A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
FROM EIGHTEEN NINETY-THREE TO EIGHTEEN NINETY-SIX
As already evident, Ingersoll was the pronouncer of many eulogies of the dead; but of all his contributions to what I shall venture to term elegiac prose-poetry, none, perhaps, is more interesting, as far as the memory of Ingersoll himself is concerned, than the one which was made in the little town of Dowagiac, Mich., on January 25, 1893. The family of Philo D. Beckwith, in pursuance of an ideal which he had dearly cherished, but which he had not yet realized at the time of his death, had caused to be erected for the benefit of the people among whom he had risen from poverty to fortune, in the manufacture of stoves, a theater in which should be seen and heard only the highest and noblest in drama and music. When Ingersoll, in the fitness of things, came to dedicate this theater to the memory of the generous dead, he was far less profoundly impressed by its magnificent and luxurious interior than by its rather plain and simple exterior; for the latter, despite its truly monumental perspective, was seen to be scarcely as memorial of the individual philanthropist concerned as of genius in general. Conspicuous in the entablature of this palace of music and song, of mirth and tragedy the orator beheld a series of medallion portraits of such of his artistic and intellectual idols as Shakespeare, Voltaire, Paine, Wagner, and Whitman. Nor was this all that he beheld. Mr. Beckwith had possessed profound admiration and affection for the individual who had done more than any other that had ever lived, to destroy superstition; and, accordingly, beside that of Shakespeare, on the exterior of the second memorial theater to be erected. — the handsomest theater of its size in the world — had been placed a medallion portrait of Ingersoll himself.
During the following year, Ingersoll published three more original lectures: Abraham Lincoln, which, as a literary masterpiece, ranks first after Shakespeare; which ranks second; and About the Holy Bible.
It is biographically interesting and important to note that the above-mentioned lecture on Voltaire is not the one originally written. Nor is it probably the equal of the latter, which was prepared some twenty years earlier, and which, therefor likely contained (though it scarcely seems possible) more verve and ardor. Written in Peoria, it was delivered in the First Unitarian Church of that city, — under no slight emotional strain, as may readily be imagined. To eulogize Voltaire from a pulpit! — that was almost too great a privilege. The whereabouts of the manuscript of this lecture is unknown. The present lecture was first delivered in Chicago, under the auspices of the Chicago Press Club, to an audience of six thousand people, five hundred being seated on the stage. There is in the annals of oratory no nobler, grander passage than one which this production contains — the one in which the body of Voltaire rests upon the ruins of the Bastille! —
“On reaching Paris the great procession moved along the Rue St. Antoine. Here it paused, and for one night upon the ruins of the Bastille rested the body of Voltaire — rested in triumph, in glory — rested on fallen wall and broken arch, on crumbling stone still damp with tears, on rusting chain and bar and useless bolt — above the dungeons dark and deep, where light had faded from the lives of men, and hope had died in breaking hearts.
“The conqueror resting upon the conquered. — Throned upon the Bastille, the fallen fortress of Night, the body of Voltaire, from whose brain had issued the Dawn.”
Is Suicide A Sin, a short letter printed in the New York World, was so flagrantly misunderstood and so bitterly attacked, by clergymen and others, as to call forth from the great humanitarian a second letter. The intense interest and excitement occasioned by this controversy, second only to those aroused by A Christmas Sermon, did not wholly subside for nearly four years.
The Foundations of Faith were assailed in a lecture published with that title in 1895.
The most memorable happening of that year, however, if not the most memorable happening of all his later years, was the reunion of the surviving members of his old war regiment, the Eleventh Illinois Cavalry, at Elmwood, on September 5th The reunion was a joint one, members of five other Illinois regiments taking part. Thousands of veterans not only, but others, — representative men and women, — were present. It was therefore something more than a reunion of the maimed and scarred and gray, who, in the flush and vigor of manhood, had borne the Stars and Stripes from Bull Run to Appomattox, — pathetic, memorable, and inspiring as suck a reunion always is. Nor did its significance to Ingersoll lie solely in the fact that he was a veteran colonel; for, in addition, he was the honored guest, and of course the orator of the occasion.
