Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll (August 11, 1833 - July 21, 1899) was a Civil War veteran, American political leader, and orator during the Golden Age of Freethought, noted for his broad range of culture and his defense of agnosticism.
In 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, to do the "greater part of the teaching, while Latin and history occupied his own attention". At some point prior to his Metropolis position Ingersoll had also taught school in Mount Vernon, Illinois
Later that year the family settled in Marion, Illinois where Robert and his brother Ebon Clarke Ingersoll were admitted to the bar in 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."
While in Marion he studied law under Judge Willis Allen and served as deputy clerk for John M. Cunningham, Williamson County's County Clerk and Circuit Clerk. In 1855 after Cunningham was named register for the federal land office in southeastern Illinois at Shawneetown, Illinois, Ingersoll followed him to the riverfront city along the Ohio River. After a short time there he took 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 of the infamous Old Slave House. On November 11, 1856, Ingersoll caught Hall in his arms when the son of a political opponent assassinated his employer in their office.
When he moved to Shawneetown he continued to read law under 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 opened their law practice under the name "E.C. & R.G. Ingersoll". 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 along side Cunningham's soon-to-be son-in-law John A. Logan the state's attorney and political ally to Hall.
As the trial of Hall's assassin dominated the scene and with his earlier mentor Cunningham having moved back to Marion following the land office's closing in 1856, and Logan's move to Benton, Illinois after his marriage that fall, Ingersoll and his brother moved to Peoria, Illinois where they finally settled in 1857.
For a period of time, Rev. John Ingersoll filled the pulpit 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 under Finney. His son apprenticed himself to lawyers there and hung out his shingle.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, he raised the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment and took command. The regiment fought in the Battle of Shiloh. Ingersoll was later captured, then released on his promise that he would not fight again, 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 held an elected position, he was nonetheless an active participant in politics. 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. (Franklin Roosevelt probably used it as a model for his "Happy Warrior" speech when nominating Alfred E. Smith for president in 1928).
Ingersoll was involved in several prominent 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 for blasphemy. Although he did not win acquittal, his vigorous defense is considered to have discredited blasphemy laws and few other prosecutions followed.
Ingersoll was most noted as an orator, 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 never to be restless.
His radical views on religion, slavery, woman's suffrage, and other issues of the day effectively prevented him from ever pursuing or holding political offices higher than that of state attorney general. Illinois Republicans tried to pressure him into running for governor on the condition that Ingersoll conceal his agnosticism during the campaign, which he refused on the basis that concealing information from the public was immoral.
Many of Ingersoll's speeches advocated freethought and humanism, and often poked fun at religious belief. For this the press often attacked him, but neither his views nor the negative press could stop his rising popularity. At the height of Ingersoll's fame, audiences would pay $1 or more to hear him speak, a giant sum for his day. 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 is interred in Arlington National Cemetery (Section 3, Lot 1620, Grid S-16.5).
In 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.
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 a view to answering them, but was so repulsed after reading one page that he "dared not go farther." Simpson referred to Ingersoll as "this daring blasphemer."
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."
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 heavily under the influence of 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."
The town of Redwater, Texas was originally named Ingersoll in honor of Robert Ingersoll when it was founded in the mid-1870s; the current name was adopted after a revival meeting held in the town in 1886.
"The Onion" used a variation of Ingersoll's name in a satirical political video about a present-day U.S. congressman using his time on the floor of the House of Representatives in order to read a detailed report about his "recent killing of a hobo."
Ingersoll's 'After Visiting the Tomb of Napoleon' is quoted in Born Yesterday.