Biography of Robert G. Ingersoll

America’s Preacher of Freethought

Robert Green Ingersoll and Family
Robert Green Ingersoll and Family. ORBIS/Corbis / Getty Images

Robert Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York.  His mother died when he was only three years old.  His father was a Congregationalist minister, adhering to a Calvinist theology, and also an ardent abolitionist.  After the death of Robert’s mother, he moved around New England and the Midwest, where he held ministerial positions with many congregations, moving frequently.

Because the family moved so much, young Robert’s education was mostly at home.  He read widely, and with his brother studied law.

In 1854, Robert Ingersoll was admitted to the bar.  In 1857, he made Peoria, Illinois, his home. He and his brother opened a law office there. He developed a reputation for excellence in trial work.

Known for: popular lecturer in the last 19th century on freethought, agnosticism, and social reform

Dates: August 11, 1833 - July 21, 1899

Also known as: The Great Agnostic, Robert Green Ingersoll

Early Political Associations

In the 1860 election, Ingersoll was a Democrat and a supporter of Stephen Douglas. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1860 as a Democrat. But he was, like his father, an opponent of the institution of slavery, and he switched his allegiance to Abraham Lincoln and the newly-formed Republican Party.

Family

He married in 1862. Eva Parker’s father was a self-avowed atheist, with little use for religion. Eventually he and Eva had two daughters.

Civil War

When the Civil War began, Ingersoll enlisted.  Commissioned as a colonel, he was the commander of the 11th Illinois Cavalry.  He and the unit served in several battles in the Tennessee Valley, including at Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 1862.

In December of 1862, Ingersoll and many of his unit were captured by the Confederates, and imprisoned.  Ingersoll, among others, was given the option of release if he promised to leave the Army, and in June of 1863 he resigned and was discharged from service.

After the War

At the end of the Civil War, as Ingersoll returned to Peoria and his law practice, he became active in the radical wing of the Republican Party, blaming the Democrats for Lincoln’s assassination.

Ingersoll was appointed Attorney General for the state of Illinois by Governor Richard Oglesby, for whom he had campaigned. He served from 1867 to 1869.  It was the only time he held public office.  He had considered running for Congress in 1864 and 1866 and for governor in 1868, but his lack of religious faith held him back.

Ingersoll began to identify with freethought (using reason rather than religious authority and scripture to form beliefs), delivering his first public lecture on the topic in 1868. He defended a scientific worldview including the ideas of Charles Darwin. This religious non-affiliation meant that he was unable to run successfully for office, but he did use his considerable oratory skills to give speeches in support of other candidates.

Practicing law with his brother for many years, he was also involved in the new Republican Party. In 1876, as a supporter of candidate James G. Blaine, he was asked to give the nominating speech for Blaine at the Republican national convention.  He supported Rutherford B. Hayes when he was nominated. Hayes tried to give Ingersoll an appointment to a diplomatic job, but religious groups protested and Hayes backed down.

Freethought Lecturer

After that convention, Ingersoll moved to Washington, D.C., and began to split his time between his expanded legal practice and a new career on the lecture circuit.  He was a popular lecturer for most of the next quarter century, and with his creative arguments, he became a leading representative of the American secularist freethought movement.

Ingersoll considered himself an agnostic.  While he believed that a God who answered prayers did not exist, he also questioned whether the existence of another sort of deity, and the existence of an afterlife, could even be known.  In response to a question from a Philadelphia newspaper interviewer in 1885, he said, “The Agnostic is an Atheist. The Atheist is an Agnostic. The Agnostic says: ‘I do not know, but I do not believe there is any god.‘ The Atheist says the same. The orthodox Christian says he knows there is a God, but we know that he does not know. The Atheist cannot know that God does not exist.”

As was common in that time when out-of-town traveling lecturers were a main source of public entertainment in small towns and large, he gave a series of lectures that each were repeated many times, and later published in writing.  One of his most famous lectures was “Why I Am an Agnostic.”  Another, which detailed his critique of a literal reading of the Christian scriptures, was called “Some Mistakes of Moses.”  Other famous titles were “The Gods,” “Heretics and Heroes,” "Myth and Miracle," “About the Holy Bible,” and "What Must We Do to Be Saved?"