The greeting which was extended by the veterans to their old commander and comrade was as touching, pathetic, and cordial as greeting ever was — a time for reminiscences and hearty good will; and the greeting which was extended by citizens in general was that of a community to one whom it loves, by whom it feels honored, and of whom it feels proud; for Elmwood is not far from Peoria.When, therefore, the special train bearing Ingersoll (accompanied by some five hundred of the prominent citizens of Peoria) arrived in Elmwood, pictures and busts of him were to be seen in all windows. He was met at the station by a reception committee, and afterwards, escorted by an army of veterans, he marched to the west side of the public square. There he passed between lines of his old friends and comrades. We’re glad to see you, ‘Bob,'” came the shout to him who, in the old days, was accustomed to receive from the same source the formal military salute. “I have attended many soldiers’ reunions,” says Colonel Clark E. Carr, “but I never attended another one when there was so muck affection and devotion manifested by officers and men of the regiment as was manifested for him. To them, what mattered it whether they agreed or not in politics, or in religion? There was their old colonel; and every man expressed in tears, which he vainly endeavored to conceal, that he knew his name was graven upon that great, generous, loving heart.” As Colonel Ingersoll was escorted to the stand from which he was to review the parade of the veterans, he was saluted with thirteen guns from Peoria’s historic cannon.
After the conclusion of the parade, and following certain exercises, a part of which was the rendering of a song to Ingersoll, composed for the occasion by Mr. E.R. Brown, the latter introduced Ingersoll as “the greatest of living orators,” referring to Ingersoll’s declaration of a quarter-century before, in Rouse’s Hall, Peoria, that thenceforth there would be “one free man in Illinois,” and expressing gratitude for what Ingersoll had since accomplished for the freedom and happiness of mankind, by his mighty brain, his great spirit, and his gentle heart. The appearance of Ingersoll was the signal for a mighty shout that was heartily joined in by every one present. It was fully ten minutes before the cheering subsided, and as the orator attempted to speak, it was renewed, and he was forced to wait several minutes more. Then he began: —
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow-citizens, Old Friends and Comrades:
“It gives me the greatest pleasure to meet again those with whom I became acquainted in the morning of my life. It is now afternoon. The sun of life is slowly sinking in the west, and, as the evening comes, nothing can be more delightful than to see again the faces that I knew in youth.
“When first I knew you the hair was brown; it is now white. The lines were not quiet so deep, and the eyes were not quiet so dim. Mingled with this pleasure is sadness, — sadness for those who have passed away — for the dead.”
These are the first links of the golden chain with which, for an hour and a half, he held the vast audience before him. Rejoicing at the good fortune of his hearers in being citizens of “the first and grandest Republic ever established upon the face of the earth,” he praised, in words impassioned and beautiful, the deeds of her founders; presented, in graphic panorama, her political, agricultural, industrial, financial, and intellectual progress; and concluded with this touching tribute and farewell to those of her defenders who were present: —
“And what shall I say to you, survives of the death-filled days? To you, my comrades, to you whom I have known in the great days, in the time when the heart beat fast and the blood flowed strong; in the days of high hope — what shall I say? All I can say is that my heart goes out to you, one and all. To you who bared your bosoms to the storms of war; to you who left loved ones, to die if need be, for the sacred cause. May you live long in the land you helped to save; may the winter of your age be as green as spring, as full of blossoms as summer, as generous as autumn, and may you, surrounded by plenty, with your wives at your sides and your grandchildren on your knees, live long. And when at last the fires of life burn low; When you enter the deepening dusk of the last of many, many happy days; when your brave hearts beat weak and slow, may the memory of your splendid deeds; deeds that freed your fellow-men; deeds that kept your country on the map of the world; deeds that kept the flag of the Republic in the air — may the memory of these deeds fill your souls with peace and perfect joy. Let it console you to know that you are not to be forgotten. Centuries hence your story will be told in art and song, and upon your honored graves flowers will be lovingly laid by millions of men and women now unborn.”
Julius Caesar was both a great soldier and a great orator; but if he ever addressed to his veteran legions a passage as eloquent as this, it was not preserved to thrill the hearts and dim the eyes of posterity.
In Chapter 1, it was stated, with regret, that Ingersoll left no autobiography of the ordinary kind. It is here stated, with pleasure, that he did leave one of the extraordinary kind — an autobiography of his mental life. To be sure, it lacks much in that comprehensiveness and exhaustiveness of detail, — that scorching self-analysis, — which are desirable in such a work. It does not favorably compare in these respects with the Discourse on Method, by Descartes, the Confessions of Rousseau, nor the Autobiography of Spencer. We may be certain, however, that it possesses, page for page, fully as high a literary and esthetics value as any of these, while it is, at the same time, far from deficient in the more substantial qualities of intellect.
