Robert G. Ingersoll
by Madalyn Murray O'Hair

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This is mirrored with written permission as a hedge against the possibility of American Atheists either moving or discontinuing this work: it is crucial to our Letters Forum piece, "Biography of Ingersoll Or Portrait Of O'Hair?"


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Ever since he existed, agnostics and humanists have attempted to claim Robert Green Ingersoll for their own. His progeny to the third generation have felt that it would be more admirable for Ingersoll to be included in these "dignified" positions. His letters have been withheld, his work has been retouched to enhance his reputation as "The Great Agnostic." Volumes have been written about his love, devotion, understanding, compassion, humility, and through that extravagant praise Ingersoll has become a "saint." All of the attributes of this "loving man" are then claimed for the agnostic or the humanist position (in a reverse application of the doctrine of imputation).

Atheists are made of more honest stuff. We see Ingersoll for what he was and accept him as that. He was far from being a saint. Except for the issue of abolition, into which he was indoctrinated by both of his parents, he was on the "wrong" side of every human issue. Most frequently his changes of mind, and of heart, came from the influence of those he loved. His turn from religion, for example, should be more honestly be seen as the result of his marriage to a woman who had abandoned it and who taught him that he should abandon any pretense of religion also.

He was a ruthless attorney for the railroads at the height of their rule of the land. In this function he had to influence legislation, fight against the claims of the farmers, of widows and children in order to brutally consolidate the power of his clients. The railroad empires of post-civil war were notorious for their rapacious land deals. And, Robert Ingersoll climbed over the best of them all to get to the top. He opposed Abraham Lincoln until after the country was at war; he defended the most corrupt politicians of the nation; he wheeled and dealed in maneuvers that would make Barry Goldwater look like a goodie-two-shoes; he clamored for a high protective tariff and gold-backed money; he opposed suffrage for Black males and even proposed that they be sent away to a separate state or country set up for them. Today he would probably be a Reaganite.

Ingersoll's most astute move was to marry into a family of wealth. Even in the railroad industry, he was certain to see that he moved ruthlessly up through the ranks until he became the President of the Peoria lines. He charged enormous sums for his speaking appearances averaging from $400 to $7,000 a lecture (in the 1870s. In today's money this is the equivalent of -- perhaps -- up to $50,000 a lecture.) He never permitted his family to live in less than a mansion of extraordinary dimensions for the times. He resigned his commission during the Civil War and simply returned home, rather than seeing it through. He refused to come to the help of the Haymarket martyrs. Because of his puritanism he balked at legal assistance for Atheist fighters who were arrested under the Comstock laws and, indeed, saw only minor changes needed in those repressive censorship laws. He did not obtain adequate education for his own children, both of whom were female. When he could not obtain the presidential appointment he coveted, he withdrew from his political game. He was a superb egotist. And, he engaged in more than one drunken public brawl.

All of which is to say that Robert G. Ingersoll was human down to the fingertips. He was a very rich and powerful man, with close political ties to greater power. As such, he could speak out as he desired. Yet, he was extremely cautious for many years and his speeches often were quite innocuous. He introduced his attacks on religion carefully over a period of years. At first they were attacks on the corruption of the orthodox faiths. Only as he became more powerful and more assured were the attacks more lashing. He chose his brother-in-law to be the publicist for his speakers and both of them together relied on the most outstanding Atheist press in the nation to do the printing -- Peter Eckler Press.

Notwithstanding all of the anomalies of his character, he was magnificent when he did get going on either religion or the church. And, he characterized himself as an Atheist.

Of course, he became the most powerful orator that the United States ever had. He excelled the speaking ability of "golden voiced" William Jennings Bryan or, later, the evangelist who was to become legendary, Billy Sunday. His speeches could easily run to three hours and most often he held the audience in the palm of his hand. At 210 pounds, 5' 10" in stature, he had a splendid figure, a commanding presence. His voice was of great range and compass, with fine intonations ranging from mezzo profundo, through staccato, to pianissimo. His open countenance gave him an expression of honesty and his entire thrust was one of firmness in his convictions. Most often he spoke to standing-room-only crowds of people. And, of course, he was widely covered in the media. One must remember that his politics were not alone right wing, but that the Republican party was in his debt for his championing of their presidential aspirants. The media was forced to damn him with faint praise.

The observance of Sunday was routine for a public institution like a museum but not for an "entertainment" such as an Ingersoll lecture. It was bad enough to "blaspheme" for pay on weekdays, to do it on Sunday, and before capacity houses!

