A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
FROM EIGHTEEN SEVENTY-EIGHT TO EIGHTEEN EIGHTY-FIVE
In 1878 Ingersoll wrote his Robert Burns, a lecture. It was published posthumously, the unrevised original “notes” of it being found among the orator’s papers.
Robert Ingersoll adored Robert Burns; but it was doubtless quite another circumstance that prompted Rev. Henry Ward Beecher to propose as an epitaph for the Great Agnostic the hallowed name of “the ploughman poet.”
Ingersoll once said: —
” * * * the first man that let up the curtain in my mind, that ever opened a blind, that ever allowed a little sunshine to straggle in, was Robert Burns. I went to get my shoes mended, and I had to go with them. And I had to wait till they were done.
“When I went into the shop of the old Scotch shoemaker he was reading a book, which was ‘Robert Burns.’ In a few days I had a copy; and, indeed, gentlemen, from that time if ‘Burns’ had been destroyed I could have restored more than half of it. It was in my mind day and night.”
And he continued, in a metaphorical strain typically illustrative of his wonderfully epigrammatic critical powers: —
“Burns you know is a little valley, not very wide, but full of sunshine; a little stream runs down making music over the rocks, and children play upon the banks; narrow roads overrun with vines, covered with blossoms, happy children, the hum of bees, and little birds pour out their hearts and enrich the air. That is Burns.”
In further description of the first impression which the latter made upon him, he elsewhere said: —
“I was familiar with the writings of the devout and insincere, the pious and petrified, the pure and heartless. Here was a natural honest man. I knew the works those who regarded all nature as depraved, and who looked upon love as the legacy and perpetual witness of original sin. Here was a man who plucked joy from the mire, made goddesses of peasant girls, and enthroned the honest man. One whose sympathy, with loving arms, embraced all forms of suffering life, who hated slavery of every kind, who was as natural as heaven’s blue, with humor kindly as an autumn day, with wit as sharp as Ithuriel’s spear, and scorn that blasted like the simoon’s breath. A man who loved this world, this life, the things of every day, and placed above all else the thrilling ecstacies of human love.
“I read and read again with rapture, tears and smiles, feeling that a great heart was throbbing in the lines.”
The lecture (which begins by placing Burns next to Shakespeare) considers, with rare poetic insight, the essentials of poetry; contrasts the “educated talent” of Tennyson with the “real genius” of Burns; and reviews, in a spirit of pathos and worshipful tenderness that is divine, the poet’s life, — “from the little house of clay with one room where he was born, to the little house with one room where he now sleeps.”
It is a favorite assertion of the literati, that orators do not produce prose — (As a matter of fact, prose is about all that most of them do produce!); and Ingersoll is not generally recognized as a literary critic. Nevertheless, his comparison of Burns and Tennyson is at once one of the most masterly pieces of prose, and one of the most just, sympathetic, and illuminating pieces of criticism, to be found in English letters.
Ingersoll was abroad this year, for the second and last time, visiting England, Scotland, and France; and it was on August 19th, during his sojourn at the birthplace of Burns, that he wrote the following poem, with which the lecture concludes; —
“THE BIRTHPLACE OF BURNS
Of patriot, king and peer,
The nobelist, grandest of them all
Was loved and cradled here:
Here lived the gentle pleasant-prince,
The loving cotter-king,
Compared with whom the greatest lord
Is but a titled thing.
“‘Tis but a cot roofed in with straw,
A hovel made of clay;
One door shuts out the snow and storm,
One window greets the day:
And yet I stand within this room
And hold all thrones in scorn;
For here, beneath this lowly thatch,
Love’s sweetest bard was born.
“Within this hollowed hut I feel
Like one who clasps a shrine,
When the glad lips at last have touched
The something deemed divine.
And here the world through all the years,
As long as day returns,
The tribute of its love and tears
Will pay to Robert Burns.”
It bespeaks a praiseworthy mental breadth in at least two adherents to the faith which both Burns and Ingersoll unreservedly condemned, that Mr. John E. Milholland, of New York, and Ian Maclaren (Rev. Dr. John Watson) were instrumental in securing for this poem its rightful place on the walls of the Burns cottage at Alloway.
Their action came about, as follows. On a visit to Ayr, Mr. Milholland was given a copy of the poem, in ordinary print, minus the name of its author. Resenting the literary wrong thus being perpetrated, he took with him, on a subsequent visit, a photographic copy of the original manuscript, on cardboard, with marginal portraits of Burns and Ingersoll. With this, he appealed to his friend Dr. Watson, asking that he call a meeting of the board of management at Ayr to consider the matter. Dr. Watson responded, with the result that the photographic copy of the poem, as just described, was officially accepted.
