A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
FROM EIGHTEEN EIGHTY-SIX TO EIGHTEEN EIGHTY-EIGHT
Ingersoll was now in his fifty-third year, when a large majority of geniuses have long since done the most and the best of their work. Astir almost at the dawn, arduously toiling and already producing in the morning, and achieving their greatest before the sun was overhead, they have rested in the calm of the afternoon, — if indeed the night have not too early touched with cooling kiss their tired brow. This is the rule. But nature delights in exceptions. Why we do not know. It may be that she tires of uniformity, of the ceaselessness and invariability of forces, of the inevitableness of atoms and molecules — tires of the feast she has spread for herself — and that of her own ennui, in some miraculous way, the exceptional is born. Whatever the explanation, she made exceptions with Ingersoll, — exceptions in all the periods of life. For he produced practically nothing before his twenty-seventh year: this may be termed the exception of his youth. He produced nothing before his thirty-seventh year that is either intellectually or artistically comparable to his best: this may be termed the exception of his manhood. He did not reach the sublimest heights of eloquence until he was forty-two years of age; and he did not cease to produce things that were both intellectually and artistically comparable to his best until his death: these may be termed the exceptions of his maturity, — exceptions far more remarkable than either of the others. For, in many respects, both the quantity and the quality of his work considered, his accomplishments during the last fourteen years of his life were greater than those of the preceding twenty. During the fourteen years referred to, he sustained undiminished his former wealth and exuberance, dowering the future with the profoundest, sublimest, and tenderest thoughts, producing many of his most powerful lectures, and, at fifty-eight, his greatest literary masterpiece, Shakespeare, — literary masterpiece despite its being a lecture. Moreover, he did what he had never done before — entered the mental tourney against the ablest and most daring knights and knights-errant of Christendom, finally receiving the coveted prize in the lists of international controversy. Verily might we say of him: His heart “there was no winter in’t,” and his mind “an autumn ‘t was that grew the more by reaping.”
It was pointed out in the preceding section, that nature made many exceptions with Ingersoll; and it has been written elsewhere, by an eminent critic, that Ingersoll “was not as other men are.” Not only is the latter true in general; it is true in numerus particulars. And had this critic deigned the Great Agnostic entry into the jealously guarded precincts of conventional letters, he certainly would have written thus: “Ingersoll was not as other literary men are.” For whatever Ingersoll felt, Ingersoll could think and write — anywhere. He did not require seclusion, nor even retirement. He never sought the sequestration of the study — never became a literary convict. He was universally opposed to the penitentiary idea. In its stead, he put the idea of social intercourse, of company. Unless some other than mere literary considerations prevented, he wrote while in the bosom of his family. Many of his productions were written while the conversation of others was in his ears, or while his children were playing about him with toys and pets, the rabbits and kittens actually capering over his manuscript. Perhaps this accounts for the deep and tender notes of human love, the elemental passion, the ripples of laughter, and even the tears, that linger in his lines.
But of all the evidence that might be offered in proof of his capacity for literary production under conditions which undoubtedly would have been fatal to most others whose names will live long in literature, none is either more typical or interesting than the following. On December 18, 1886, he was traveling, by rail, from New York to Washington, where he was to lecture. “Let’s go into the smoker,’ ‘Clint,'” he said, rather suddenly, to his brother-in-law, Mr. Clinton Pinckney Farrell, a constant companion. As soon as the two were reseated, Ingersoll took from his pocket some old envelopes or bits of paper and a pencil and began to write. After continuing uninterruptedly for a considerable time, he handed his rough manuscript to Mr. Farrell and asked: “Do you think that will do for ‘Harry’? “Would it” do for ‘Harry'”? Yes: it would “do for ‘Harry'” — it would do for posterity; for it was Life, the greatest prose-poem, and one of the greatest poems in any form, that had been written by an American. It was a laurel fit for Shakespeare’s brow — a priceless gem whose luster praise could only dim. The production was immediately published in the Christmas number of the New York Dramatic Mirror, the editor, Mr. Harrison Grey Fiske, having requested his great friend to write something for the paper.
The year 1887 afforded an opportunity for Ingersoll to perform an act that put still another star in his crown of fame — an act that, even had it been the only one of his life, would have entitled him to the gratitude and affection, not only of every genuine American, — every enlightened believer in the sacred principles upon which this Republic rests, — but of every other real friend of physical and mental liberty.
