ROBERT GREEN INGERSOLL (1833 - 1899)
"The Great Agnostic"
Too little-known today, Robert Green Ingersoll was the foremost orator, political speechmaker, and public agnostic of late nineteenth-century America.
Ingersoll's name was once known to all Americans. His friends included presidents, literary giants like Mark Twain, industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, inventors like Thomas Alva Edison, leading figures in music and theatre, and reformers like Eugene Debs, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage.
Robert Green Ingersoll was the nation's best known (and most controversial) orator at a time when oratory was the dominant form of public entertainment. More Americans saw and heard Ingersoll than would see or hear any other human being until the advent of motion pictures and radio.
Ingersoll championed science, reason, and human liberty. He was an early defender of Darwin. He rejected most Christian beliefs, especially the dogma of eternal punishment. Religious conservatives reviled him, nick-naming him "Injure-Soul."
[NEARBY PULL QUOTE] "A church that preaches the eternity of punishment has within it the seed of all barbarism and the soil to make it grow." – Ingersoll, "The Rev. Dr. Newton’s Sermon on a New Religion"
Though Ingersoll was irreligious, he enjoyed an exemplary family life. He praised the virtues of family and fireside, and practiced what he preached so visibly that orthodox opponents despaired of maligning his character.
[NEARBY PULL QUOTE] "Nothing so outrages the feelings of the church as a moral unbeliever – nothing so horrible as a charitable atheist." Ingersoll, "Thomas Paine"
Ingersoll entered public life as a Peoria attorney, then distinguished himself as a colonel in the Civil War. After the war, he became the first Attorney General of Illinois.
Politically, Ingersoll stood with the Republicans, then the forward-looking party of Lincoln. Amazingly, the "Great Agnostic" was the most sought-after speechmaker on behalf of G.O.P. candidates. During his public life, no Republican presidential candidate for whom Ingersoll campaigned failed to attain the White House.
A nationally prominent attorney, Ingersoll engineered the lengthiest criminal defense of the era. The celebrated "Star Route" trials ground on for almost a year. Ingersoll saw his clients acquitted following his summation to the jury, which took him six days to deliver from memory.
But it was Ingersoll's private speaking career that secured his fame. For three decades he crisscrossed the country, packing the largest theaters for lectures whose topics ranged from Shakespeare to human liberty, from science to secularism. He was an early champion of women's rights and racial equality.
[NEARBY PULL QUOTE] "Virtue is of no color; kindness, justice and love, of no complexion." Ingersoll, "Orthodoxy"
Born in this house on August 11, 1833, Ingersoll was still an infant when his family left the Finger Lakes region. He would make his name as a resident of Peoria, Illinois; Washington, D. C.; and finally New York City. Yet this house is the only Ingersoll residence still standing and open to the public.
Today Ingersoll is almost forgotten. In part, this is because he never built an institution to carry forward his ideas. In part it is because religious conservatives have spent more than a century erasing his name from history. Robert Green Ingersoll is the most remarkable American most people never heard of.
Welcome to his birthplace and memorial.