Why I Am An Agnostic, a lecture, published in 1896, gives a succinct, clear, and interesting account of Ingersoll’s literary and philosophical evolution. It is a charming and fascinating story of his intellectual voyage, from the shifting sands and changeful mists of boyhood’s mental shore, across life’s perilous ocean, to the rock-like convictions that he in the calm and silvered harbor of age. Never did a group of simple folk around a returned navigator of the Middle Ages listen with more enthralled attention to tales of adventure among the strange inhabitants of mysterious lands in far-off seas than did the most enlightened audiences at the close of the nineteenth century to this story of Ingersoll’s mental voyage.
Why I Am An Agnostic was the crowning work of Ingersoll’s anti-theological career. It gave, in a coherent and unified form, as no other work had done, a frank and lucid account of the multitudinous factors and influences that had shaped his mental course — an analytic description of the foundation on which he finally stood. As you read the first pages of this unique mental autobiography, — this confession of “the Agnostic faith,” — here is presented, in unmistakable clearness, the rural theology of fifty years ago. You view all its trappings and paraphernalia, become sensible of all its auxiliaries, and breathe the close and stifling atmosphere that hangs like a pall over the credulous multitude. “Environment is a sculptor — a painter,” says Ingersoll; and so it is — with most of us. Not so with Ingersoll himself. In the very environment which I have described, — before the sombrous background of crude and provincial theology, — you watch, in Why I Am An Agnostic, the unfolding, the development, the ascending struggle, the enfranchisement, the triumph, of a great mind. Nor is the goal attained a merely negative one. You perceive not only the reasons for doubt, but the reasons for belief. You are shown not only why Ingersoll did not believe what others believed, but why he believed what he did believe; and few other great men have believed things more profoundly, or more profound things, than he.
On April 12th (1896), at the Columbia Theater Chicago, he addressed the Militant Church on How To Reform Mankind. In this address, great in wisdom, in its profound insight into the depths of things; great in its love of humanity, — its pity for those who toil, — for the oppressed, the criminal the despised; great in its epigram, its reasoning, its beauty, its eloquence, he gave expression to many of the reformatory ideas which we shall note in presenting, in subsequent chapters, his domestic and sociological teachings.
During the political campaign of this year, he again gave his mighty eloquence to the cause of Republicanism. And he gave something more — something more, even, than any other American could give: he gave his moral and intellectual prestige, a quality which, in the minds of millions of his fellow-citizens, was fully equal to his eloquence. For, whatever may have been the opinion of a few individuals twenty years before, it had become generally and definitely settled in 1896, that Robert G. Ingersoll was an absolutely hones man; that he was in no sense a politician; that he wanted nothing from the people; that it was beyond the power of any party to do him either harm or honor; and that, therefore, if he classed himself in the ranks of the Republican party, it was because that party was going in his direction, that is, because it stood, in the main, for those political principles which he sincerely believed would bring “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” in this Republic. On such a foundation, — with the undisputed scepter of Pulymnia in his hand, and the wreath of integrity upon his brow, — he was able to throw into the political balance greater weight than any other extra-political individual beneath the flag.
In this connection, the following extract from a letter of September 27, 1896, from Mr. Frank Gilbert, then political editor of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, is of interest: —
“I am delighted that you are to give us so many speeches. * * * I want to see the silver craze, not the man Bryan, honored with a regular Napoleonic tomb. Pile the stones up until there can be no body-snatching four years hence! In fact, it is high time for the American people to put a stop to the jeopardizing of business for campaign purposes. * * * That is the reason I want your voice heard. Of course there is a personal element too. I just want the country to realize that the orator of orators still lives, and that the genius which flashed out at Cincinnati has lost none of its fire.”
On October 8th and 29th, Ingersoll delivered in Chicago and New york, respectively, what has since been termed The Chicago and New York Gold Speech.
In Chicago, the meeting was held in a huge tent, near the corner of Sacramento Avenue and Lake Street. It was filled from center-pole to circumference. by an audience of over twenty thousand, thousands more being unable to gain admittance.
In presenting the orator, the chairman, Mr. William P. McCabe, according to the Chicago Inter-Ocean, said, in part: —
“My duty is to introduce to you one whose big heart and big brain are filled with love and patriotic care for the things that concern the country he fought for and loves so well.”
