supported Maine senator James G. Blaine in the running for the Republican candidate for president. Although Blaine lost the nomination to Rutherford B. Hayes, the sobriquet Ingersoll bestowed on him on that occasion stuck, and Blaine became known as the Plumed Knight.

Tradition of Agnosticism. Ingersoll went public with his private religious opinions in 1872 when asked to give the principal address at an annual observance of the birth of Thomas Paine, author of the anti-Bible tract The Age of Reason (1794-1796). The speech, titled The Gods, did more than honor Paine; it emulated him. Like Paine, Ingersoll pointed out that Scripture showed a supposedly all-perfect divine being behaving in an ill-tempered and self-centered manner. Ingersoll, however, went beyond Paine in pointing out that all the worlds religions had the same tendency to picture their divine beings as if they were badly behaved humans. His lecture started with a statement that writings concerning the gods really reflected humanitys concerns: An honest God is the noblest work of man.

Speaking Career. Ingersoll emulated Paine in another way. He identified with those whose religious beliefs brought them persecution. On 3 May 1874 he spoke before the Free Religious Society in Chicago on the topic of Heretics and Heresies, praising individualists who thought for themselves and condemning the institutions, especially churches, who tried to censure such people. Nevertheless, Ingersoll remained a popular figure. Once, while on a long train trip, he sat next to Lew Wallace, and the two men struck up a conversation about religion. Wallace was so fascinated by Ingersolls witty criticisms of the miracles and wonders to which believers gave credence that he resolved to investigate biblical history for himself, and the result was the famous novel Ben-Hur (1880). Ingersoll died at Dobbs Ferry, New York, on 21 July 1899. In accordance with his wishes, his remains were cremated without religious ceremony.


David D. Anderson, Robert Ingersoll (New York: Twayne, 1972);

Mark A. Plummer, Robert G. Ingersoll: Peorias Pagan Politician (Macomb, 111.: Western Illinois University Press, 1984).

Robert Green Ingersoll

views updated Jun 27 2018

Robert Green Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), American lawyer and lecturer, was a champion of free thought and an orator of almost magical power.

Robert Ingersoll was the son of a Vermont clergyman and spent his boyhood in a series of parish houses, first in New England, later in the Midwest. The family finally settled in Illinois, where Robert read law. In 1854 he was admitted to the bar at Shawneetown. Three years later he moved to Peoria, where he quickly established a reputation as a superlative trial lawyer. When the Civil War came, he was active in raising a volunteer regiment and in 1861 entered the Union Army as a colonel of the 11th Illinois Cavalry. He acquitted himself well in the Tennessee Valley campaigns, but in December 1862 he was captured, along with large numbers of his men. He was paroled and in June 1863 discharged from the Army.

Returning to Illinois, Ingersoll became a champion of freethinking and a defender of the scientific ideas of Charles Darwin and, later, of T. H. Huxley. Ingersoll proudly claimed to be an "agnostic," a word newly coined, and was known in his day as the "great agnostic." Such an identity effectively prevented his entering the elective political world, for there was much opposition to freethinkers among the electorate. Thus he missed a career for which many thought him naturally suited. He was able to contribute something to politics, however, by speaking out for candidates in a style of oratory that seemed to cast a spell over his hearers. This skill, his courtroom mastery, and his quite unexceptionable personal life enabled him to be appointed attorney general of Illinois from 1867 to 1869.

Ingersoll's lectures on religion and science, combined with discourses on literary and historical subjects, made his Midwestern tours as famous as his law practice. As a delegate to the 1876 Republican convention, he received national attention for his nomination speech in favor of James G. Blaine, whom he dubbed, to the delight of the whole country, the "plumed knight."

Riding the crest of this fame, Ingersoll moved to Washington, D. C., in 1879, hoping to further enlarge his practice and to carry on his religious debate in such lectures as "The Gods," "Some Mistakes of Moses," and "About the Holy Bible." His oratory became legendary, and he was sought out and richly rewarded both by patrons who endorsed his intellectual position and by clients anxious to find legal protection behind the magic of his courtroom presence. Ill health forced his retirement during the presidential campaign of 1896, and he died 3 years later at Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., patriarchal leader of a clan of children, grandchildren, and devoted admirers.

Further Reading

There are two full-length studies of Ingersoll, both with extensive bibliographies: Clarence H. Cramer, Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll (1952), is the best of the earlier studies, although not as good as Orvin Prentiss Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll (1962). A good account of the intellectual movement to which Ingersoll belonged is in Merle Curti, The Growth of American Thought (1943; 3d ed. 1964).

Additional Sources

Smith, Frank, Robert G. Ingersoll: a life, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990. □

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