Robert G. Ingersoll

From Philosopedia
Jump to: navigation, search


Ingersoll, Robert G. [Colonel] (11 August 1833 - 21 July 1899)

A famed lawyer and agnostic, the son of a Congregationalist clergyman who was an abolitionist preacher, Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York, but was raised in Peoria, Illinois.

His father, John Ingersoll, at one time filled the pulpit for revivalist Charles G. Finney.

At the outset of the American Civil War, Ingersoll raised the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment, which fought in the Battle of Shiloh. Colonel Ingersoll was captured but, upon promising not to fight any more, was released.

Ingersoll became a lawyer and, after the war, was Illinois Attorney General and a prominent member of the Republican Party. Ingersoll became attorney general in Illinois shortly after the Civil War and might have become governor had he been willing to modify his strong anticlericalism and agnosticism. In 1876, he nominated James G. Blaine for President in what came to be called “the famous plumed knight speech,” a model of political oratory.


Ingersoll was inspired by Thomas Paine’s fight for political and religious freedom:

  • To hate man and worship God exist without God just as well as he could exist without me. And I also feel that if there must be an orthodox God in heaven I am in favor of electing him ourselves.

Roger E. Greeley, who impersonates Ingersoll in dramatic performances throughout the country, has written that Eugene Debs had called Ingersoll “the Shakespeare of oratory.”

In various lectures, he questioned the tenets of Christian belief, and these included "The Gods" (1872); "Some Mistakes of Moses" (1879); "Why I Am An Agnostic" (1896); and "Superstition" (1898). These drew huge audiences, with praise for his eloquence and irreverent wit as well as denunciations from the orthodox. He earned up to $3,500 per lecture.

In Faith and Fact (1887), he declared:

  • I know no more (of the immortality of the soul) than the lowest savage, no more than a doctor of divinity—that is to say, nothing.

In God and Man (1888), he is emphatic concerning the worthlessness of what is called the Christian hope:

  • It offers no consolation to any good and loving man.

In Repairing the Idols (1888), he pours all that refined scorn of which he was a master on the promise of a future life to the oppressed as compensation for their sufferings here. At the grave of the child, Harry Miller, speaking of the question, “Whither?” he said:

  • The poor barbarian weeping over his dead can answer the question as intelligently and satisfactorily as the robed priests of the most authentic creed.

A partial reprint of his 1874 edition is On the Gods and Other Essays (1990).

Biographies include Frank Smith’s Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life (1990) and Mark A. Plummer’s Robert G. Ingersoll: Peoria’s Pagan Politician (1993).

As for his philosophic outlook,

  • This is my creed: Reason is the only torch; Justice is the only worship; Humanity the only religion; Love the only priest; Happiness the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to help make others so.
  • The church has always been willing to swap off treasures in Heaven for cash down.


Many admirers praised Ingersoll:

  • One of the constellations of our time . . . a bright magnificent constellation. —Walt Whitman
  • How handsome he looked as he stood on that table, in the midst of those 500 shouting men and poured the molten silver from his lips! What an organ is human speech when it is employed by a master! —Samuel Clemens
  • His life and work have been an inspiration to the whole earth. —Luther Burbank
  • One of the bravest, grandest champions of human liberty the world has ever seen. —Clarence Darrow

In the pages of the North American Review, Colonel Ingersoll defended freethought against Judge Black, the Rev. H. Field, Mr. Gladstone, and Cardinal Manning. What almost all observers have noted is that, although his printed speeches have been touched up since delivery, Ingersoll was one of the most eloquent speakers of his entire age.

Richard F. Stockton, a playwright whose work about Ingersoll has been performed in New York at La MaMa La Galleria, holds that there are four dramatic events that stand out in Ingersoll’s life. First was the death of his father, the Reverend John Ingersoll. Stockton has written,

  • Despite their opposing religious views, the old revivalist on his deathbed asked Bob to read to him from the black book clutched to his chest. Bob relented, took the book, and was surprised to discover that it wasn’t the Bible. It was Plato describing the noble death of the pagan Socrates: a moving gesture of reconciliation between father and son in parting. The second event was Bob’s painful realization that his outspoken agnosticism not only invalidated his own political career but ended his brother Ebon’s career in Congress, as well. Third was the exquisite anguish of seeing his supportive wife Eva and his young daughters made to suffer for his right to speak his own mind. And fourth was the dramatic tension of having to walk out alone on public stages, in a glaring spotlight, time after time with death threats jammed in his tuxedo pocket informing him that some armed bigot in that night’s audience would see to it that he didn’t leave the stage alive.