He also spoke on reason and liberty; another popular lecture was “Individuality.”  An admirer of Lincoln who blamed Democrats for Lincoln’s death, Ingersoll also spoke about Lincoln.  He wrote and spoke about Thomas Paine, whom Theodore Roosevelt called a “filthy little atheist.” Ingersoll titled a lecture on Paine "With His Name Left Out, the History of Liberty Cannot Be Written."

As a lawyer, he remained successful, with a reputation for winning cases.  As a lecturer, he found patrons who funded his continued appearances and was a huge draw for audiences.  He received fees as high as $7,000. At one lecture in Chicago, 50,000 people turned out to see him, though the location had to turn 40,000 away as the hall would not hold so many.  Ingersoll spoke in every state of the union except North Carolina, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

His lectures earned him many religious enemies. Preachers denounced him. He was sometimes called “Robert Injuresoul” by his opponents. Newspapers reported in some detail his speeches and the reception of them.

That he was the son of a relatively poor minister, and made his way to fame and fortune, was part of his public persona, the popular image of the time of the self-made, self-educated American.

Social Reforms Including Women’s Suffrage

Ingersoll, who had earlier in his life been an abolitionist, associated with a number of social reform causes.  One key reform he promoted was women’s rights, including the legal use of birth control, women’s suffrage, and equal pay for women. His attitude towards women was apparently also part of his marriage. He was generous and kind to his wife and two daughters, refusing to play the then-common role of a commanding patriarch.

An early convert to Darwinism and evolution in science, Ingersoll opposed social Darwinism, the theory that some were “naturally” inferior and their poverty and troubles were rooted in that inferiority. He valued reason and science, but also democracy, individual worth, and equality.

An influence on Andrew Carnegie, Ingersoll promoted the value of philanthropy. He counted among his larger circle such people as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs, Robert La Follette (though Debs and La Follette were not part of Ingersoll’s beloved Republican party), Henry Ward Beecher (who did not share Ingersoll’s religious views), H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and baseball player “Wahoo Sam” Crawford.

Ill Health and Death

In his last fifteen years, Ingersoll moved with his wife to Manhattan, then to Dobbs Ferry. While he was participating in the 1896 election, his health began to fail.  He retired from law and the lecture circuit, and died, probably of a sudden heart attack, in Dobbs Ferry, New York, in 1899.  His wife was at his side.  Despite rumors, there’s no evidence he recanted his disbelief in deities on his deathbed.

He commanded large fees from speaking and did well as a lawyer, but he did not leave a great fortune. He sometimes lost money in investments and as gifts to relatives. He also donated much to freethought organizations and causes.  The New York Times even saw fit to mention his generosity in their obituary of him, with an implication that he was foolish with his funds.

Select Quotes from Ingersoll

"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."

"All religions are inconsistent with mental freedom."

"The hands that help are better far than lips that pray."

“Our government should be entirely and purely secular. The religious views of a candidate should be kept entirely out of sight.”

“Kindness is the sunshine in which virtue grows.”

“What light is to the eyes - what air is to the lungs - what love is to the heart, liberty is to the soul of man.”

“How poor this world would be without its graves, without the memories of its mighty dead. Only the voiceless speak forever.”

“The Church has always been willing to swap off treasures in heaven for cash down.”

“It is a great pleasure to drive the fiend of fear out of the hearts of men women and children. It is a positive joy to put out the fires of hell."

“A prayer that must have a cannon behind it better never be uttered. Forgiveness ought not to go in partnership with shot and shell. Love need not carry knives and revolvers.”

“I will live by the standard of reason, and if thinking in accordance with reason takes me to perdition, then I will go to hell with my reason rather than to heaven without it.”

Bibliography:

  • Clarence H. Cramer. Royal Bob. 1952.
  • Roger E. Greeley. Ingersoll: Immortal Infidel. 1977.
  • Robert G. Ingersoll. The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll. 12 vols. 1900.
  • Orvin Prentiss Larson. American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll.  1962.
  • Gordon Stein. Robert G. Ingersoll, A Checklist. 1969.
  • Eva Ingersoll Wakefield. Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll. 1951.