Robert Green Ingersoll | The Great Agnostic (August 11, 1833 – July 21, 1899)
Robert Green Ingersoll is too little known today. Yet he was the foremost orator and political speech maker of late 19th century America; perhaps the best-known American of the post-Civil War era.
Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York in 1833. His father was a Presbyterian minister who changed congregations often. The Ingersoll’s left Dresden when the baby Robert was less than four months old. Ingersoll would make his name as a resident of Peoria, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and finally New York City. Yet the house of his birth remains the only Ingersoll residence that is open to the public as a memorial to him.
Ingersoll entered public life as a Peoria, Illinois, attorney. Following distinguished service in the Civil War, he served as the first Attorney General of Illinois. Politically, he allied with the Republicans, the party of Lincoln and in those days the voice of progressivism. Ingersoll’s electrifying speaking voice soon made him the most sought-after speechmaker on behalf of Republican candidates and causes. His legal career was also distinguished. He mounted a successful defense of two men falsely charged in the Star Route Scandal, perhaps the most controversial, politically-charged trial of the late 19th century.
But it was his private speaking career that made him famous. Tour after tour, he crisscrossed the country and spoke before packed houses on topics ranging from Shakespeare to Reconstruction, from science to religion. In an age when oratory was the dominant form of public entertainment, Ingersoll was the unchallenged king of American orators. Ingersoll was the friend of Presidents, literary giants like Mark Twain, captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie, and leading figures in the arts. He was also beloved of reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Other Americans considered themselves his enemies. He bitterly opposed the Religious Right of his day. He popularized Charles Darwin and was a tireless advocate of science and reason. More, he argued for the rights of women and African-Americans.
Ingersoll also praised the virtues of family and fireside. And he practiced what he preached. Contemporary sources say Ingersoll enjoyed almost idyllic contentment in family life. Opponents frequently despaired of finding anything to disparage in his personal life.
Robert Green Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York in 1833. Ingersoll’s mother, Mary, was an ardent abolitionist. She was the first ti sign a petition, that she circulated, for the abolition of slavery in Washington D.C.. Ingersoll’s father, John, was also a staunch abolitionist, who taught his views over the pulpit. John was a Presbyterian preacher. His abolitionist sermons were so fiery that congregations often dismissed him. As a result, the longest that the Ingersoll family stayed in one town was three years.
Ingersoll was taught in one-room schoolhouses. By the age of five, he had learned Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, although later in life, he criticized the instruction of dead languages that he deemed to be useless. Ingersoll was a quiet student with a fear of public speaking. Public speaking incidents caused him great stage fright and left him silent and tearful. By his late teens, Ingersoll became enthralled with poetry.
By 1852, at the age of 19, Ingersoll moved to Illinois to strike out on his own and find a successful teaching job. However, Ingersoll had to move back to Marion, Illinois when his father became ill with pneumonia. During this time, Ingersoll began work as a clerk to the county. This peaked his interest in the law, and he began studying it in his spare time.
Ingersoll studied the law with his brother Clark until 1854 when they were both admitted to the Illinois. Continuing on in their law career, Ingersoll and Clark opened their own law practice under the name “E.C. and R.G. Ingersoll” in Raleigh, Illinois.
When the Civic War broke out, Ingersoll raised the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment and took command of the regiment. In 1862, Ingersoll became the Chief of Cavalry of the Union forces under General Sullivan. This lead to his capture at the Battle of Shiloh, although he was released on the promise that he would not fight again.
It was during this time that Ingersoll met his future wife, Eva Parker. Eva was a dedicated intellect with very unusual views on religion and other philosophical subjects. She strongly supported the words of Paine and Voltaire, and as the result, could not take the idea of a higher power seriously. This led to Robert’s questioning of a higher power, which eventually led to his future fame.
During 1865, Ingersoll began studying Paine, Voltaire, and Comte. His study led him to begin changing his position on a higher power from one of a deist to one of a rationalist. In 1867, Ingersoll served as the Illinois Attorney General. Ingersoll was actively involved in politics, while still maintaining his position in the law and his position as Attorney General.
Ingersoll began speaking publically, overcoming his childhood fear, which led him to voice his somewhat radical views on religion, slavery, and women’s suffrage. Despite his views, he was considered by the Republican party to run as governor. However, they made their support of him conditional upon the fact that he conceal his agnosticism. This condition, along with their insistence that he avoid talking about some of his more controversial opinions, including women’s suffrage, led him to not accept their offer.
Between 1865 and 1899, Ingersoll traveled the country making public speeches on many different subjects including: ghosts, Moses, worker’s rights, the immorality of the bible, an agnostic view on Christmas, as well as why he was an agnostic. Ignersoll is undoubtably one of the most, if not the most, popular orator of his time. Audience members would pay up to $1 to hear him speak, a great sum in his day.
Ingersoll died of heart failure on July 21, 1899 at the age of 65. Ingersoll’s ideas and speeches have been kept alive by his brother-in-law, who collected copies of his speeches and published them for future generations.
The well-entitled “Intimate View,” a Tribute, was prepared by Mr. Baker shortly after Mr. Ingersoll’s death, as a memorial for the private possession of the Ingersoll family.
Full text of Intimate View is available here