Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899) was a complex figure – a brilliant lawyer and orator who courageously advanced the concept of freethought; a magnetic extrovert whose public esteem, eagerly sought, never earned him the private favors he so generously bestowed on others.
Ingersoll was a staunch republican in the great tradition of Abraham Lincoln, and he vigorously championed such progressive causes as equal rights for blacks, women, and children; liberal divorce laws; and better wages and conditions for workers. Perhaps Ingersoll’s greatest legacy derives from his daring rejection of religious superstition (during an era which saw a tremendous revival of spiritualism and religious fundamentalism) and his ardent belief in humanity:
“When I became convinced that the Universe is natural – that all the ghosts
and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop
of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison
crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and
bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave.”
Ingersoll is considered one of the most prominent figures of the 19th century. From about 1880 to his death in 1899, he probably spoke to more Americans in person than anyone before or since; he had daily audiences of as many as three thousand people while he was on tour, several months a year for many years. Despite this, Ingersoll’s career has not yet received the attention it clearly merits. In this comprehensive work, Frank Smith explores the life and thought of this charismatic figure, using newspaper accounts of the time and extensive quotations from Ingersoll’s correspondence. Ingersoll’s words provide a vivid portrait of 19th-century America from the stormy antebellum period to the beginnings of modern industrialism. His life reflects the great current of his age and speaks forcefully to the problems of our own.