When Mary Livingston Ingersoll passed into the dark and silent valley, on December 2, 1835,” not knowing that, in the chubby little armful impatiently wondering at her tearful clasp — so long her kisses, — so many and so tender, she had dowered mankind with the noblest of the century, she left behind another child to whom her tears, her kisses, her strange white stillness, were not quite so wonderful, yet — wonderful! Why did mamma “sleep” so long? He would soon be four years old — would mamma be “asleep” on that day? Perhaps not. But on December 12th little Robert, prattling, played with his homely toys, while Ebon Clark Ingersoll stood silent and looked on — wondering. In a little while, both knew that mamma would not wake again — that she would always lie still and cold; and this thought kept their hearts warm to each other. “Love is a flower that grows on the edge of the grave.”
And so, from day to day, from year to year, — here and there, — in sunshine and in shadow, with the memory of mother to guide them, “Clark” and “Robin,” as they came to call each other in almost worshipful tenderness, played and studied, struggled and sorrowed, together. Together they spent those gloomy orthodox Sabbaths, when liberty died out with day on Saturday, and was forgotten of all but childhood until the sun sullenly retired on Sunday. Together they listened to the frightful and dreary dissertations of orthodoxy, afterwards discussing them until, upon all of the questions involved, they thought substantially as one, and, of course, substantially as the preacher did not. It is surprising that if, in matters theological, one of these brothers was the more radical, it was “Clark.” Probably this was due to a temperamental difference; for, where his more gifted brother would argue with the orthodox, “Clark” would refrain from the discussion of dogmas the falsity of which, he felt, ought to be perfectly transparent to every one. He was in unqualified agreement with the dictum of Thomas Paine, that “to argue with a man who has renounced his reason is like giving medicine to the dead.” But in the light of the preceding, we can imagine how ideal must have been the sympathies of brothers occupying so high an intellectual plane as “Clark” and “Robin.” Between their minds, as between their hearts, was a golden and inseverable bond.
When, therefore, they began to tread ambition’s upward path, they were hand in hand. Together they went to the bar at Mount Vernon — into practice — into politics — to success. In these larger relations, their mutual devotion remained absolute. Thus Robert refused to accept any office in the district in which “Clark” was “running” for Congress; and while Robert himself was being talked of as a candidate for the governorship, he visited Chicago and engaged in an altercation with Horace White, of the Tribune, over a published article concerning “Clark’s” official course in Washington.
Next to Eva Ingersoll herself, “Clark” was Robert’s most loving critic. In the old days, — long before the latter’s genius soared afar on the wings of recognition, — “Clark” was clearly conscious of the divine fire that kindled and illumined the great soul beside him. And when, at the Cincinnati convention, Robert, already the oratorical wonder of a state, became, in those few indescribable moments, the oratorical wonder of the nation, “Clark” was the first to clasp his brother’s hands, in inexpressible pride and joy. Another occasion, a month later, brought the following: —
“LAW OFFICE OF E.C. INGERSOLL,
810 F St.
July 11, 1876.
Ever Dearest Brother:
“I have just read your grand oration delivered on the 4th. I paid it the tribute of my tears. It is full of sublime utterances and golden truths. You are always at the bed-rock of things. You think deeper and broader than anybody; and then you are absolutely untrammeled! Your thoughts have the irresistible and boundless sweep of the ocean, and the directness of a ray of light. I wish your oration could be read by every human being on the globe! The whole race would be elevated, except those ‘robbers called kings,’ and those ‘hypocrites called priests.’ My dear and splendid brother, I cannot tell you how proud I am of you, nor how much I love you. I will meet you in Phila. next Saturday. If you wish to stop at any other hotel than the Girard, let me know.
With infinite love,
Your devoted brother
Again, with assurance not only of personal admiration and devotion, but of the admiration and devotion of others: —
“1403 K St.
April 3, ’77
“Ever Dearest Brother:
“I read yours with report of your speech at Chicago. I ran it over hurriedly and saw you had made the best of all your political speeches. I cannot tell you how proud I am of you. Your name and praise are in the mouth of every one I meet. I put the paper in my pocket and went over to the White House. I told Rogers about it, and he insisted that I should leave it with him, so he might read it to the Pres’t. I left it with him, but on condition he would return it to me. Have not called since, but will to-night, and get it. Then I will read it all with pleasure. Before going over to the White House, I received a telegram, addressed to you, from S_____, saying, in substance: ‘Can I rely on you to write biographical sketch of Hayes, for cyclopedia? Would furnish you the few facts necessary, and you could embellish them.’ Hayes wished me to send you his best regards, etc., and Rogers also. Gen’l Sherman called the other evening, at the house, on you and me. I had a pleasant visit with him, and as he was leaving he said: ‘Give my love to your brother when you write.’ I am lonesome without you, and am pretty blue. When shall I hold you in my arms again?
“Ever your devoted brother
On Robert’s part were the same beautiful manifestations of affection. Thus, as the dedication of an edition of lectures, addresses, etc., he wrote: —
“To Ebon C. Ingersoll, my brother, from whose lips heard the first applause, and with whose name I wish my own associated until both are forgotten, this volume is dedicated.”
Whether any other two brothers ever loved each other as intensely as they, cannot, of course, be stated; but that no other two ever loved more intensely is at least morally certain.
