A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
FROM EIGHTEEN FORTY-ONE TO EIGHTEEN FIFTY-SEVEN
Of his boyhood, Ingersoll seldom spoke: it was a subject too reminiscent of struggle and hardship, — of unutterable sorrow. But the story of a man necessarily involves, to some extent, the story of a boy; and the right to pursue the story of the man here concerned was long since included among those rights inalienable to the human race.
It is in Ashtabula, as a town of scarcely a thousand souls, in the old Western Reserve, that we get the first definite impressions of the “mischievous” boy who was so human that people insisted, then and ever after, upon calling him by only half of his first name, sometimes making up the loss of letters with an endearing epithet, — “Our ‘Bob.'”
Robert is eight years old, has a stepmother, and is obliged to be promptly on hand every Sunday, for the catechism-class and a sermon or two, in his father’s church. But there are six more days in the week; and as neither a stepmother nor a catechist nor a preacher is ubiquitous, even in a village, we hear of sundry doings, here and there, by a youngster whose face is not always clean, whose shoes (when he wears any) do not invariably “shine” — of leap-frog in the telltale sawdust of the circus-ring — of miscellaneous noises issuing from the old tannery — of fire- crackers going off where they shouldn’t.
Be it noted, however, that, “whatever prank ‘Bob’ might be up to, there was never any meanness in it.” Thus commented the aforementioned catechist, Mr. Robertson, in later life, and from the best of first-hand knowledge; for, aside from being the boy’s Sunday-school teacher, and a trustee in Rev. Mr. Ingersoll’s church, he kept a store, where Robert, in whom he took a personal interest, and who was in and out from day to day, “often had his pockets filled with nuts and raisins” by the proprietor.
The latter’s testimonial to the boy’s essential integrity is most interestingly confirmed by others. For example, the late Samuel W. Wetmore, M.D., of Buffalo, N. Y., writing in 1899, said:
“More than fifty years ago I learned to love him for his honesty, truthfulness, integrity, sincerity, and noble nature.” “We were boys together in Ashtabula, Ohio. “We went to school and church together, played, fished and hunted together * * * .” “I think I had the honor of first calling him ‘Honest Bob’; and by that cognomen he was afterward recognized by his boy associates. Life seemed to burst out on the face of that boy with all the effulgence that intelligence and goodness could portray in a noble character.”
All of which affords the impression of a “mischievous” boy who, to say the least, was also a good boy.
From a surviving member of Mr. Robertson’s Sunday-school class, we learn that Robert “was a very apt scholar, well up in the lesson.” At the “academy,” which he attended less than a year, he seems to have been equally “apt,” Dr. Wetmore stating: “Although I was a year older than he, I was never his peer as a scholar.” And this, it will be seen, completes our impression — a “mischievous good boy who was also a bright boy.
A letter written in the “back parlor” in which, sixty-nine years ago, Rev. Mr. Ingersoll held the week-night prayer-meetings of his church affords some interesting reminiscences of Robert, — reminiscences fully verified by more intimate authority.
The pastor took much pride in the carefully cultivated garden and the well-kept lawn comurised in the lot on which stood his residence, and had given Robert imperative instructions to keep them entire and inviolate from the depredations of marauding live stock, even though the latter should take the familiar form of a cow belonging to the teacher of the Sunday-school in Rev. Mr. Ingersoll’s church. In the fullness of time, the cow appeared, — wearing a nimbus of cauliflower and cabbage! The boy’s efforts to eject her, through the gateway of the fence that surrounded the entire lot, merely resulted in her veering off in some other direction. But he persisted; and, as Shelley describes it, ‘the sinuous path of lawn and of moss led through the garden along and across,’ until, suddenly, at the extreme rear of the lot, the cow slipped, sprawled, and disappeared! — Robert reaching the immediate scene of apparent dematerialization just in time to see her rolling over and over down an eighty-foot embankment toward the Astabula River! Never, he often remarked in later years, should he forget his feelings as he watched that rotating cow, nor when, on hurrying breathlessly to the foot of the bank, he saw her upon her feet, placidly chewing a wisp of grass!