During the summer of 1886, Mr. Charles B. Reynolds arranged an itinerary with a view of delivering rationalistic lectures, or of holding freethought meetings, at various places in New Jersey. His invitations to the public were extended through the usual media of newspapers, circulares, posters, and so forth; and the resultant meetings, attended by some of the best citizens, were peaceful, orderly, and respectable, when, indeed, they were not rendered otherwise by a minor element of bias and bigotry, unrestrained by local officials. Mr. Reynolds encountered no great difficulty from that source, however, until he reached Boonton. There, while speaking, — while peacefully availing himself of the very first rights of an American citizen, — his tent was besieged and destroyed by a mob; he was personally attacked, with all kinds of missiles; and he undoubtedly would have sustained serious physical injury had he not succeeded, during the confusion, in evading his persecutors and summarily quitting the town. An effort to obtain legal redress by suing the latter for damages, merely elicited the shamefully hypocritical subterfuge of a countercharge of disturbing the peace. But the authorities evidently being blessed with ample precaution, if with nothing more, “the issue was never joined.” Some time after, but before the excitement in Boonton had subsided, Mr. Reynolds appeared in Morristown, a few miles distant, and, without attempting to hold meetings, distributed some copies of a pamphlet, appending thereto a satirical cartoon of his experience in Boonton. A number of his persecutors from that place were instantly on his heels, with the result that the grand jury, under the colonial “blue laws,” found two indictments against him; one for “blasphemy” in Boonton, the other for “blasphemy” in Morristown. “Blasphemy”! Only thirty miles from the metropolis of America, only thirteen years from the twentieth century, on the very ground where Whitman had sung the songs of democracy, a citizen of the Republic was to be tried for “blasphemy”! But the indictment had been found. The law was there. A coiled serpent, it had lain in lethargy for hundreds of years, beneath both the old and the new constitutions of New Jersey; and, should a single conviction result, it could uncoil and show its forked tongue and cruel fangs to the brave and heroic apostle of mental liberty. It could raise its horrid head and hiss in the ear of Charles B. Reynolds: ” Two hundred dollars, and imprisonment at hard labor for twelve months.”
Ingersoll moved gallantly to the defense. And what a defense it was! — not merely to win a verdict, not merely for Charles B. Reynolds, not for any citizen of New Jersey, nor yet for any citizen of the United States, but for all mankind. The personal interests of the defendant, the intense public feeling, the legal aspects of the case, — its uniqueness — the only one of its kind ever tried in New Jersey, and the only one that had been tried in the United States in over fifty years — all these must be shut out of mind, if we would justly appreciate Ingersoll’s effort. It transcends and outreaches the merely local, the provincial, the ephemeral. If one of the gods of Olympus were on trial, it would make a fitting defense. It is for all place and all time — a symphony of justice for the starlit cathedral of the universe. Let us listen, in passing, to some of its enrapturing harmonies: —
“The most important thing in this world is liberty. More important than food or clothes — more important than gold or houses or lands — more important than art or science — more important than all religions, is the liberty of man. * * * Gladly would I give up the splendors of the nineteenth century — gladly would I forget every invention that has leaped from the brain of Man — gladly would I see all books ashes, all works of art destroyed, all statues broken, and all the triumphs of the world lost — gladly, joyously would I go back to the abodes and dens of savagery, if that were necessary to preserve the inestimable gem of human liberty.”
And after demonstrating that what is theologically called blasphemy is not the same in all lands at the same time; that what is blasphemy here is worship there; that what is blasphemy here now may be worship here to-morrow, and vice versa; that no man can blaspheme a book or the Infinite; that, in short, theological blasphemy is an utter impossibility, — an unreal crime, — he inquires; —
“What is real blasphemy?”
And he replies: —
“To live on the unpaid labor of other men — that is blasphemy.
“To enslave your fellow-man, to put chains upon his body — that is blasphemy.
“To enslave the minds of men, to put manacles upon the brain, padlocks upon the lips — that is blasphemy.
“To deny what you believe to be true, to admit to be true what you believe to be a lie — that is blasphemy.
“To strike the weak and unprotected, in order that you may gain the applause of the ignorant and superstitious mob — that is blasphemy.
“To persecute the intelligent few, at the command of the ignorant many — that is blasphemy.
“To forge chains, to build dungeons, for honest fellow-men — that is blasphemy.
“To pollute the souls of children with the dogma of eternal pain — that is blasphemy.
“To violate your conscience — that is blasphemy.”