When, therefore, on May 31, 1879, death suddenly stilled the heart of Ebon Clark Ingersoll, it visited his brother with a grief more poignant and overwhelming than he had ever experienced, not only, but a grief that few brothers, as such, have ever known. It was only after great effort in the mastery of his feelings, that he was able to undertake the fulfillment of the loving compact made years before; and as he stood at last by his brother’s bier, his grief, frequently welling up in tearful interference with his utterance, finally compelled an interruption more pathetic even than his words: —
“Dear Friends: I am going to do that which the dead oft promised he would do for me.
“The loved and loving brother, husband, father, friend, died where manhood’s morning almost touches noon, and while the shadows still fell toward the west.
“He had not passed on life’s highway the stone that marks the highest point; but being weary for a moment, he lay down by the wayside, and using his burden for a pillow, fell into that dreamless sleep that kisses down his eyelids still. While yet in love with life and raptured with world, he passed to silence and pathetic dust.
“Yet, after all, it may be best, just in the happiest, sunniest hour of all the voyage, while eager winds are kissing every sail, to dash against the unseen rock, and in an instant hear the billows roar above a sunken ship. For whether in mid sea or ‘mong the breakers of the farther shore, a wreck at last must mark the end of each and all. And every life, no matter if its every hour is rich with love and every moment jeweled with joy, will, at its close, become a tragedy as sad and deep and dark as can be woven of the warp and woof of mystery and death.
“This brave and tender man in every storm of life was oak and rock; but in the sunshine he was vine and flower. He was the friend of all heroic souls. He climbed the heights, and left all superstitions far below, while on his forehead fell the golden dawning of the grander day.
“He loved the beautiful, and was with color, form, and music touched to tears. He sided with the weak, the poor, and wronged, and lovingly gave alms. With loyal heart and with the purist hands he faithfully discharged all public trusts.
“He was a worshiper of liberty, a friend of the oppressed. A thousand times I have heard him quote these words: ‘For Justice all place a temple, and all seasons, summer.’ He believed that happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest. He added to the sum of human joy; and were every one to whom he did some loving service to bring a blossom to his grave, he would sleep to-night beneath a wilderness of flowers.
“Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud. and the only answer is the echo of our wailling cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word; but in the night of death hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.
“He who sleeps here, when dying, mistook the approach of death for the return of health, whispered with his last breath, ‘I am better now.’ Let us believe, in spite of doubts and dogmas, of fears and tears, that those dear words are true of all the countless dead.
“The record of a generous life runs like a vine around the memory of our dead, and every sweet, unselfish act is now a perfumed flower.
“And now, to you, who have been chosen, from among the many men he loved, to do the last sad office for the dead, we give his sacred dust.
“Speech cannot contain our love. There was, there is, no gentler, stronger, manlier man.”
[NOTE: This tribute was delivered at the funeral, which took place from the late residence of the deceased, No. 1403 K Street, Northwest, Washington D.C. on June 2, 1879, and which was one of the largest gatherings of distinguished persons ever seen at a funeral in the national capital. The pall-bearers were: Senators William B. Allison, James G. Blaine, David Davis, Daniel W. Voohees, and A.S. Paddock; Representatives James A. Garfield, Thomas Q Boyd, and Adlai E. Stevenson; ex-Representative Jere Wilson and Hon. Ward H Lemon.]
On the evening of November 13th, at the Grant banquet, Palmer House, Chicago, Ingersoll responded to the toast: “The volunteer soldiers of the Union army, whose valor and patriotism saved to the world ‘a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.'” Among the speakers (Sherman being toastmaster) were Grant, Logan, Woodford, Pope, Wilson, Vilas, and Mark Twain. Therefore, the task of responding to the twelfth toast was one of unusual difficulty. Ingersoll’s “reputation as the first orator in America,” said the Indianapolis Journal, editorially, “caused the distinguished audience to expect a wonderful display of oratory from him. He proved fully equal to the occasion, and delivered a speech of wonderful eloquence, brilliancy, and power. * * * The speech is both an oration and a poem. It bristles with ideas, and sparkles with epigrammatic expressions. It is full of thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. The closing sentences read like blank verse. It is wonderful oratory, marvelous eloquence. Colonel Ingersoll fully sustained his reputation as the finest orator in America.” And the Chicago Inter-Ocean observed, also editorially, that, when he “rose, * * * a large part of the audience rose with him; and the cheering was long and loud. Colonel Ingersoll may fairly be regarded as the foremost orator of America; and there was the keenest interest to hear him, after all the brilliant speeches that had preceded. * * * [He] had not proceeded far when the old fire broke out, and flashing metaphor, bold denunciation, and all the rich imagery and poetical beauty which mark his great efforts stood revealed before the delighted listeners. Long before the last word was uttered, all doubt as to the ability of the great orator to sustain himself had departed; and, rising to their feet, the audience cheered until the hall rang with shouts. Like Henry, ‘the forest-born Demosthenes, whose thunder shook the Philip of the Seas,’ Ingersoll still held the crown within his grasp.”