Our next incident is of interest, not only because of Robert’s later achievements as an orator, but as indicating, in a touching way, how closely dependent upon each other, in childish affection, were he and his brother “Clark.” At an entertainment, in the Baptist Church, Robert was to “speak a piece” that he had thoroughly learned at school — “I Remember, I Remember,” by Thomas Hood: —
“I remember, I remember, The house where I was born, The little window where the sun Come peeping in at morn; He never came a wink too soon, Nor brought too long a day, But now, I often wish the night Had borne my breath away! “I remember, I remember,” —
But Robert didn’t “remember” — he didn’t remember a word after he made his bow. So he started for his seat. No sooner did he reach it than the poem came back to his mind; and he returned to the stage. But with his second bow he forgot it all again! Then, with a confidence in the vicarious that he never afterwards indulged, — a confidence born of childish affection and innocence, — he said, marching off the stage: “‘Clark’ knows it.”
Passing over the succeeding decade, our next view of Robert is in Greenville, where, in 1851, his father had shortly preceded him. The fact that he was then a youth of seventeen, and that the Ingersolls, no longer keeping house, boarded and “roomed,” for varying periods, in several separate families, render it natural that many of the older and former residents of the place should still have of him some distinct recollections. A careful summary of the latter, results in no striking transformation of the Ashtabula impression; in fact, in no transformation, other than would very naturally come with the added years. It is a phenomenon of normal development. The “mischievous” good bright boy has simply become a youth whose “mischief” is less evident; who, if he does smoke cigars (but never a pipe!), is still good, perhaps better; and who, moreover, is “extraordinarily bright for one of his age.”
His quickness at learning is remarked by a prominent resident of Greenville who was his seatmate, for six months, in 1851. According to the gentleman mentioned, Robert passed his school- hours not in over-zealous attention to books, — sometimes even amusing himself by throwing “paper wads”; “and then when recitation came, he would beat any of us”! This habit of throwing “paper wads” and beating people at “recitation” never left him! His “wads” and “recitations” were of very fine texture and quality in later life! The school which he attended in Greenville, like that in Ashtabula, was called an “academy.” It was a private subscription school conducted by Mr. Socrates Smith, in the basement of the Congregational Church, of which Rev. Mr. Ingersoll was pastor.
As a companion, Robert was “very magnetic and fascinating.” He excelled as a story-teller, and was brilliant in general conversation. His diction was admirable. Whether speaking or writing, he chose the “inevitable” word or phrase, showing withal a predilection’ for figurative expression. He was an extensive reader, especially of the finer and more artistic classes of literature. Familiar with all the poets, he was particularly fond of Burn’s and Byron. Burns he would quote ” by the hour.” It was in Greenville that the Muse paid to Robert himself what was perhaps her first visitation. In a poem of twelve stanzas, dated “Greenville, April 15,” signed “R. G. I.,” and printed in the Greenville Journal, in June, 1852, he thus (in part; apostrophizes “The Wavy West”: —
Where bending flowers gently blow
And o’er thy breast their leaflets throw
In beauty’s soft perfume;
“Where dark-haired Indian girls,
Reclining on thy dewy breast,
In morning dew and sunlight dressed,
Adorned with dewy pearls,
“First felt the tender flame,
Saw lovers’s lips in rapture move
And felt the trembling beat of love
Thrill wildly o’er their frame.”
In the ninth stanza is a quotation from The Cotter’s Saturday Night: — an interesting proof of how deeply he had taken to heart the noble lyrics of the “ploughman poet.”