It would take us too far across the boundaries of biography to quote any of the beautiful and touching definitions of “worship” naturally following here; and there is no time to take even a hurried glance into the wondrous volume which he described — the book of all that is good and useful, tender and true, — “the bible of the world,” — which no one can blaspheme. Nor can we do aught else than to leave to imagination the profound thoughts, the penetrating and luminous logic, the pathos, the lightnings of wit and the sun-glints of humor, that lie between Ingersoll’s characteristic “Gentlemen of the Jury” and his final ardent hope that it will never again be necessary to stand in the temple of justice “and plead for the Liberty of Speech.”
At the conclusion of Ingersoll’s address, the court adjourned for luncheon. During the adjournment, many of the people who had been listening to the speaker crowded around him and expressed agreement with what he had said. Among them was the son of a minister of the place. When the court reconvened, Ingersoll joined in a conference of the three judges as to the case; and, in commenting on the matter, while the jury were deliberating, he told the judges what the people had said; and he added: “You better discharge Reynolds, or I will appeal and try the case again and convert the whole town.”
It redounds none the less to Ingersoll’s credit that the jury, sitting honor-bound in the shadow of a law which they could not evade, rendered a verdict of guilt. And still less does his credit suffer from the fact that the court, having listened with rapt attention, imposed, under the same circumstances, a minimum fine only.
Fearful of affixing an anticlimax to Ingersoll’s splendid action, I hesitate to add here, and do add only for the sake of narrative completeness, that the fine, twenty-five dollars, with costs, amounting in all to seventy-five dollars, was paid by him that his services were gratuitous; and that while in Morristown, in connection with the case, he refused an offer of a thousand dollars if he would go elsewhere, for a few hours, to another court.
Many admirers of Ingersoll’s intellect and art must often have wished, that, in order to assign to his genius the place which they are so confident it merits, a comparison of at least one of his productions with those of his distinguished contemporaries, on the same theme, might be made. The author confesses that he has experienced this wish, and that the task involved might have been included in the present work had he not discovered that such task had already been performed. Although unconsciously, the comparison desired was admirably effected by Mr. Edward W. Bok, who, after the death of Beecher, in 1887, requested the latter’s friends to contribute to a volume in his memory. Among the many distinguished persons to respond (in addition to Ingersoll), were Cleveland, E. P. Roe, George William Curtis, Talmage, Whittier, Holmes, the Duke of Argyll, and Gladstone.
It would here be obviously impracticable to institute even the briefest comparison of the styles and the methods of these writers in treating their common theme; and it would be as obviously unjust to present examples of the style and the method of any particular one of them. It is fair to state, however, that no one who has not read the memorial to Beecher can justly appreciate the absolute uniqueness and the comparative loftiness, both artistic and intellectual, with which Ingersoll approached the subject before him. In his entire tribute, — the longest in the volume, — not an act nor an incident, and only one date, in the life of the preacher, — the year of his birth, — is specifically mentioned; and yet that tribute presents to the gaze of a sorrowing world a clear, comprehensive, ample view of Henry Ward Beecher. It reveals the psychological evolution of the famous divine, from his cradle “in a Puritan penitentiary,” until he became “the greatest orator that stood within the pulpit’s narrow curve.” It does far more: it is an analysis, a synthesis, a characterization, a eulogy. It is the most generous, the most beautiful, the most fitting wreath that has ever been placed by intellectual hospitality on the tomb of a fallen hero of a rejected faith. Like the other tributes, it will of course be read in memory of Beecher; unlike the others, it will be reread in memory of itself. But, read once in conjunction with them, it will not have received the inevitable rereading before it places the reader beyond the reach of wonderment at the statement elsewhere made by Mr. Gladstone: “Colonel Ingersoll writes with a rare and enviable brilliancy.”
Through the efforts of Mr. Allen Thorndike Rice, who was the editor of the North American Review, and who enjoyed a wide acquaintance with the leading men of his day, Ingersoll became, during this year, the champion of Rationalism in the most memorable religious controversy of his century. It was the most memorable, not only because of the eminence of those taking part, but because of scope and profundity of argument. Indeed, it would be difficult to name another trio who, by reason of intellectual attainments and worldwide recognition, could have brought into a discussion of the comparative merits of Christianity and Rationalism greater dignity and authority than the men who, seemingly unmindful of the fate of predecessors, matched abilities with Ingersoll in 1887 and 1888.