And why should he not have held it? That no other American had lived who could have made such a masterful address on such an occasion, is as certain as that no other American than Poe could have written The Raven. However, that no other American orator could have approached Ingersoll then, is no more certain than that he himself had produced far greater effects before, and that he produced far greater effects afterwards.
But, even with his own magic touchstone to guide us, what shall we say of this! —
“The North, filled with intelligence and wealth — children of liberty — marshalled her hosts and asked only for a leader. From civil life a man, silent, thoughtful, poised and calm, stepped forth, and with the lips of victory voiced the Nation’s first and last demand: “Unconditional and immediate surrender.'”
A man, thoughtful, poised and calm. In such a setting, is this a portrait of Grant? or is it a blurred and faded tracing of somebody else?
And when will this vine wither on the tomb of the great liberator? —
“Lincoln, the greatest of our mighty dead, whose memory is as gentle as the summer air when reapers sing amid gathered sheaves * * * .”
If all the rhetoric and all the rest of Ingersoll were blotted out, where else than to the following could we send the student for an example of perfectly balanced hyperbole — the hyperbole of patriotism? —
“Blood was water, money was leaves, and life was only common air until one flag floated over a Republic without a master and without a slave.”
But shall this gem of tragedy and pathos be dimmed with aught but tears? Shall it be marred with the sacrilegious pen of rhetorical analysis? —
“And now let us drink to the volunteers — to those who sleep in unknown graves, whose names are only in the hearts of those they loved and left — of those who only hear in happy dreams the footsteps of return. Let us drink to those who died where lipless famine mocked at want; to all the maimed whose scars give modesty a tongue; to all who dared and gave to chance the care and keeping of their lives; to all the living and to all the dead, — to Sherman, to Sheridan, and to Grant, the lureled soldier of the world, and last, to Lincoln, whose loving life, like a bow of peace, spans and arches all the clouds of war.”
During this year, Ingersoll also published Some Mistakes of Moses, one of the ablest (and the longest) of his lectures, declaring that “the destroyer of weeds, thistles and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth grain or not.”
On January 24th of the following year 1880, he delivered in Washington the Suffrage Address, a plea for universal suffrage and self-government for the District of Columbia.
He participated in the campaign of Garfield, addressing in Wall Street, New York, on October 28th, an assemblage which, according to the New York Times, words were “entirely inadequate to describe,” and which “never was equaled in point of numbers, respectability, or enthusiasm, even during the excitement caused by the outbreak of the Rebellion.”
Two days later, he addressed what was, in the language of the New York Harold, “the greatest political audience that * * * ever assembled in Brooklyn.” On this occasion (in the Academy of Music), he was introduced by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who said, in part: —
“I am not accustomed to preside at meetings like this; only the exigency of the times could induce me to do it. I am not here, either, to make a speech, but more especially to introduce the eminent orator of the evening. * * * I stand not as a minister, but as a man among men, pleading the cause of fellowship and equal rights. We are not here as mechanics, as artists, merchants, or professional men, but as fellow-citizens. The gentleman who will speak to-night is in no conventicle or church. He is to speak to a great body of citizens, and I take the liberty of saying that I respect him as the man that for a full score and more of years has worked for the right in the great, broad field of humanity, and for the cause of human rights. I consider it an honor to extend to him, as I do now, the warm, earnest, right hand of fellowship.”
As Beecher spoke this sentence, he turned to Ingersoll and extended his hand, the palms of the two meeting with an audible clasp.
“I now introduce to you,” continued the great Christian divine, leading the Great Agnostic forward, “a man who — and I say it not flatteringly — is the most brilliant speaker of the English tongue of all men on this globe. But as under the brilliancy of the blaze of light we find living coals of fire, under the lambent flow of his wit and magnificent antithesis we find the glorious flame of genius and honest thought. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Ingersoll.”
“The orator,” continues the Harold, “spoke in his best vein, and his audience was responsive to the wonderful magical spell of his eloquence. And when his last glowing utterance had lost its echo in the wild storm of applause that rewarded him at the close, Mr. Beecher again stepped forward, and, as if to emphasize the earnestness of his previous compliments, proposed a vote of thanks to the distinguished speaker. The vote was a roar of affirmation, whose voice was not stronger when Mr. Ingersoll, in turn, called upon the audience to give three cheers for the great preacher. They were given, and repeated three times over. Men waved their hats and umbrellas; ladies, of whom there were many hundreds present, waved their handkerchiefs; and men, strangers to each other, shook hands with the fervency of brotherhood. It was indeed a strange scene, and the principal actors in it seemed, not less than the most wildly excited man there, to appreciate its peculiar import and significance.”
Ingersoll’s original anti-theological labors during this year were comprised in the publication of the lecture What We Must Do To Be Saved?
In 1881 came Some Reasons Why (a lecture) and The Great Infidels (also a lecture), which latter caused clergymen, throughout the country, to renew their attacks upon the Great Agnostic. This lecture was posthumously published from unrevised “notes.”
