01 November 2010

The Life of Ingersoll

Last spring I wrote a biographical essay on Robert Ingersoll for a Gilded Age class. Though initially a five to seven page paper, near the end of the semester we were instructed to distill our work down to 700 words. A year before writing this short biographical article, I wrote an essay in tribute to him, but 'The Life of Ingersoll' is intentionally more neutral. It focuses on him as a man in his times, working as a lawyer and political booster.


Lawyer, politician, and orator Robert Green Ingersoll (1833 - 1899) lived in an America still growing into its own identity. No longer a fledgling Republic, the United States of the Gilded Age could boast of a century of history and tumultuous social change. Ingersoll's gifts as an orator and a disciplined approach to his work enabled him to play a prominent role in the political and social world of his day, rubbing shoulders with presidents, industrialists, poets, and scholars. He died with his name a household word despite his humble beginnings as the son of an itinerant preacher.

Ingersoll’s career began in Peoria, Illinois, where he and his brother, Clark, established a law firm in 1858. Ingersoll’s oratorical strengths developed in part from his practice, building on his father’s legacy as a fiery abolitionist preacher.  He initially practiced criminal and civil law in and around Peoria, although later legal successes allowed him to settle in the lucrative field of corporate law. The Munn (1876) and Star Route (1882-1883) trials in particular established his national reputation as a powerful attorney.  In both politically charged affairs, Ingersoll defended individuals accused of defrauding the government against popular bias. 

Ingersoll’s triumph in these cases owed much to his rhetorical talents, to his exhaustive research, and to a gift for near-perfect recall that allowed him to put that research to use. Although not above the use of surgically-used emotional appeals, Ingersoll preferred to rely on an effective display of facts and unassailable logic. Demand for his talents never waned in either law or politics. Ingersoll’s abolitionist sentiments and repugnance for secession made a loyal Republican of the former Democrat, and he campaigned tirelessly for his party during the Reconstruction years. Only his hatred for the Democrats, the party of "rebellion and murder", rivaled his love for the Republican Party, which he believed represented the best of the American spirit. Ingersoll regarded Reconstruction as vital in preventing the triumphs of the Civil War from becoming moot. If the Republican party did not stay the course, he feared that “the Confederate army with ballots instead of bayonets, with Gen’l Andy Johnson at the head, will conquer at last.”

The Republican Party’s post-war history did not prove to Ingersoll’s liking. The period’s corruption and graft disappointed a man who believed so fervently in the need for, and the possibility of, honest government. He nearly retired from politics during the Hayes administration, disturbed by the President’s increasingly conciliatory attitude toward southern Democrats. Even so, he seized any opportunity to champion politicians with integrity: his “Plumed Knight” speech endorsing James Blaine swept the newspapers and kept his services in demand by Republicans seeking office. Ingersoll never held elected office, enjoying only an appointment as the Illinois Attorney General.  His political focus tended to be broader than that of the organized parties: in championing American ideals, he sought to expand them further and took up the banners of women’s suffrage, Civil Rights, and labor. While progressive in social matters,  he viewed himself as a conservative promoting and defending America’s promise of human equality. 

His eagerness to embrace these causes owed much to Ingersoll's humanist sympathies. He advocated American expansion to advance the cause of human progress, for he saw the Enlightenment principles embedded in the US Constitution as humanity's best hope for a better future. The works of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and others whom he read as a child engendered his faith in democracy as well as his freethinking belief in personal responsibility in matters of morality and seeking the truth.  Ingersoll promoted his worldview and religious devotion for liberty and progress in public lectures, capitalizing on his broad education to speak on philosophy, history, science, politics, and religion. His passion and approach earned him praise from progressives, but scathing criticism from orthodox clergymen who objected to his attacks upon organized religion. Attracting large audiences (as many as 50,000 in a given night), "Impious Pope Bob" rose to national prominence while advancing the cause of freethought in its golden age. 

Ingersoll’s life of political and cultural contributions are inseparable from the context of the Gilded Age. Caught between the Enlightenment and modernity, Ingersoll attempted to draw upon those older ideals to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world, drawing attention to the abuses of the day while advocating human progress.

Additional Resources:
  • Anderson, David. Robert Ingersoll. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
  • Larson, Orvin. American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll. New York: Citadel Press, 1962. 
  • Greely, Rogert E. The Best of Robert Ingersoll. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1977. 

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