“‘This world will see but one Ingersoll,'” said The Inter- Ocean, in the same report, quoting the spontaneous declaration of a celebrated statesman, in 1876, who had listened to the “Plumed Knight Speech.”
The Inter-Ocean continued: —
“‘That same statement, in thought, emotion, or vocal expression, emanated from upward of twenty thousand citizens last night who heard the eloquent and magic Ingersoll * * * as he expounded the living gospel of true Republicanism.
“The old war-horse, silvered by long years of faithful service to his country, aroused the same all-pervading enthusiasm as he did in the campaigns of Grant and Hayes and Garfield.
“He has lost not one whit, not one iota, of his striking physical presence, his profound reasoning, his convincing logic, his rollicking wit, grandiloquence — in fine, all the graces of the orator of old, reinforced by increased patriotism and the ardor of the call to battle for his country, are still his in the fullest measure.
“Ingersoll in his powerful speech at Cincinnati, spoke in behalf of a friend; last night he pled for his country. In 1876 he eulogized a man; last night, twenty years afterward, he upheld the principles of democratic government. Such was the difference in his theme; the logic, the eloquence, of his utterances, was the more profound in the same ratio.
“He came to the ground-floor of human existence and talked as man to man. His patriotism, be it religion, sentiment, or that lofty spirit inseparable from man’s soul, is his life. Last night he sought to inspire those who heard him with the same loyalty, and he succeeded.
“Those passionate outbursts of eloquence, the wit that fairly scintillated, the logic as inexorable as heaven’s decrees, his rich rhetoric and immutable facts driven straight at his hearers with the strength of bullets, aroused applause that came as spontaneous as sunlight.”
This speech, published in full in the same issue of The Inter- Ocean, caused the sale of “more than forty thousand extra copies of that issue” of that paper alone (says The Inter-Ocean of July 22, 1899, editorially); “and the demand was only cut off by the publication of the speech, in pamphlet form, by the Republican State Central Committee. Fully one hundred thousand copies of the pamphlet were sent out by the committee, in response to calls from all over the country.” How such popularity would delight the publisher of even your “best seller”!
Ingersoll’s appearance in New York marked the final rally of the campaign there. Admission was by ticket only; but the fact that the rarest of oratorical viands and sparkling cordials from the same source and vintage as those which had thrilled the veins of the populace in 1876 were again to be served, brought together an audience which, not only because of size, but because of exclusiveness and intelligence, must have made even Ingersoll proud. Carnegie Music Hall, from the rear of its stage to the last row of seats in its deep gallery, was crowded to its utmost capacity. As to enthusiasm, if we accept the well-grounded dictum of New Yorkers, that audiences in Carnegie Hall are not noted for this quality, then we must infer that New York audiences sometimes forget their surroundings; for the author can testify, from personal knowledge, that this audience was as enthusiastic as it was large and intelligent.
Referring to the orator’s first sentence, a report states that “the assembly was his from that instant.” This is only half the truth. The ovation with which he was greeted as he entered the hall, the many impatient cries, and the “Three cheers for Ingersoll!” unmistakably showed that “the assembly was his” long before he began to speak, if not long before he arrived. Indeed, there is little doubt that Ingersoll as a presidential candidate would have received more votes from that audience than did William McKinley. It was an Ingersoll assembly; he was not only the orator, but the personality, of the occasion. And whenever those who were present recall his appearance that evening, — sitting in a huge arm-chair on the stage, and leisurely, nonchalantly stroking the corresponding arm of the chair with his right hand, as he cast upward and to the front an occasional glance at the preceding speakers and the audience, — they will recall a description of another picture, — a picture of the great Humboldt, — a description by Ingersoll himself: —
“I have seen a picture of the old man, sitting upon a mountain side — above him the eternal snow — below, the smiling valley of the tropics, filled with vine and palm; his chin upon his barest, his eyes deep, thoughtful and calm — his forehead majestic — grander than the mountain upon which he sat — crowned with the snow of his whitened hair, he looked the intellectual autocrat of this world.”
