Robert G. Ingersoll

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Robert G. Ingersoll
Robert G. Ingersoll - Brady-Handy.jpg
Born Robert Green Ingersoll
(1833-08-11)August 11, 1833
Dresden, New York, U.S.
Died July 21, 1899(1899-07-21) (aged 65)
Dobbs Ferry, New York, U.S.
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery
Occupation Politician, orator, lecturer
Nationality American
Period 19th century
Genre Satire, essay, social commentary, political commentary, philosophical literature, Biblical criticism
Subject Freethought, Agnosticism, Humanism, Abolitionism, Women's rights, Literature
Spouse Eva Parker Ingersoll
Children Eva Ingersoll Wakefield,
Maud Ingersoll Probasco
Relatives Ebon Clarke Ingersoll


Robert Green "Bob" Ingersoll (August 11, 1833 – July 21, 1899) was an American lawyer, a Civil War veteran, politician, and orator of the United States during the Golden Age of Free Thought, noted for his broad range of culture and his defense of agnosticism. He was nicknamed "The Great Agnostic".


Robert Ingersoll was born in Dresden, Yates County, New York. His father, John Ingersoll, was an abolitionist-sympathizing Congregationalist preacher, whose radical opinions caused him and his family to relocate frequently. For a time, Rev. John Ingersoll substituted as preacher 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 with Finney. The elder Ingersoll's later pastoral experiences influenced young Robert negatively, however, as The Elmira Telegram described during 1890: [1]

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, broad 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 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 the 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. However, 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.

During 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 time prior to his Metropolis position, Ingersoll had also taught school in Mount Vernon, Illinois.[1]

Later that year, the family settled in Marion, Illinois, where Robert and his brother Ebon Clarke Ingersoll were admitted as lawyers during 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."[2]

While in Marion, he learned law from Judge Willis Allen and served as deputy clerk for John M. Cunningham, Williamson County's County Clerk and Circuit Clerk. During 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 brief time there, he accepted 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.[3] On November 11, 1856, Ingersoll caught Hall in his arms when the son of a political opponent assassinated his employer in their office.[4]

When he relocated to Shawneetown, he continued to practice law with 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 began their law practice using the name "E.C. and R.G. Ingersoll".[5] 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 alongside Cunningham's soon-to-be son-in-law, John A. Logan, the state's attorney and political ally to Hall.

With his earlier mentor Cunningham having relocated back to Marion after the land office's closing during 1856, and Logan's relocation to Benton, Illinois, after his marriage that autumn, Ingersoll and his brother relocated to Peoria, Illinois, where they finally settled during 1857.

Ingersoll was married, February 13, 1862, to Eva Amelia Parker (1841-1923). They had two daughters.

With the beginning of the American Civil War, he raised the 11th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry and assumed command. The regiment fought in the Battle of Shiloh. Ingersoll was later captured as a result of a Union skirmish with the Confederates near Lexington, Tennessee on December 18, 1862, then released on his promise that he would not fight again (he resigned as regiment commander on June 30, 1863), 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 had an elected job, he was nonetheless an active participant of politics. According to Robert Nisbet, Ingersoll was a "staunch Republican."[6] 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. His radical opinions on religion, slavery, woman's suffrage, and other issues of the time effectively prevented him from ever pursuing or having political offices higher than that of state attorney general. Illinois Republicans tried to persuade him to campaign for governor on the condition that Ingersoll conceal his agnosticism during the campaign, which he refused to do.

Ingersoll was involved with several major 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 the acquittal, his vigorous defense is considered to have discredited blasphemy laws and few other prosecutions followed.

Ingersoll represented the noted con-artist, James Reavis, the 'Baron of Arizona' for a time, pronouncing his Peralta Land Grant claim valid.[7]

The only known image of Ingersoll addressing an audience.

Ingersoll was most noted as an orator, one of 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[by whom?] never to be restless.

Many of Ingersoll's speeches advocated freethought and humanism, and often ridiculed religious belief. For this the press often attacked him, but neither his opinions nor the negative press could stop his increasing popularity. During Ingersoll's greatest fame, audiences would pay $1 or more to hear him speak.