Robert Ingersoll, characteristically, wrote of his birth: "That which has happened to all, happened to me. I was born, and this event which has never for a moment ceased to influence my life, took place, according to an entry found in one bible, on the 12th day of August in the year of grace 1833, according to another entry in another bible, on the 11th of August in the same year. So you will see, that a contradiction was about the first thing I found in the bible, and I have continued to find contradictions in the 'Sacred Volume' all my life."

His father was ordained as a congregationalist minister in 1823. As Ingersoll later explained, "After having received a certificate to the effect that he understood the mysteries of orthodoxy, and was able to show that the infinite love of god was perfectly consistent with the damnation of the whole human race, he started in search of employment." He was, however, an abolitionist at the time that the churches of the United States were uniformly in support of our system of slavery. He would obtain a church only to lose it, wandering throughout Vermont, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois, staying only long enough for his views to be well-known, providing only somewhat for his family. He married in 1821 to a woman who is by one author described as a revivalist, and by another as an Atheist suffering in the home of the congregationalist minister. The wife died in 1835 after producing five children in the marriage: Ruth, John (who became a doctor), Mary Jane, Ebon, Clark and Robert. The latter was born August 11, 1833 in Dresden, New York. The father was to marry two times more, to try to operate a small grocery store and otherwise to try to support his family as he wandered from church to church. Robert did not receive an education. In the fall of 1851 his father, worried about this, enrolled him in a school run by a fundamentalist in the basement of the congregationalist church. The entire education was completed in less than a year. Robert Ingersoll's first job thereafter was as assistant to the clerk of the county circuit court. But, shortly thereafter he was found teaching, for "boarding round" in a tiny log cabin school "with a stove" in Tennessee.

Finally, he returned to Marion, Illinois where he and his brother Clark studied law for one month, in the law office of a U.S. Congressman, and then applied for admission to the bar, ex gratia, which was obtained on December 20th, 1854. Full admission was to come after two additional months of study. He was then 21 years of age. The brothers decided that they would move to a port city and there Robert again obtained work in the land office and in the office of the clerk of the county and circuit courts. While there, Ingersoll spent a great part of his time in the offices of an attorney, a state senator, who was later to become a member of the constitutional convention of the state of Illinois. This man was a "Rationalist," with an excellent library, Clark, immediately getting into politics, was soon elected to the Illinois state legislature.

Seeing that Peoria, Illinois seemed to be a bustling town, and having received six city lots (worth about $250) for payment of legal fees, they moved there in February, 1858 and set up their office at #4 Adams Street, across from the Court House. The unmarried Robert G. Ingersoll slept in the office, while brother Clark obtained a home for himself and his wife. At Peoria the river traffic was at its peak. Railroads were just beginning their lobbying and Robert G. was hired to lobby for the railroads at the state legislature. And, in his first political stance, during the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, one of which was held in Peoria, Robert Ingersoll sided with Douglas and against complete abolition. He was nominated for Representative of the Democrats to Congress on August 2nd, 1862 and at that point was against slavery but for "popular sovereignty" (for keeping slavery out of Illinois and territories but allowing it in the South). Peoria had pledged itself to the union and when the Civil War began on April 12th, 1861, Ingersoll agreed to help mobilization. Eventually, however, he expressed himself as against Lincoln's Proclamation of Emancipation. But he did assist in mustering troops, himself joining the Union Army on September 16th, 1861. The regiment he assisted in forming was to be called the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment; and because of his success in calling men to volunteer service he was appointed a Colonel, his official commission coming through in October, 1861.

As a lobbyist for the railroads and with a brother (Clark) very actively engaged in politics, he was meeting more and more persons in positions of power. A circuit rider, traveling to other counties for some of his cases, including those for the railroads, he was invited to the mansion home of the most wealthy family in Tazewell County, that of Benjamin Weld Parker. There, he met and wooed the daughter, whom he married on February 13th, 1862, in a religious ceremony (even though Eva, influenced by her grandmother, was a "rationalist" also). Shortly after the marriage (March 26th, 1862) Robert Ingersoll headed off to the war and was soon involved in the Battle of Shiloh in April, 1862. The Union losses were 15,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing, and the Confederacy lost at least as many. He stayed on with his regiment until he, and a small group of others, were taken captive near Corinth, Tennessee. He was sent, with the group, to Louis, Missouri to be processed for exchange. His wife joined him there and on June 18th, 1863 he resigned his commission and returned home. He was formally discharged on June 30, 1863, although the war was to continue for two more bloody years. He resigned, he wrote to his brother Clark, because he had "seen enough of death and horror." (Another author gives the letter as saying enough of "bloodshed and humiliation.") Safely home he began to make speeches for the preservation of the Union and advocated that Negroes be sent to their own country. It was about this time that Ingersoll entered the Republican Party. Meanwhile, his brother, Clark, was appointed to fill out an unexpired term in Congress caused by the death of a Congressman. Later, when he ran for that office Robert became his campaign manager and they both endorsed Lincoln. He was elected in 1864, and re-elected in 1866 and again in 1868.