During the same year, Ingersoll was requested by the North American Review to write an article on Christianity, the article to be published in the Review if some one would furnish a reply.’
[NOTE: Not long after this, but before he knew who was to reply to him Ingersoll was in Philadelphia , and chanced to meet Judge Jeremiah S.Black, with whom he was well acquainted.
“I have a good mind to run up one side of you and down the other, on that hobby of yours, Colonel,” Remarked the Judge.
“Why don’t you Judge? We could have some fun,” retorted Ingersoll. “But while you are running up one side of me and down the other, I will run down one side of you and up the other.”
This amusing anecdote, which illustrates the never-failing humor and the lightning-like wit of Ingersoll, was related to the author by a third gentleman who was present.
The full and exact conditions were: (1) That Ingersoll should write an article; (2) that some one should answer it; (3) that Ingersoll should have the Privilege of replying; (4) that one, two, or three others might answer him; and (5) that Ingersoll should reply. thereby closing the controversy. Accordingly, Ingersoll wrote the first article, entitling it, Is All The Bible Inspired? Not until afterwards did he know who was to write the second. Many unsuccessful efforts were made by the Review to obtain a reply from some representative Christian theologian or thinker. Among those approached was Beecher, who, after reading the proof-sheets of Ingersoll’s article (entitled as above indicated), declined to answer it, explaining, in substance, that, while he did not wholly approve of Ingersoll’s methods, he agreed with so much of his thought, that an answer from him (Beecher) would be useless. He advised the Review to secure a reply from some orthodox clergyman or college president. Afterwards, an article was written by the late Judge Jeremiah S. Black, of the Philadelphia bar. Ingersoll’s article and Black’s reply were published together, under the title, The Christian Religion, in the August issue of the Review, Black having induced the management of that periodical, without Ingersoll’s consent or knowledge, to change the title of the latter’s contribution. Ingersoll’s rejoinder of fifty-eight pages, which, it is of literary interest to note, was dictated to a stenographer in an almost incredibly short space of time, and published practically word for word as dictated, appeared in the November number of the Review; “and Judge Black was informed,” wrote the editor afterwards, “that the same number of pages of the next issue would be at his disposal,” “it being deemed inadvisable to fill “any single number of “the Review with the discussion of the one question.” “But the Judge could not be induced,” continued the editor, “to write a second article, although strongly urged to do so.” This, Ingersoll deeply regretted. “Black published his reply in some Philadelphia paper,” wrote Ingersoll, subsequently, “claiming that he had not been fairly treated by the Review.
[NOTE: “It was one of the mistakes of Jere Black’s life that he got into that fight with the Colonel. I know Black — he frequently came to see me in Washington — was a good fellow — but in that discussion he met, as he deserved, with the most scathing chastisement.” Walt Whitman, in With Walt Whitman in Camden, by Horace Traubel, p. 82.]
The latter then secured a “reply” from Professor George Park Fisher, of Yale University, but only with the express stipulation, that Ingersoll be not permitted to rejoin.
In viewing the lives of the great, we are apt to dwell with insistence upon such occurrences as have already laid strong claim to popular attention, while many others that, carefully considered, disclose the real mental and moral constitution of the individual concerned are but slightingly mentioned, if not entirely ignored. We should commit ourselves to this error in viewing the life of Ingersoll, if we failed to note, somewhat at length, an incident that took place in Washington on January 8, 1882. It is doubtful whether there is any other which more clearly reveals his innate sympathy and tenderness; and certainly there is no other which more clearly demonstrates his capacity for fitting expression.
A little child had suddenly died. It belonged to parents who were far below Ingersoll “in the social scale”; but they were his friends. So, when the people who had been invited gathered around the open grave in the Congressional Cemetery, late in the afternoon, he was there. The little casket rested on the trestles. Nature had conspired with death to deepen the tragic gloom. Gray, cold mist obscured the horizon, and hung like a lowering pall overhead. A fine, slow rain was falling, its monotonous whisper intensifying the painful silence — broken only by the sobs of the mother. A few feet from her, with bared head, stood Ingersoll. The undertaker, approaching the latter, addressed him in tones inaudible to others. The Great Agnostic shook his head, but immediately inquired, “Does Mr. ——- desire it? “The undertaker gave an affirmative nod, while from the stricken father came a look of earnest appeal — a look that meant far more than he knew. It meant that the man who had led a regiment in battle, who had irresistibly swayed the most unwieldy of political conventions, who had captured countless juries, who had thrilled vast assemblages with the wildest enthusiasm — it meant that the man who was accustomed to being the dominant figure in affairs of such magnitude — was now called to perform an office the delicacy of which made it their direct antithesis. It meant, moreover, that the man who had done more than any other individual in history to destroy that which, to a vast majority of his fellow-countrymen at least, was the only solace in the hour of death, was now called to solace the heart of a mother in the darkest moment of that hour.