But that actual picture on the platform, which this description of a picture on the mountain-side so vividly recalls, was soon disturbed. “There is no intelligent audience in the civilized world to which it would be necessary to introduce Robert G. Ingersoll,” said the chairman, Mr. John E. Milholland; and the assembly burst into a pandemonium of vociferous approval and welcome, as the orator arose and advanced slowly, impressively, to the front of the stage. After a moment, the tremendous height and volume of applause not receding, Ingersoll raised his hand, and the applause diminished, — so much so that a lesser orator might have commenced to speak. But Ingersoll did not risk a word: he stood calm and serene. When, after several minutes, all ears were stopped with oppressive silence, and he felt that all eyes were centered upon him, he said: —
“Ladies and Gentlemen: This is OUR country. The legally expressed will of the majority is the supreme law of the land. WE are responsible for what our Government does. We cannot excuse ourselves because of the act of some king, or the opinions of nobles. WE are the kings. WE are the nobles. WE are the aristocracy of America, and when our government does RIGHT we are honored, and when our Government does WRONG the brand of shame is on the American brow.”
The applause that followed this utterance, in which I have endeavored to indicate, with capitals, the emphasis, rendered it almost as difficult for the orator to speak his next sentence as it had been for him to begin his first. He had struck with certain and virile hand the fundamental chords of true republicanism — of true democracy — and the heartstrings of every auditor were vibrating in unison with them.
Ingersoll had spoken only a few minutes when, in complete abandon to the subject, he began to indulge his habit of walking slowly, leisurely, from side to side. In almost the first of his trips, he encountered the traditional speaker’s stand. Seizing it with his own hands, he carried it several paces toward the back of the stage, or as far as the front row of chairs thereon would permit. This afforded the free field which was so essentially a part of his theory and practice of oratory. In the latter, all emphasis, tone, gesture, came “from the inside” — from thought, sentiment, emotion.
Once, during this address, he paused suddenly, and, with a look of earnest appeal to the audience, exclaimed: —
“Oh, I forgot to ask the question, ‘If the Government can make money why should it collect taxes?’
“Let us be honest. Here is a poor man with a little yoke of cattle, cultivating forty acres of stony ground, working like a slave in the heat of summer, in the cold blasts of winter, and the Government makes him pay ten dollars taxes, when, according to those gentlemen, it could issue a one-hundred-thousand-dollar bill in a second. Issue the bill and give the fellow with the cattle a rest. Is it possible for the mind to conceive anything more absurd then that the Government can make money?”
At another point, Ingersoll gave another example, — a strikingly beautiful one, — of his practice of suiting the outward manner to the inward thought and feeling in oratory. In illustration of his statement that everything is not to be measured by dollars and cents, — that “a thing is worth, sometimes, the thought that is in it, sometimes the genius,” — he said: —
“Here is a man buys a little piece of linen for forty-five cents, he buys a few paints for fifteen cents, and a few brushes, and he paints a picture; just a little one; a picture, maybe, of a cottage with a dear old woman, white hair, serene forehead and satisfied eyes; at the corner a few hollyhocks in bloom — maybe a tree in blossom, and as you listen you seem to hear the songs of birds — the hum of bees, and your childhood all comes back to you as you look. You feel the dewy grass beneath your bare feet once again, and you go back until the dear old woman on the porch is young and fair. There is a soul there. Genius has done its work. And the little picture is worth five, ten, maybe fifty thousand dollars. All the result of labor and genius.”
At the words “and he paints a picture,” Ingersoll, having just turned to face the left, fixed his gaze steadily on the wall, as an imaginary canvas, gracefully executing with the right hand the motions of an artist before an easel. As he uttered, in exquisitely modulated tones, the clause “and you go back until the dear old woman on the porch is young and fair,” many of his hearers were moved to tears; and when the last word gave the final touch to the painting, there were numerous expressions, both voiced and mute, of astonishment and delight. Not that this rather colloquial passage is considered artistically worthy of comparison with any of Ingersoll’s loftiest inspirations. For it produced its effect largely by appealing, through a masterly delivery, to familiar associations, comparing with his really sublime productions in about the same ratio as do the music of Old Folks At Home and of Die Walkure. It is, however, just such a picture as one would have expected Ingersoll to paint that night: for he was dealing with familiar things; and he spoke “as man to man.” And with what consummate ease! For an hour and a half, — as though it were pastime, — he handled the three problems of “money,” ” the tariff,” “government,” as easily as the most skilful juggler keeps only as many baubles in the air. The applause was almost continuous.
Whatever disappointments or delights may have been, or may be, the lot of other visitors to Carnegie Music Hall, those who were present there during the evening of October 29, 1896, will not forget how imposingly and impressively Robert G. Ingersoll filled the stage in his last political speech.