    And after all, it may be that "to ride an unbroken horse with the reins thrown upon his neck" -- as you charge me with doing -- gives a greater variety of sensations, a keener delight, and a better prospect of winning the race than to sit solemnly astride a dead one in "a deep reverential calm," with the bridle Firmly in your hand.
    -- Ingersoll's Reply to Gladstone.

It was also in 1868 that Ingersoll became interested in the gubernatorial nomination in Illinois. Many delegates thought favorably of him, but his unorthodox religious opinions were worrisome to the politicians. He was therefore asked to make some pledge to remain silent concerning the subject of religion. This he refused to do and consequently was not put forth as a likely candidate.

Influenced by his wife, Robert Ingersoll did not go to church, but in his writings at this point he was stating his belief in personal immortality. It was not until May 14th, 1866, at the age of 33, that he gave his first iconoclastic speech, "Progress" in Peoria. Basically this spoke of his budding abhorrence of superstition and concluded with a plea for the continuation of progress in thought. Meanwhile, his two daughters had been born (Eva Robert in 1863 and Maud Robert in 1864). He was now the attorney for the Peoria and Rock Island Railroad, the Peoria, Decatur and Evansville Railroad, the Toledo, Peoria, Atlanta and Decatur Railroad, the Chicago and Alton Railroad, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, the Indianapolis and St. Louis Railroad, the Illinois Midland Railroad, and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroads. He was on the Board of Directors of the Peoria and Rock Island Railroad. He had a friend in the governor (Oglesby) who appointed him attorney general of Illinois (a two year term) on February 27th, 1867. His official posture then was against Negro suffrage in Illinois. During this entire period stories of his drinking and brawling continued. He matured, intellectually, slowly for he did not begin to fight for woman's suffrage until 1870 -- by which time he was 37 years old and married for eight years. At this time he was on the Board of Directors of the Peoria, Atlanta and Decatur Railroad Co. and the Peoria and Springfield Railway Co. As his oratorical abilities grew, he began to make speeches on specific topics and one of the first of these was "Thomas Paine." Many of the subjects were "safe." But in 1872, his "The Gods" made its appearance, with its noble cry: "Give me the storm and tempest of thought and action, rather than the dead calm of ignorance and faith." Two years later the first volume of his lectures was available to all.

In 1876 he moved into the Cockle Mansion, which had taken 2 years and $50,000 just to build. Constructed of brick and stone, four stories high, steam heated, it was the most outstanding residence in Peoria. During this period he was assisting the Republicans in a disputed election, defending a revenue officer charged with illicit dealings in whiskey (the famous Munn trial) and was heavily involved in politicking. He was chosen to give the nominating speech for James G. Blaine (of railroad interests) at the Republican Convention of 1876 and left the convention spell bound by his oratory. The presentation, called "The Plumed Knight speech," however, failed to carry the day and Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated and later elected to the presidency of the United States. After campaigning for Hayes, Ingersoll expected an ambassadorship -- even traveling to D.C. in anticipation of the award. However, once in office Hayes ignored Ingersoll. One author opines that this was because of Hayes' religion.

Ingersoll knew where he excelled -- and that was in oratory. He began, therefore, in 1877 to lecture. His lowest fee was $200, but generally he asked for amounts up to $2,400. This quickly escalated to the $400 to $7,000. At this time a few more anti-religious lectures appeared in his repertoire such as Heretics and Heresies with a theme of growth and progress, and Ghosts, which was an unrelieved assault on religion. However, his most popular lectures were innocuous, Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child and Defense of Thomas Paine. In 1878, he moved his family to Washington, to a 4-story brownstone and brick mansion close to the White House on Lafayette Square. And, now all he was doing was lecturing. Two pieces which were to become loved by the nonreligious now appeared: Hell and Some Mistakes of Moses, the latter of which, appearing in 1879, was a satirical treatment of the Flood, Israel, and the morality of the old testament. Later still his Orthodoxy was a fierce indictment of conventional theology.