But the most precious of the recollections of Robert’s Greenville acquaintances involves his regard for the memory of his mother. They tell of a lock of hair which, accidentally separated from his personal belongings, and subsequently discovered by an associate, was identified by Robert in terms of tenderest affection. We can therefore believe, that, with the following lines, which he was then wont to repeat, came thoughts of far-off Cazenovia: —
Ere slumber’s chains have bound me,
Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me.”
For, thirty years later, did he not write? —
“My mother died when I was but a child: and from that day — the darkest of my life — her memory has been within my heart a sacred thing, and I have felt, through all these years, her kisses on my lips.”
If we reflect upon the itinerancy indicated in preceding pages, and, especially, if we contrast the educational advantages of the rural communities of the time with the scholastic abilities of Rev. Mr. Ingersoll, we shall not be surprised to learn that Robert, — the “Great Agnostic” to be, — received most of his early instruction from a certain orthodox clergyman. The latter assistance, with the meager help obtained at school, evidently was ample for one of Robert’s mental tendency and habits. For, daring boyhood and early youth, he read nearly everything (judging by the statements of his associates, as already indicated, and by the titles he himself has given) that was considered standard in moral, religious, and theological literature, as well as such works of fiction and poetry as were regarded as “safe” for the young. Subsequently, although he never pursued an academic nor a collegiate course of any kind, — “never knelt to the professor,” as he said of Shakespeare, — he devoured with avidity everything that was really great in fiction and poetry not only, but in history, philosophy, and science. As the bee is to the world of flowers, so became Ingersoll to the world of literature. with this exception, that none of the honey which the latter gathered could be taken from him. To change the figure, any striking fact, any beautiful thought, once passed “the warder of the brain” remained forever his cherished captive.
Pausing in retrospective comparison of his native endowments and his acquired mental wealth with those of the average pedagogue of his youth, we are strongly inclined to envy certain pupils of Metropolis, Massac County, Ill.; for it was there, in 1852 or ’53, that Ingersoll himself taught a private subscription school. The log house in which he taught is still standing (1910) at Fourth and Ferry Streets, and is regarded with interest and pride. An anecdote related by residents of Metropolis, in connection with his tutorship, indicates that one of the noblest and most prominent traits of his character, benevolence, was, even at the early age implied, already manifest. It is said that, although he found, at the end of the term, about half of his subscribers unable to pay their tuition, he promptly receipted all bills “in full.”
But while his benevolence was undoubtedly manifest at this period, another of his characteristics, wit, was equally so. Indeed, on at least one occasion during his career as a schoolmaster, his wit was so prominently to the fore as to preclude the possibility of such an exercise of benevolence as that mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
Engaged to teach in a rural district, Ingersoll was “boarding ’round.” Several Baptist ministers and elders who were conducting a revival in the neighborhood were also “boarding ’round.” They made a practice of discussing religion at table. The young teacher took little or no part in their discussions until he was one day pointedly asked what he thought about baptism. He hesitated but they insisted. Thereupon he said: —
“Well, I’ll give you my opinion: With soap baptism is a good thing.”
The brethren were shocked — horrified! The witty thrust sped from gossip to gossip, and so intense did the feeling against its author become that he was obliged to abandon his school. It is interesting, if not pleasing, to note, however, that the pious zeal which compelled the latter action does not seem to have been alive to an overkeen sense of justice; for the patrons of the school concerned failed to recognize, certainly in a practical way, that even an “infidel” teacher was entitled, at least, to compensation for services already rendered according to agreement. As a consequence, young Ingersoll, being otherwise unsupplied with funds, had to make his way on foot to his home — a long distance from where he had merely given an honest answer to an impertinent question.
In 1853 he took up his residence at Marion (with his father, his sister Mary Jane, and his brother Ebon Clark) and commenced the study of law with Hon. Willis Allen and his son William Joshua Allen, Esq., who were practicing in partnership. Hon. Willis Allen was a member of Congress, having been elected, as a Democrat, in 1851; he was reelected as such in 1853. William Joshua Allen, Esq., was a member of the Illinois legislature in 1854, subsequently district attorney, Judge of a United States circuit court, and a Democratic member of Congress for two succeeding terms, being originally elected, in 1861, to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of John A. Logan.