This memorable intellectual tourney, which may be properly termed the Field-Gladstone-Manning-Ingersoll Controversy, began in the North American Review for August, 1887, with An Open Letter to Robert G. Ingersoll, from Rev. Henry M. Field, D.D., and closed with the second part of Ingersoll’s reply to Cardinal Manning, in the same magazine, for November, 1888. Field contributed two papers; Gladstone, one paper; Manning, one paper; Ingersoll, five papers. First attacked by one of the Christian trio, Ingersoll had not only the last word with every antagonist, individually, but the last word in the controversy.
As a later chapter will present Ingersoll’s views of the “fundamental truths of Christianity,” it would be not only impracticable, but a work of supererogation, to indicate here the attitude that he assumed toward those “truths,” in the lengthy discussion just mentioned. As to the obvious outcome of the latter, there is, similarly, as little need as there is space for dilation. It can be stated, however, alike with fitting brevity and truth, that it is the sincere wish of every one who is a believer in the soundness of Rationalism, in general, and in Ingersoll’s controversial supremacy, in particular, and who is familiar with this truly great controversy, that all may read, with impartiality and candor, its two sides. That such is the dearest wish of the most solicitous friends of Ingersoll, if not of those of Field, Gladstone, and Manning, is evident in the fact that both sides of the controversy were long since published, in full, in the authorized edition of Ingersoll’s works”
[NOTE: Walt Whitman said, “On reading Gladstone’s reply to Ingersoll: ‘It won’t do, Mr. Gladstone; you may try: you have the right to try — you try hard: but the Colonel carries too many guns for you on that line!'” And again: “‘Gladstone is no match for Ingersoll — at least not in such a controversy. Of course, he is a great man, or was — has had a past — but in questions of the theological sort, in questions of Homeric scholarship, he is by no means much. Oh! there will be a funny time of it! Here he put his two hands together scoop-wise. ‘Bob will take him up this fashion, turn him over (all sides of him), look at him sweetly, ever so sweetly, smile, then crush him!’ — to illustrate which he worked his hands together as if to crush their imagined burden — ‘Yes, crush him, much as a cat would a mouse, till there’s no life left to fool with.'” — [With Walt Whitman in Camden. by Horace Traubel. pp 69 and 81.]
In the same connection, Professor Huxley wrote as follows: —
4 Marlborough Place, Abbey Road, N.W.,
London, March, 1889[?].
Dear Colonel Ingersoll:
“Some unknown benefactor has sent me a series of numbers of the North American Review containing your battles with various ‘Bulls of Bashan’ in 1888 — and the very kindly and appreciative article of last April about my picador work over here [‘Professor Huxley and Agnosticism,’ April, 1889]
“I write mainly to thank you for it and say that I feel the force of your admonition to Harrison and myself — to leave off quarreling with one another and to join against the common enemy. The excuse of ‘Please, sir, it was the other boy began,’ is somewhat ignoble; but really if you will look at Harrison’s article again, I think you will see there was no help for it.
“However, he is far too good a man to quarrel with for long, and I have hope we shall arrive at a treaty of peace and even cooperation before long. In the meanwhile, I am glad to say that we are, personally, excellent friends.
“You are to be congratulated on your opponents. The rabbi is the only one with any stuff in him — though, by the way, I have not read Manning, and do not mean to. I have had many opportunities of taking his measure — and he is a parlous windbag — and nothing else, absolutely. Gladstone’s attack on you is one of the best things he has written. I do not think there is more than 50 per cent more verbiage than necessary, nor any sentence with more than two meanings. If he goes on improving at this rate he will be an English classic by the time he is ninety. I see that some Washington paper (I forget the name) has been charging me with ‘British insolence’ to the people of the United States for my remarks about Mormonism. Of all people in the world, I should say I am the last to be fairly accused of want of respect for America or Americans, and, beyond a little mild raillery, I cannot discover where I have sinned.
“But I expect it is only Christian zeal under the mask of patriotism.
“I have now finished work for the present and am off to Switzerland, to get my rickety fabric tightened up for the next three or four months. I am good for no sustained work, but every now and then a spurt is possible.
“Do not answer this letter, I beg, unless the spirit should move you. My life has been made a burden to me by letter writing, and now I do as little as possible. But if the spirit should move you, then Monte Generoso, Mendriso, will be my address for the next month; and after that, Maloga, Haute Engadine, up to September. I am yours very faithfully,
When, on the death of Roscoe Conkling, in 1888 the people of the Empire State resolved to pay a fitting tribute to one of her favorite sons, Ingersoll was unanimously invited, by a joint legislative committee, to exercise again those powers which have contributed so much to his reputation as the greatest of orators. Himself an intimate friend and ardent admirer of the dead statesman, Ingersoll gave hearty acceptance. His tribute was delivered at Albany, on the evening of May 9th, the occasion being a joint session of the legislature. The building in which the session was held was taxed to its utmost capacity of some 3,500, more than 2,000 being turned away.
