Robert Green Ingersoll
“The Great Agnostic”
By Richard E. Noble
When I read all the accolades and grand statements about Robert G. Ingersoll, I ask myself why is it that I have never heard of this man.
I stumbled upon his name somewhere in an obscure history book and then here and there as my reading progressed. But truthfully, I have stopped asking myself this question and I now laugh when I hear other of my friends make a similar comment. I realize today that there are more famous people in the annals of history who I have never heard of than those who I have heard of. And unless you are a very unusual and very gifted scholar - with a photographic memory - the same goes for you. But this does lead me to another curious question; How do those prominent historical names who we are all familiar with manage to gain their notoriety? But I will leave this question for another essay.
Robert G. Ingersoll is touted as being possibly the greatest public speaker in American history. When we think of names like Mark Twain, Frederick Douglas, Daniel Webster, William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, Stephan A. Douglas, and Clarence Darrow one must be tempted to say ... Robert Inger - who? Is somebody making a joke here? But nevertheless I read this claim being made over and over in book after book. I don’t know what to say and since I have never heard any of these men speak, I will never know.
In any case I ordered a couple of books by Mr. Ingersoll and I am in the process of discovering Mr. Ingersoll’s “greatness”.
Mr. Ingersoll who is labeled as “the Great Agnostic” characterizes himself as an Atheist. He is the son of a Congregationalist minister.
Robert’s family was not wealthy and they did not come into wealth. Nevertheless Robert became super wealthy. Because of his latter fame in speaking against the Bible, God and Christianity one is led to believe that he made his fortune lecturing on these subjects.
Not true. He and his brother Clark both became lawyers in what seems to be the “old fashioned way” - they passed a bar exam. Neither of them had any education to speak of and very little training at law - but they took the bar exam and passed and from then on they seemed to be blessed - but by who or what they did not know and did not care.
They opened their own law firm, got involved in politics and the railroad business and the money rolled in. By the time Robert started on his very successful career as a public speaker he was already exceptionally rich.
He was a very sought after speaker. He lectured on Tom Paine, politics, social issues and history along with his anti-religious agenda. His remuneration for his speeches ranged between $400 and $7,000 per engagement which in today’s money was up to $50,000 per lecture. Believe it or not Mark Twain was a warm-up speaker for the likes of Robert Ingersoll - ain’t that something.
He became a super success as a lawyer defending the railroad robber barons of the later 1800s and then added to his fortune by marrying Eva Weld Parker, daughter of the very wealthy Benjamin Weld Parker of Tazewell County in Illinois.
Robert Ingersoll spoke out freely and without much reservation against God and religion especially in the later part of his career because he was rich and could afford to do so - not in order to become rich. Very few people have become wealthy speaking out against God or religion anywhere in the world - ever - as far as I know. Many have done well playing one religion against another or ridiculing a particular belief or type personality within the religious community. But I don’t know of anyone, off hand, who became wealthy because of popularizing their Atheism.
One would think due to the propagandizing going on today that Mr. Ingersoll was a forerunner of that dreadful class of individuals known and hated as “liberals”. But as unfortunate as this may be Robert was a Conservative and a Republican. It is difficult to imagine a Republican or a Conservative in today’s world who does not believe in the absolute truth of superstition and historical fable but the Republican Robert G. Ingersoll was one.
He fought in the Civil War and for the North. He was at the battle of Shiloh. He was taken captive near Corinth in Tennessee. He was then sent to St. Louis, Missouri and exchanged. After that he admitted to having seen enough of the “bloodshed and humiliation” of war and resigned his commission. From that time forward he provided good example for many of today’s Republicans by only preaching the honor and glory of war while avoiding any active participation.
He did eventually support Abraham Lincoln after first agreeing with Stephan A. Douglas but never totally with regards to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He felt that blacks should be sent to live in their own country – somewhere else.
He was slow to come around to woman’s suffrage and though a multi-millionaire back in the days when a million was a million, he didn’t spend very much of his fortune on his daughter’s education. He had two girls; one he named Eva Robert and the other Maud Robert.
He was not in favor of Trade Unionism or of any protesting against the political order. He is quoted to have said in an interview with The Mail and Express, New York, November 3, 1887: “There is no place in this country for the Anarchist. The source of power here is the people, and to attack the political power is to attack the people. If the laws are oppressive, it is the fault of the oppressed. If the laws touch the poor and leave them without redress, it is the fault of the poor.”
But nevertheless Robert G. Ingersoll was a very rich, outspoken, Republican, conservative Atheist who fought in the Civil War but didn’t want to free the slaves; who believed in freedom, equality, and equal rights - except for woman, blacks, those who spoke out against the political system, and the poor; who believed and advocated war - but would rather have others fight it. He was against the repeal of the Comstock laws which were used to prohibit the distribution of birth control information via the postal system. He also had a reputation for public intoxication and drunken brawling. He had political aspirations but was not supported because of his unorthodox religious views.
It is clear that Robert felt very strongly about religion - or should we say his lack of religion. But he exhibited no strength of character on any other issues moral or otherwise. This man could have made a good Republican President then and now. One has to wonder why he was so determinedly un-Republican when it came to God, the Bible and Christianity. Certainly with a little less courage on this one issue he could have been a famous name in the annals of Republican history - a legend right up there in the ranks of Herbert Hoover, Gambrel Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush. What a shame - a good Republican whose only legacy is his exceptional wealth and his disbelief in God, the Bible and Christianity. You know I’m sure that this man could have started a great war if he only had the chance and the proper opportunity.