For a short period of time he became involved with several Atheist organizations, the New York State Freethinker's Association, the Manhattan Liberal Club, the American Secular Union, but at the same time he was in close association with the Jewish Ethical Society and financially supporting the Hebrew Orphan's Asylum of San Francisco, California. In 1877 he accepted the office of Vice President of the National Liberal League of Philadelphia which had held its first convention in that city in July, 1876. He actually attended the second convention in October, 1877, but would not join in demands of that organization for the repeal of the Comstock laws. He felt that it was necessary only to amend the laws to waive persecution for those persons who had conscientious and honest opinions. At the time E.H. Heywood and D.G.M. Bennett were under indictment for their publication and distribution of birth control information, and Ingersoll not alone refused to assist them with his talents but resigned from Atheist organizations because of their backing of Heywood and Bennett.

He continued, however, in heavy correspondence with George Holyoake, the English Atheist who coined the word "Secularist," and he knew Charles Bradlaugh, Charles Watt, and G.W. Foote -- all of Atheist renown. But, arift from the Atheist organizations in the U.S., in 1880 he stumped for James A. Garfield for president at the same time that he was fashioning his lectures on The Gods and What Great Infidels Have Done for Mankind.

Despite his grandiose pretensions in Liberty of Man, Woman and Child he was the chief counsel for the defense in the U.S. "star routes" mail contracts (of railroad fame). In this case, a U.S. senator and the asst. postmaster-general of the United States were indicted for attempting to defraud the U.S. government through certain contracts for transporting the mails over what were known as "star routes" controlled by the railroads. Ingersoll beat the rap for his influential clients. And, his income in the period 1879-83 was estimated to be about $200,000 a year. Translate that into 1983 dollars!!

In 1885 Ingersoll moved his family to New York City, 101 Fifth Ave., another mansion which he leased for one year. There it was discovered that he had growths on his vocal cords and these needed to be removed. Whether from remorse or to amend, he did pick up Charles B. Reynold's blasphemy charge and attempted to defend him. It was one of the few cases he lost, with Reynold's being convicted and fined $25.00. But, at the same time he was refusing to defend August Spies and Michael Schwab of the Haymarket frame-up. After a great deal of pressure he did write a letter to governor Oglesby to ask for a pardon, which was not given. With law and politics as two parts of one equal and inseparable interest, it is doubtful if he could have defended any Anarchist, anywhere.

Ingersoll speaking in a tent at the funeral of Walt Whitman in Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, N.J., March 30, 1892.

During the next years, in 1886 he moved again to a larger mansion at 89 Fifth Ave., and in 1888 to a still larger one at 400 Fifth Ave. And, in 1889 Eva married into fabulous railroad wealth. Her husband purchased 40 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River at Dobbs Ferry and there built "Castle Walston" where Ingersoll spent a great deal of time. It was there that he met Mark Twain and later Walt Whitman. And, in 1891 he wrote his famous A Christmas Sermon. But, the love of politics never left him and in 1896 he was back in the presidential campaigns again. Ingersoll became increasingly radical in respect to religion as he grew older -- indeed, he became ever more bold. But, in November, 1896 he had a slight cerebral hemorrhage and incurred angina pectoris. A combined family effort brought his weight down from 220 to 176 pounds, and the family moved again to a still larger mansion at 220 Madison Ave. When he recovered, he began to lecture again -- his last one being delivered to the American Free Religious Association, another Atheist group, in Boston, on April 2nd, 1899, the subject being "What is Religion?"

On the evening of July 20th, 1899 he died, it is believed, from a heart attack. He was cremated and then the ashes were buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Immediately, his widow put his library up for sale.

For all he was, and for all he wasn't, Robert G. Ingersoll was one of the most effective spokesmen for Atheism in the United States; and in oratory for the same no one has been his equal. He was grand and eloquent, this hero of ours, with his clay feet. But, we cannot make a "saint" of him, for he was a "sinner" also. Robert G. Ingersoll had such wealth that he could have financed an Atheist movement which would have been able to defeat the religious forces in our nation. Our job would not be so difficult today had Robert G. Ingersoll been more aware of the need for organization and strength of numbers. He was a towering giant, but a lone one. His words were music to the ear, especially his own ear. He substituted his desire for individual fame for the good of the cause of Atheism and its advancement. But, with it all -- he is ours. He could have done more; he could not have done less. Everyone must give of that which they are and Ingersoll gave as an orator and a poet in prose. We love him for it. We damn him for his shortsightedness, and we all wish that we could do as well.

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Copyright ©2001 American Atheists, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with written permission.

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