Those who read the tribute to Conkling with the expectation of finding a catalogue of his achievements, or a copy of his life’s itinerary, will meet with the same disappointment as those who read with like expectation the tribute to Beecher. But those who read either with the presupposition that specific treatment of act and incident affords the truer and nobler portrait will certainly gain in knowledge. Ingersoll was not a geologist nor an anatomist — he was an artist. As in the landscape of a master you behold the simple and solitary grandeur of the familiar mountain, so in a eulogy by Ingersoll you behold, unburdened with petty detail, the majestic form of a Beecher or a Conkling.
Endeavoring to realize in few words something of his grace and adequacy in the present instance, it is impossible to omit his introduction. We listen as to a Wagnerian prelude: —
“Roscoe Conkling — a great man, an orator, a statesman, a lawyer, a distinguished citizen of the Republic, in the zenith of his fame and power has reached his journey’s end; and we are met, here in the city of his birth, to pay our tribute to his worth and work. He earned and held a proud position in the public thought. He stood for independence, for courage, and above all for absolute integrity, and his name was known and honored by many millions of his fellow-men.”
Add to this a few of those epigrammatic characterizations of which Ingersoll was the consummate master, and we have a perfect likeness of Conkling. What, for example, could more fittingly describe the latter’s steadfast moral courage than the following exquisite rhythmical simile? —
“Nothing is grander than when a strong, intrepid man breaks chains, levels walls and breasts the many-headed mob like some great cliff that meets and mocks the innumerable billows of the sea.”
But who shall say that the reward which the following sentence prophesies for such as Conkling will not fall, in full measure, to Ingersoll himself? —
“When real history shall be written by the truthful and the wise, these men, these kneelers at the shrines of chance and fraud, these brazen idols worshiped once as gods, will be the very food of scorn, while those who bore the burden of defeat, who earned and kept their self-respect, who would not bow to man or men for place or power, will wear upon their brows the laurel mingled with the oak.”
As an example of the fine, nobly eulogistic tone that pervades the entire tribute, nothing could be better than the following, on the imperious tectitade of the dead statesman: —
“Above his marvelous intellectual gifts — above all place he ever reached, — above the ermine he refused, — rises his integrity like some great mountain peak — and there it stands, firm as the earth beneath, pure as the stars above.”
If, as I trust, the reader shall have derived from the preceding an adequate impression of the oratorical quality of the tribute, as thus far considered, then, and then only, will he be able justly to appreciate the majestic beauty and grandeur of its peroration: —
“He was of the classic mould — a figure from the antique world. He had the pose of the great statues — the pride and bearing of the intellectual Greek, of the conquering Roman, and he stood in the wide free air as though within his veins there flowed the blood of a hundred kings.
“And as he lived he died. Proudly he entered the darkness — or the dawn — that we call death. Unshrinkingly he passed beyond our horizon, beyond the twilight’s purple hills, beyond the utmost reach of human harm or help — to that vast realm of silence or of joy where the innumerable dwell, and he has left with us his wealth of thought and deed — the memory of a brave, imperious, honest man, who bowed alone to death.”
With his conclusion, ex-speaker General Husted and Senator Coggeshall, respectively, moved and seconded that the legislature tender to Ingersoll a vote of thanks for an oration which, “in purity of style, in poetic expression, in cogency of statement, and in brilliancy of rhetoric, * * * stands unrivaled among the eulogies of either ancient or modern days. As effective as Demosthenes, as polished as Cicero, as ornate as Burke, as scholarly as Gladstone, the orator of the evening, in surpassing others, has eclipsed himself.” The vote was given with the same rare sense which had prompted the invitation to deliver the tribute.
As an oratorical feat the latter reflects even higher credit on its author when we consider that, at the time of its production, the Field-Gladstone-Manning-Ingersoll Controversy was in progress; that, on the night previous to the delivery of the tribute, Ingersoll was engaged in a public oral discussion of The Limitations of Toleration, with Hon. Frederic R. Coudert and ex- Governor Stewart L. Woodford, before the Nineteenth Century Club; and that he was doubtless contemplating the Decoration Day Oration which he was shortly to deliver in New York, and which, by the way, proved to be second only, in power and beauty, to his own oration of 1882.