In a lecture entitled "The Great Infidels", he attacked the Christian doctrine of Hell: "All the meanness, all the revenge, all the selfishness, all the cruelty, all the hatred, all the infamy of which the heart of man is capable, grew blossomed, and bore fruit in this one word—- Hell."[8]

Susan Jacoby credits Ingersoll for the revival of Thomas Paine's reputation in American intellectual history, which had decreased after the publication of The Age of Reason published during 1794-95. Paine postulated that men, not God, had written the Bible, and Ingersoll included this work in his lectures on freethinking. As the only freethinker of his time with a wide audience outside of the unbelieving circle, he reintroduced Paine's ideas to a new generation.[9]

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's ashes are interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

During 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.

Friendship with Walt Whitman

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."[10]

The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death during 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric.[11]

In popular culture

Ingersoll statue in Peoria, Illinois.
  • 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 the idea of answering them, but was so repulsed after reading one page that he "dared not go farther." Simpson referred to Ingersoll as "this daring blasphemer."[12]
  • 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."[13]
  • 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 influenced by 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."
  • In Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel Sunset Song, the character Long Rob is said to be a follower of Ingersoll's work (though the narrator confuses him with the watchmaker Robert Hawley Ingersoll).
  • In Ruth Sawyer's 1936 novel Roller Skates, the central character Lucinda goes to Ingersoll's house on Thanksgiving Day to attend the performance of a play.
  • In James Joyce's Ulysses, an American Evangelist proclaims, "You can rub shoulders with a Jesus, a Gautama, an Ingersoll."[14]
  • In David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest", an Enfield Tennis Academy student is named Evan Ingersoll. He is an 11-year-old, and being an underclassman, "engenders dislike." During the game of Eschaton Ingersoll launches tennis balls at "real-world" targets, an innovative idea which is a nod to Evan and Robert's paralleled philosophies of thinking outside-the-box.
  • The town of Redwater, Texas, was originally named Ingersoll in honor of Robert Ingersoll when it was founded during the mid-1870s; the current name was adopted after a revival meeting held in the town during 1886.
  • Ingersoll's "After Visiting the Tomb of Napoleon" is quoted in Born Yesterday.
  • In P. G. Wodehouse's book The Mating Season, PC Dobbs, who happens to be a fervent Agnostic/Atheist, left the County Talent Show at the local hall early because he didn't like the entertainment and went home to "smoke a pipe and read Robert G. Ingersoll".
  • Colonel Bob Mountain in Washington state was named for Robert Ingersoll.[15]
  • His birthplace, known as the Robert Ingersoll Birthplace, or Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.[16]
  • The following Ingersoll statement is quoted on the inside cover of the Godley and Creme album Consequences:
"There are in nature neither rewards nor punishments, there are consequences."
  • Ingersoll's type of agnosticism was labelled Ingersollism by his intellectual contemporaries, including Congregationalist Lyman Abbott,[17] Congregationalist minister John P. Sanderson,[18] Illinois scholar and lawyer George Reuben Wendling[19] and others (such as a collection of refutations of Ingersollism published during 1879 by Chicago publishers Rhodes and McClure).[20]
  • In G. K. Chesterton's short story, "The Resurrection of Father Brown", Robert Ingersoll, referred to only as "Ingersoll," was referenced as an example of the type of atheism cherished by the austere and choleric American reporter, Saul Snaith: "... for he regarded organized religion with the conventional contempt which can be learnt more easily from Ingersoll than from Voltaire."
  • A quote from Robert G. Ingersoll is included in the 2007 documentary by Peter Joseph: Zeitgeist: The Movie. The quote: "Religion can never reform mankind, because religion is slavery."
  • During July 2016 Ingersoll's statue in Peoria, Illinois was restored thanks to a successful fundraising effort by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.[21]


  • 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)
  • "Why I am an agnostic" (1896)
  • The works of Robert G. Ingersoll vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 (New York : The Dresden pub. co., C. P. Farrell, 1902)