All heads were bowed. Ingersoll stepped quickly to the side of the little grave, and, in a voice whose exquisite tone and cadence can be realized by those only who were present, said: —
“My friends: I know how vain it is to gild a grief with words, and yet I wish to take from the grave its fear. Here in this world, where life and death are equal kings, all should be brave enough to meet what all the dead have met. The future has been filled with fear, stained and polluted by the heartless past. From the wondrous tree of life the buds and blossoms fall with ripened fruit, and in the common bed of earth, patriarchs and babes sleep side by side.
“Who should we fear that which will come to all that is? We cannot tell, we do not know, which is the greater blessing — life or death. We cannot say that death is not a good. We do not know whether the grave is the end of this life, or the door of another, or whether the night here is not somewhere a dawn. Neither can we tell which is the more fortunate — the child dying in its mother’s arms, before its lips have learned to form a word, or he who journeys all the length of life’s uneven road, painfully taking the last slow steps with staff and crutch.
“Every cradle asks us ‘Whence?’ and every coffin ‘Whither?’ The poor barbarian, weeping above his dead, can answer these questions just as well as the robed priest of the most authentic creed. The tearful ignorance of the one, is as consoling as the learned and unmeaning words of the other. No man, standing where the horizon of a life has touched a grave, has any right to prophesy a future filled with pain and tears.
“May be that death gives all there is of worth to life. If those we press and strain within our arms could never die, perhaps that love would wither from the earth. May be this common fate treads from out the paths between our hearts the weeds of selfishness and hate. And I had rather live and love where death is king, than have sternal life where love is not. Another life is nought, unless we know and love again the ones who love us here.
“They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest. We know that through the common wants of life — the needs and duties of the hour — their grief will lessen day by day, until at last this grave will be to them a place of rest and peace — almost of joy. There is for them this consolation: the dead do not suffer. If they live again, their lives will surely be as good as ours. We have no fear. We are all children of the same mother, and the same fate awaits us all. We, too, have our religion, and it is this: Help for the living — Hope for the dead.”
The irksomeness of rhetorical criticism may here be dispensed with; but it is unavoidable to ask a question: What other orator, ancient or modern, with one-half of Ingersoll’s power in the rostrum, could have planted on the grave of a child a flower as delicate as this?
Dr. Talmage, of Brooklyn, having preached a series of six sermons in which he adversely reviewed some of the Great Agnostic’s
lectures, Ingersoll published, in April, 1882, Six Interviews with Robert G. Ingersoll on Six Sermons by the Rev. T. DeWitt Talmage, D.D., To Which Is Added a Talmagian Catechism. Throughout this exhaustive work of 430 pages, Ingersoll pursues the great divine with kindly humor, but with logic as merciless as it is irresistible, and concludes by ironically setting forth, “in the form of a shorter catechism, for use in Sunday-schools, the pith and marrow of what he [Talmage] has been pleased to say.”
In this year, May Thirtieth must have been to Ingersoll a day as proud and satisfying as it was memorable and sad. It was no informal occasion — his was no perfunctory duty — when, as the oratorical choice, and the unanimously invited guest, of the Grand Army of the Republic, he arose in the Academy of Music, New York, to voice a nation’s gratitude to a nation’s dead.
The Grand Army of the Republic knew, that Ingersoll had “but one sentiment for soldiers: Cheers for the living, tears for the dead.” They also knew, that there was “but one” man with the intellectual amplitude, the historic grasp, the wealth of imagination and feeling — in short, the brain and heart — to lay upon the hallowed graves of the founders and defenders of the Great Republic a fitting wreath — Robert G. Ingersoll. But some of his enemies, that is, some people who did not know him, sought to prevent his being invited as the orator of the occasion. Hearing of this, he begged the committee in charge to consider the matter well and long. They did; and the better and longer they considered, the more imperatively necessary seemed the following telegram to him:
“Our committee unanimously renew our invitation, and urge your acceptance. All are enthusiastic on the subject. We want Rogers and the sword of Bunker Hill.” Ingersoll’s acceptance also brought over the wire this flash of enthusiasm: “Glory hallelujah! The day is ours!”
The audience, which, within a few minutes after the opening of the doors, filled every seat, both off and on the stage, was one of the most appreciative and distinguished that had ever gathered in the Academy, President Arthur, Secretary Folger, Attorney- General Brewster, Senator Conkling, Generals Grant, Hancock, Aspinwall, Butterfield, Barnum, and Porter, and Carl Schun, George William Curtis, and many other prominent statesmen, soldiers, orators, and publicists being present.
Received with an ardent ovation, Ingersoll sounded the very depths of his theme, while he easily encompassed, and even transcended, its magnificence. Upon its sublimest heights fell the sunlight of his genius. from “the first ships whose prows were gilded by the western sun,” he painted in poetic panorama the history of the Great Republic, until “the heavens bent above and domed a land without a serf, a servant, or a slave.” By himself and others, his address was termed (and has since been published as) a Declaration Day Oration. This is a misnomer. It was far more than a mere “Decoration Day oration”: it was an epic prose-poem. It was never equaled, even by Ingersoll himself, on any similar occasion. But its further consideration here is impossible. In the atmosphere of biography, there is no room nor light for this angel of eloquence to spread its golden wings.