Marion, as at present, was the shire-town of Williamson County, as well as the place of session of the circuit court; and Ingersoll, while studying law, earned his livelihood, and contributed to the support of his father and his sister, by rendering assistance on the records (as a clerk, or “deputy,”) in the office of the clerk of that court and of the county court. Captain John Marion Cunningham, who subsequently became the father- in-law of John A. Logan, was clerk of both courts.
Such instruction as Ingersoll received from the Allens, in the intricacies of the law, doubtless came chiefly from the senior of the two, an able lawyer of many years’ experience. The younger Allen, though able and ambitious, was but five years Ingersoll’s senior, had been in practice only the same number of years, and could hardly have been fitted to impart much information to a mind so richly endowed by nature, and so bountifully stored in an endeavor to satiate its thirst for universal knowledge, as was that of Ingersoll. However, the latter, — none the less then than subsequently, to the discomfiture both of jurists and theologians, — was bristling with questions; and as the best lawyers, and even the judges, “rode circuit” on horseback, from county to county, there is no doubt that nearly every one of them contributed to his fund of legal lore.
But although he was an earnest and unusually retentive student of the law, he possessed, as previously indicated, a strong love for general literature; and knowing the profound impression which Burns and Shakespeare, in particular, had already made upon him, we feel certain that Kent, Blackstone, et el. were occasionally obliged to give first place in his affections to Lear, Hamlet, and the “ploughman poet.”
It is said that, while at Marion, Ingersoll did not impress one as being overambitious. Rather did he incline to manifest at least two of the characteristics of his maturity: he was never in a hurry — liked to indulge the spirit of freedom; and he loved to pour for others the sparkling, warming cordial of wit and humor. He could be seen now around the court-house, now in the office of the Allens, but perhaps nearly as often around the hotel, entertaining his fortunate hearers with stories, or by relating the great and wonderful things he had read. He was recognized as the most captivating story-teller in the place. “He seemed to want everybody to be happy.” His overflowing good-naturedness, with a tendency to rollicking, though innocent, amusements, made him the central favorite of every party of young people with whom he chanced to find himself. But he did not usually associate with young people: habitually went with those older than himself. Individuals of his own years “looked up” to him. A very interesting confirmation of this is the fact that many people who were acquainted with both Ebon and Robert in their youth, now confidently recall (and are ready to argue the point) that Robert was the older, whereas he was two years younger.
The technical requirements for admission to the bar were then incomparably less exacting than at present, a condition which was undoubtedly fortunate, not only for the occasional applicant whose brain was capable of being something more than a well-wound, well- regulated forensic mechanism, but for the world at large. It is questionable whether the gate which has more recently been erected across the path to juristic authority and honors would swing wide enough to clear a Lincoln or an Ingersoll. However this may be, the latter, when he visited Mount Vernon on December 20th of the following year (1854), with the required certificate of moral character not only in his pocket, but in his countenance, evidently carried also the necessary certificate in his brain; for, together with his brother Ebon Clark, he was promptly admitted to the bar.’
[NOTE: As nearly as I have been able to ascertain, the requirements that Ingersoll was obliged to fulfill were: (1) Furnishing a certificate “of his good moral character” “from the court or county” (which certificate he probably procured from the court of Williamson County, at Marion); (2) an examination (more or less perfunctory) in open court: (3) provide liquid refreshments for the officers of the court at Mount Vernon; and (4) take an oath of office as an attorney.]