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Milo Erwin. 1876. History of Williamson County, Illinois. 250.
  3. ^ Kittredge, Herman E., A Biographical Appreciation of Robert G. Ingersoll, Ch. 2.
  4. ^ Eva Ingersoll Wakefield, ed. 1951. The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll, New York: Hallmark-Hubner Press, Inc. 18–19.
  5. ^ Kittredge, Ch. 2. 1911.
  6. ^ McCarthy, Daniel (2012-11-21) Outsider Conservatism, The American Conservative
  7. ^ Myers, John Myers, "The Prince Of Swindlers", American Heritage, August 1956 (7:5). Updated link retrieved 2011-05-11.
  8. ^ Ingersoll, Robert G. (1915). "The Great Infidels". The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, in Twelve Volumes, Volume III. The Dresden Publishing Company. p. 319. Retrieved December 9, 2012. 
  9. ^ Jacoby, Susan. "Freethought's Forgotten Hero". Point of Inquiry. Center for Inquiry. Archived from the original on February 11, 2013. Retrieved July 6, 2017. 
  10. ^ Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman's Conversations with Horace Traubel, Gary Schmidgall (Editor), 2001, University of Iowa Press, Page 81.
  11. ^ The Book of Eulogies, Phyllis Theroux (Editor), 1977, Simon & Schuster. Page 30.
  12. ^ Simpson, Albert Benjamin, Wholly Sanctified: Living a Life Empowered by the Holy Spirit., (Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: WingSpread Publishers, 2006) Pages 45–46. First published during 1890.
  13. ^ Faulkner, William. Selected Stories of William Faulkner" The Modern Library, 1993, pp.276–277
  14. ^ James Joyce, "Ulysses", Random House, 1986, p. 414.
  15. ^ Majors, Harry M. (1975). Exploring Washington. Van Winkle Publishing Co. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-918664-00-6. 
  16. ^ National Park Service (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  17. ^ Abbott, Lyman (1890). "Flaws in Ingersollism". The North American Review. 150 (401): 446–457. JSTOR 25101967. 
  18. ^ Association, Michigan Congregational (2 December 1892). "The Congregational Churches of Michigan: For the First Fifty Years of Their Organization Into a State Association ; Addresses Delivered, Papers Read and Reports Made at the Jubilee Meeting Held at Jackson, May 19-22, 1892". order of the Association. Retrieved 2 December 2017 – via Google Books. 
  19. ^ Wendling, George Reuben (2 December 1883). "Ingersollism: From a Secular Point of View. A Lecture Delivered in Association Hall, New York; Music Hall, Boston; in Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and in Over Six Hundred of the Principal Lecture Courses of the United States and Canada". Jansen, McClurg. Retrieved 2 December 2017 – via Google Books. 
  20. ^ James Baird McClure (2 December 1879). "Mistakes of Ingersoll: As Shown by Rev. W. F. Crafts, Bishop Charles E .." Rhodes & McClure. Retrieved 2 December 2017 – via Internet Archive. 
  21. ^ Renken, Leslie. "Ingersoll statue restored by FFRF". Freedom From Religion Foundation. Peoria Journal Star. Retrieved 24 October 2016. 

Further reading

  • Eric T. Brandt, Timothy Larsen, "The Old Atheism Revisited: Robert G. Ingersoll and the Bible," Journal of The Historical Society, vol. 11, no. 2 (2011), pp. 211–238.
  • Eugene V. Debs, "Recollections of Ingersoll," Pearson's Magazine, vol. 37, no. 4 (April 1917), pp. 302–307.
  • Susan Jacoby, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
  • Orvin Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll a Biography. Citadel Press, 1962.

External links

  •, complete works online
  • [2] The Ingersoll Times
  • Works by Robert G. Ingersoll at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Robert G. Ingersoll at Internet Archive
  • Works by Robert G. Ingersoll at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Voice recordings at the Library of Congress
  • Robert Green Ingersoll Museum
  • Works by Robert G. Ingersoll at the Secular Web
  • Ingersoll's 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
  • Robert G. Ingersoll at Find a Grave
  • Robert Ingersoll - The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois newspaper)
  • Area once rolled out welcome mat for ‘The Great Agnostic’ - Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois newspaper)
  • Gordon Stein Collection of Robert Green Ingersoll, Special Collections Research Center, Southern Illinois University Carbondale
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office abolished
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