[NOTE: The proceeds of this “oration,” about $4.000, were given to the Grand Army of the Republic, by which they were devoted to charity and benevolence — to disabled soldiers, their widows and orphans, the Garfield statue-fund, etc. When remuneration was suggested to Ingersoll, who, of course, as orator of the occasion, had earned the receipts, he said: “I couldn’t talk about dead soldiers for money.” He refused to accept even traveling expenses.]
From an early date in this year (1882) until the middle of the next, Ingersoll was the dominant figure in the most noted legal case that has occurred in the Western Hemisphere, and probably the most remarkable, for intricacy and magnitude, in the history of criminal jurisprudence. Stephen W. Dorsey, formerly a United States senator from Arkansas, his brother John W. Dorsey, Thomas J. Brady (second assistant postmaster-general), and four others were indicted by a grand jary, at Washington, under the Revised Statutes of the United States, for conspiring to defraud the latter, in connection with certain contracts and subcontracts for carrying the mails in a number of the western states, on what were known as “star-routes.” The two trials that ensued were known as the “star- route trials.” There were over ten thousand of these star-routes. The defendants were interested in 134 separate contracts and subcontracts; and it was alleged that the Government had been defrauded to the extent of nearly five million dollars. Considering the size of this sum of public money, and the social and official prominence of some of the defendants, I feel safe in leaving almost wholly to the judgment and the imagination of such readers as have no knowledge on the subject the formation of an adequate conception of the profound and widespread interest that was manifested in the case. Of the magnitude of its two trials, we may, perhaps, approximately judge by the length of the records, and by the costs involved. The former, as printed and filed in the Department of Justice, occupy between nine and ten thousand roomy pages, — probably the longest records in the annals of criminal procedure, — while the costs have been officially estimated at $1,200,000.
The first trial began on June 1st, in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, Attorney-General Brewster and others representing the Government; Ingersoll and others, the defendants. Ingersoll was the immediate counsel for Stephen W. and John W. Dorsey. The trial occupied nearly three and one-half months. At the unanimous request of his legal associates in the case, Ingersoll made the final appeal to the jury, for the defense, beginning at noon on September 5th, and ending at noon on the 6th. As large an audience as had been able to get within range of his voice hung upon his every word. The jury retired on September 8th, and, on the; 11th, after being threatened, by the presiding judge, with an invocation of the provisions of the ancient common law in such cases, — namely, deprivation of food, drink, and place of sleep, — rendered a “mixed verdict,” acquitting one of the defendants, convicting two, and disagreeing as to the other four. Among the latter were Ingersoll’s immediate clients, Stephen W. and John W. Dorsey. This verdict was set aside, and the first Monday in December was fixed as the date on which to begin the second trial.
Meantime, public interest in the case was even more intense than ever. Thousands of citizens of every grade and vocation, including editors of influential journals, in all parts of the country, who certainly had never perused the indictment, and who probably had never heard or read a full page of the real testimony, were incessantly clamoring for a verdict of guilt.
In this connection, the following extract from a subsequent interview with Ingersoll is especially apropos: —
Question. — In your experience as a lawyer what was the most unique case in which you were ever engaged?
Answer. — The Star Route trial. Every paper in the country, but one, was against the defence, and that one was a little sheet owned by one of the defendants. I received a note from a man living in a little town in Ohio criticizing me for defending the accused. In reply I wrote that I supposed he was a sensible man and that he, of course, knew what he was talking about when he said the accused were guilty; that the government needed just such men as he, and that he should come to the trial at once and testify. The man wrote back: ‘Dear Colonel: I am a —- fool.'”
In legal and governmental circles at Washington, the wildest excitement prevailed. There were startling rumors and summary doings on every hand.
The second trial began on December 7th and occupied over six months. Ingersoll delivered his opening address to the jury on December 21st, and his closing address on June 13th and 14, 1883. On the following morning, at ten o’clock, a verdict of absolute acquittal was rendered.
It is no exaggeration to state, that this verdict was the greatest personal victory ever won by an American lawyer. It was so regarded at the time. Hundreds who were present to hear it, while apparently feeling but little anxiety for the actual defendants, were beside themselves with joy on learning that Ingersoll, despite the seemingly overwhelming advantage of the prosecution, had achieved so marvelous a triumph. Indeed, even the dignity of court was impotent to prevent an ovation to the great lawyer. And shortly afterwards, as he rode homeward with his family, through Pennsylvania Avenue, he was so frequently greeted by the people, that he was finally obliged to sit with uncovered head, waving his hands to either side, much after the manner of a conquering hero. Telegrams of congratulation came from all parts of the country. Callers, in an almost unbroken procession, thronged his house during the day, and concluded their manifestations of gladness with a serenade in the evening, when Ingersoll responded in a short speech.