In 1855 he settled in Shawneetown, the county-seat of Gallatin, being at first engaged in the Federal land-office, of which Captain Cunningham who also had removed from Marion) was register, and of which Samuel K. Casey, Esq., an able lawyer, was receiver. Soon relinquishing this employment, Ingersoll entered, as deputy, the office of the clerk of the county court and of the circuit court,’ working for a part of the time on the records, as he had done at Marion, but giving his more serious attention to the law, in the office of Judge William G. Bowman, much after the manner of young attorneys of the present day. Judge Bowman was then an eminent lawyer, and was afterwards a member of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Illinois, a state senator, and surveyor-general of Utah.
In addition to his legal attainments, he was a man of general intellectual taste and culture, and a rationalist in religious matters. The latter fact naturally rendered his office, in the eyes of young Ingersoll, a specially attractive place. Similarly, a mind which not only gave promise of a brilliant legal carer.’, but which was already projecting its luminous rays into the dark corners of politics and theology, rendered Ingersoll, in the eyes of Judge Bowman, a specially attractive young man. He could reason closely, and argue convincingly, on almost any subject. He was taking a hand in local politics. He was so efficient and popular as deputy clerk that he was mentioned as the probable successor to Hall. And it was during this period that he delivered his first public anti- theological discourse.
[NOTE: John E. Hall held both the office of clerk of the county court and clerk of the circuit court, and it was on November 11, 1856, while he was dictating some official paper to Ingersoll, that he was shot by Robert C. Sloo, a young graduate of West point, and instantly killed, falling into Ingersoll’s arms. The shooting was the result of a political feud. Hall and Sloo’s father, Colonel James G. Sloo, the local Democratic leader, were bitter enemies. Young Sloo alleged that a certain letter which was published in the Intelligencer, of Marion, Ill., on October 10, 1856, under the pseudonym “Vindex,” and which seriously reflected upon the character of Colonel Sloo and family, was written by Hall. After an exciting trial, which lasted forty-two days, and in which John A. Logan, Leonard Sweet, John W Crockett, and other noted lawyers took part, the slayer was acquitted on the ground of emotional insanity.]
Judge Bowman possessed not only an excellent legal library, but what was regarded as an unusually large private collection of general and miscellaneous literature. Of this fortunate circumstance, young Ingersoll took eager advantage. He would often read far into the night, — always ready, on the morrow, to discuss, or to repeat in toto, whatever he had read. Nor did he, from all accounts, ever lack an opportunity. His remarkable memory, common sense, and felicity of expression attracted the attention of all. He seemed, even then, to possess the unconscious faculty of making and holding friends — the genius of friendship. In fact, he manifested, in a greater or less degree, all the mental and temperamental attributes which were destined soon to make his name familiar throughout the Prairie State.
During the first year of his residence in Shawneetown, he commenced the practice of his profession there, in partnership with his brother Ebon Clark, under the firm-name of “E.C. and R.G. Ingersoll.” But their stay was not to be a long one. However perfect a sense of contentment may have been felt by the older lawyers of the place, who had to its manner grown, it was impotent to cast its insidious lethargic spell over the kindling brilliancy of Robert G. Ingersoll. Of its probable environmental advantages, we catch a glimpse through the latter himself when he ludicrously describes its court-house, at the time of his practice there, as “a square box with a horse hitched on each side and a pimple on top”! Nevertheless, it was not, be it said in passing, the same quiet town which it later became, and which it now is: rather was it the metropolis of southern Illinois. However, Peoria offered, from every standpoint, a far more promising field. The fact that it was already a railroad-center of some importance, and gave indications of becoming much more prominent in this respect, added very materially to its advantages as a forensic battle-ground. Moreover, the managers of some of its largest industrial concerns had become Ingersoll’s clients. They had placed in his hands for adjustment, in Shawneetown and adjoining places, a number of important claims, and he had shown unusual talent. In fact, such notable legal ability had he displayed, that his clients, in recognition, and in the spirit of helpfulness, had extended to him an urgent invitation to transfer his professional residence to their own city. Accordingly, it was to Peoria, in February, 1857, that he removed, to continue the practice of law with his brother, under the same firm-name, “E.C. and R.G. Ingersoll.”