According to one observer, Ingersoll

. . . served as Illinois Attorney General from 1867 to 1869, and stumped for the party's presidential candidates, making notable contributions to the Republican cause. He hoped for but was never awarded a Cabinet post. Quite simply, the Republicans administrations, while quick to accept his oratorical contributions to their campaigns, were afraid of his unorthodox religious views. They viewed him as a political liability. He never hesitated to acknowledge his agnosticism or to cast doubt on the Bible.
He was decried as a "moral leper" by clergymen at the same time as he was lauded by such literary giants as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman who hailed his fresh attitude toward humanity. The cornerstone of his beliefs was the family; he revered his own wife and daughters.
He strongly advocated equal rights for blacks and women. He defended Susan B. Anthony from hecklers when she spoke in Peoria.
When every hotel in the city refused to house Frederick Douglass, he welcomed him into his home.
Despite his highly unorthodox views on religion and social order, he enjoyed great popularity as a public speaker. After his death in Dobbs Ferry, New York, his writings, published posthumously, filled 12 volumes.


Often overlooked is that his wife, Eva Parker Ingersoll, was a freethinker. So was his daughter, Eva Ingersoll-Brown, as were her younger sister and aunt who lived with her.

The Ingersoll Memorial Committee


The Ingersoll Birthplace at 61 Main Street, Dresden, NY, has a website.

Roger Greeley at one time was honorary chairman of the Robert G. Ingersoll Memorial Committee, which is dedicated to restoring Ingersoll’s birthplace in Dresden, New York, and to keeping his memory alive. At the house one can hear a wax cylinder recording which his friend Thomas Edison made in which Ingersoll states:

  • While I am opposed to all orthodox creeds, I have a creed myself. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so. This creed is somewhat short, but it is long enough for this life, long enough for this world. If there is another world, when we get there we can make another creed. This creed will certainly do for this life.

Ingersoll Plaque2.jpg

A plaque marking where Ingersoll lived at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City was retrieved and in 2008 is found inside the Dresden, New York, house with the following Ingersoll Report newsletter description:

New for 2008, the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum proudly displays the bronze memorial tablet that once marked Manhattan’s famed Gramercy Park Hotel as the former site of Robert Ingersoll’s New York residence. The tablet now hangs in the Museum’s central hallway, surrounded by all-new multicolor interpretive signage. “The hallway is where each visitor’s experience of the museum really begins,” explained Museum director Tom Flynn. “We added a five-foot-wide welcome sign in full color, plus two other large color signs that introduce Ingersoll and describe his birth and youth. One of those signs has a lengthy caption giving the story of the tablet.”
Quite a story it is. From 1889 until his death in 1899, Ingersoll’s primary residence was a New York City brownstone at 25 Gramercy Park. It and several neighbors (one a former residence of prominent architect Stanford White) were razed to make way for the stylish Gramercy Park Hotel, which opened in 1925. Ingersoll admirers including Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank, Margaret Sanger, and others donated a bronze tablet to mark the hotel as an Ingersoll residence site. Damaged by vandals, the 1925 tablet was replaced in 1988 by the Secular Humanist Society of New York (SHSNY) and the Robert Green Ingersoll Memorial Committee. When real estate mogul Ian Schrager lavishly rehabilitated the hotel in 2006, historical markers were disallowed. Past SHSNY presidents Warren Allen Smith and Dennis Middlebrooks retrieved the 1988 tablet and, after a national search to identify its best resting place, donated it to the Birthplace Museum.
At the unveiling of the 1925 tablet, Edgar Lee Masters (author of Spoon River Anthology) recited a brief poem he composed for the occasion. Three of its lines seem unusually appropriate today, as the tablet’s successor settles into its new Dresden home:
We mark with bronze the vanished walls
Of houses famed. But with the passing years
The city changes and the tablet falls.
The Gramercy Park Hotel tablet has fallen … but the Ingersoll Museum is delighted to offer it a soft landing.

Eva Ingersoll Wakefield, his granddaughter, was president of the New York City humanists after Warren Allen Smith and was followed by Paul Edwards and Dennis Middlebrooks.


Ingersoll is buried in Virginia at the Arlington National Cemetery

However, at the age of sixty-six Ingersoll died of a heart ailment at his married daughter’s estate up the Hudson River at Dobbs Ferry. His last lecture, titled “What Is Religion?” was delivered in Boston a few days earlier to the Free Religion Association.

His last letter, written the day before he died, lamented Yankee imperialism in Cuba.” The Council for Secular Humanism has made Ingersoll’s birthplace in Dresden, New York, into a museum.

He reportedly passed away peacefully, his last words reportedly being, “I am better now.”

His friend, W.J. Armstrong, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times: “He died unexpectedly and suddenly, after conversing cheerfully a few minutes before with the members of his family.”

(See entries for Eva Ingersoll and Eva Ingersoll Wakefield).

{BDF; CE; CL; EU, Roger E. Greeley; The Freethinker, 4 October 1908; FUK; FUS; Ingersoll Report, Winter 1995-1996; HNS2; JM; JMR; Northeast Atheist, September-October 1997; PA; PUT; RAT; RE; TRI; TSV; TYD; U}