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Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll (August 11, 1833 – July 21, 1899) was a Civil War veteran, American political leader, and orator during the Golden Age of Freethought, noted for his broad range of culture and his defense of agnosticism.
Robert Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York. His father, John Ingersoll, was an abolitionist-leaning Presbyterian preacher, whose radical views forced his family to move frequently. For a period of time, Rev. John Ingersoll filled the pulpit 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 under Finney. The elder Ingersoll's later pastoral experiences influenced young Robert negatively, however, as The Elmira Telegram described in 1890:
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, broud 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. Howerer, 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
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."
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.  On November 11, 1856, Ingersoll caught Hall in his arms when the son of a political opponent assassinated his employer in their office.
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. & R.G. Ingersoll". 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 along side 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.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, he raised the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment 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. 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).
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 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.
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 on the basis that concealing information from the public was immoral.
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.
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 is 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.
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."
References 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."
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."
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.
- 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
- Robert G. Ingersoll, The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Dresden (1902), 12 volume set
- Orvin Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll a Biography, Citadel Press (1993)
- 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)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 1 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 2 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 3 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 4 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 5 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 6 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 7 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 8 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 9 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 10 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 11 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
- The works of Robert G. Ingersoll v. 12 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Robert G. Ingersoll|
|Wikisource has original works written by or about: Robert G. Ingersoll|
- Lectures of Col. Robert Green Ingersoll vol.1 audiobook at LibriVox
- Lectures of Col. Robert Green Ingersoll vol.2 audiobook at LibriVox
- Robert Green Ingersoll Museum
- Works by Robert G. Ingersoll at the Secular Web
- Ingersoll biography
- Ingersoll Chronology Project, that tracks his speaking career
- Ingersoll Memorial Home Page from the Council for Secular Humanism
- Large selection of quotations
- Ingersoll on sabbath superstition
- ↑ 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.
- ↑ Milo Erwin. 1876. History of Williamson County, Illinois. 250.
- ↑ A Biographical Appreciation of Robert G. Ingersoll. Chapter 2. Online at http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/herman_kittredge/bio_ingersoll/chapter_02.html.
- ↑ Eva Ingersoll Wakefield, ed. 1951. The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll, New York: Hallmark-Hubner Press, Inc. 18-19.
- ↑ Kittredge 1911.
- ↑ Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman's Conversations with Horace Traubel, Gary Schmidgall (Editor), 2001, University of Iowa Press, Page 81.
- ↑ The Book of Eulogies, Phyllis Theroux (Editor), 1977, Simon & Schuster. Page 30.
- ↑ Simpson, Albert Benjamin, Wholly Sanctified: Living a Life Empowered by the Holy Spirit., (Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: WingSpread Publishers, 2006) Pages 45-46. First published in 1890.
- ↑ Faulkner, William. "Selected Stories of William Faulkner" The Modern Library, 1993, pp.276-277
- ↑ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13. http://www.nr.nps.gov/.