Of the matter and manner of his three addresses (to the juries), covering as they do nearly five hundred pages, little can or need be said. If oratory is to be judged by its immediate effects, perhaps, after all, the members of the last “star-route” jury, unlettered though they may have been, uttered in the memorable words, “We find the defendants not guilty,” the highest possible praise of the addresses concerned. To point out therein any of the countless available examples of masterful exposition; of analysis and portrayal of human character and motive; of perfect logic, keen wit, and flashing repartee; of scathing irony and death dealing sarcasm; of genial humor and tender pathos — in short, to do more than to enumerate the weapons wielded by the supreme intellectual gladiator in this memorable combat — would be to yield to a temptation that constantly besets the truly appreciative critic of Ingersoll. It does seem pertinent, however, that many people who, because of their superficial knowledge of him, had doubted his depth as a counselor and advocate, departed from court with the ineradicable conviction, that the man whom they had long since conceded to be the most eloquent of American orators was hardly less marvelous for his resourcefulness, his brilliancy, and his profundity, in the law.’
Notwithstanding the verdict (on June 15, 1883) of the twelve men who had pondered the indictment and the testimony, and who were solemnly sworn to render a decision in accordance with the evidence and the law, many people who are entirely void of responsibility, and who know little of the testimony, and still less of the evidence, continue to try the “star-route” case with resulting verdicts of guilt!
They also charge Ingersoll with having been a hireling to one of the “guilty” defendants, in consideration of an enormous fee. Ingersoll received no fee whatever. As a matter of fact, he lost not only the better part of two years’ time and intellectual labor, but many thousands of dollars in cash, through the failure of Stephen W. Dorsey to meet various financial obligations which he assumed during, and subsequent to, the trials, and for which Ingersoll, by sufferance of abundant good nature, became technically responsible. Such was his reward. —
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion, —
A great-sized monster of ingratiates —
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devoured
As fast as they are made, forgotten as soon
As done * * *.”
But if ingratitude, and even worse, was to be Ingersoll’s portion at the hands of one individual in his own country, something different was preparing at the hands of another individual, in another section of the continent. For, about the time of the closing of the second “star-route” trial, the distinguished explorer Prederick Schwatka, laureate of the Paris Geographical Society, and of the Imperial Geographical Society of Russia, etc., etc., was making his way, in command of the Alaska Exploring Expedition, down the Unknown River. Between Van Wilczek Valley and old Fort Selkirk, British Northwest Territory, at a point which he thought was situated in the bed of an ancient lake, he came upon a large chain, or cluster, of islands. These he named “Ingersoll Islands,” “after Colonel Ingersoll of Washington.”
On October 22d Ingersoll delivered in Lincoln Hall, in the latter city, a speech on “Civil Rights,” a great number of citizens having met there to express their views concerning the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in which it is held that the first and second sections of the Civil Rights Act are unconstitutional. He was introduced by Frederick Douglass, as “one that loves his fellow-men,” Leigh Hunt’s famous poem Abou Ben Adhem, whom Ingersoll was held to typify, being employed by Douglass as the medium of presenting the humanitarian, orator, and jurist.
Thereupon Ingersoll, the legal anatomist, with the scalpel and tweezers of logic, slowly and calmly dissected the decision before him, weighed it in the balanced scales, pointed out what he believed to be the false reasoning of the great tribunal, and concluded with a characteristic denunciation of the spirit of caste, and a nobly patriotic plea for protection and justice for every citizen, not only abroad but at home. He demonstrated that he, too, should be remembered as an “expounder of the Constitution.”
There was also published during this year, in the Brooklyn Union, a lengthy interview in which Ingersoll criticized the Brooklyn divines for their attitude on the tendencies of modern thought.
Two lectures, Orthodoxy and Which Way? were delivered in 1884, the last concluding with that marvelous peroration: —
“This shall be.”
The latter has since been published as Night and Morning, with other prose-poems and selections from his works.
Myth and Miracle was published in 1885. One of his most forceful and charming lectures, it contains the prose-poems The Warp and Woof and the Apostrophe of Liberty.
In November of this year, for much the same reasons that had impelled him to abandon Peoria, with a preference for Washington, as a place of residence, Ingersoll removed to New York. If it was natural eight years before, that he should abandon for the national capital his muck-loved Prairie State, where he had already won the laurel, and whose pride he had become, it was now natural that he should abandon the national capital for the far wider and more congenial fields of the national metropolis. Natural, to be sure; yet, seemingly, how anomalous — the “Great Agnostic” returning to the place of his baptism! How far from the imagination of fifty years before! Little was it dreamed by that mother whose “sweet, cold face” was to keep his “heart warm through all the changing years.” Still less was it dreamed by Rev. John Ingersoll. How distant from his thoughts, as he set out to spread the Christian gospel in the “West,” that the motherless child in his arms, born to poverty, adversity, and all that was provincially orthodox, would return, a half-century hence, the central figure of an epoch of intellectual progress — the most unique, and yet the most lovable personality, the wisest and sanest thinker, the most formidable controversialist, of the modern world, and the greatest orator of all time!