A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
HIS DOMESTIC TEACHINGS (Cont.)
Children — Their Rearing and Education
Since the preceding presentation of Ingersoll as the liberator and champion of the wife and mother necessarily involves the logical correlative that he was also the liberator and champion of children, the latter fact requires no specific insistence here; and we may therefore pass, without undue delay, to the presentation of his views on the subject concerned. But we shall be able to appreciate more fully, more clearly, more justly, the extent to which he was the liberator and champion of children, if we recall, in so passing, the principal counter ideas of the subject which were prevalent when he began his anti-theological humanitarian crusade.
I refer to the ideas of childhood which were prevalent when he began his crusade, and I term that crusade anti-theological humanitarian, for the simple and obvious reason that the ideas of childhood to which he objected were indissolubly associated with orthodox Christianity. Beneath them, like mire beneath a bed of noxious weeds, was the dogma of total depravity, while above and around them were the ominous and threatening clouds of foreordination, predestination, and everlasting punishment. In the midst of this horrid nightmare, this mental miasma, this moral morass, the lot of childhood was pitiable in the extreme. The sweetest child, — the fairest human flower that blossomed into smiles in the sunshine of a mother’s eyes, — was scarcely more fortunate than a domestic animal. Indeed, it was, in one respect, less fortunate; for the animal had no soul to be depraved in the first place, nor to be damned in the second. Surely this meant, to the proverbial dog, something more than the crumbs that fell from his master’s table!
In those gloomy orthodox days, instead of being welcomed as blossoms are welcomed in the sunshine and fragrance of the garden, children were regarded as divine charges — incarnations of awful responsibilities from on high. Parents believed in a tyrant in heaven. They knew precisely what he exacted from them, and they were intelligent enough, and only enough, to recognize a perfect analogy between their relations to that tyrant and their children’s relations to them. They realized that they themselves could not be orthodox and happy at the same time; and so the melodious laughter, the irrepressibly joyous prattle, of child-hood became, in their ears, a hideous din of irreverence. Feeling the grave responsibility that rested upon them, they sought to secure for their children supernal bliss hereafter, in exchange for orthodox misery now. They transformed the home into a penitentiary, the nursery into a sepulcher, the cradle into a coffin. Every day then was what the really orthodox would like to have Sunday now, and every Sunday then was what our most exemplary penitentiary would be if it were located in the center of our largest cemetery. Certain as these parents were of all things theological, there were at least three things of which they were doubly certain, despite the mutual contradiction between the last two: That “hell is paved with infants’ skulls,” that all children are totally depraved, and that ‘to spare the rod is to spoil the child.’ [“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”] They knew that countless children had been damned, that countless others would be, that all ought to be, but that a few might be spared if the rod was not. There being no means of distinguishing the “few,” excepting perhaps the ordinary signs of ill health, which frequently passed for piety, they applied the rod with uniform generosity.
Of course, even as early as the beginning of Ingersoll’s career, many parents — and I here refer to them as parents only — had passed far above and beyond this stage of primitive orthodoxy. They had already emerged from the jungle, and were commencing to breathe the air of freedom, — to welcome the dawn’s expanding dome, — to bask in the sunlight of kindness and reason. In short, they were growing somewhat heretical. Instead of putting their “stubborn and rebellious” sons to death, as directed in Exodus and Leviticus; instead of delivering them to the “elders” of the city, to be stoned to death, as directed in Deuteronomy, and in the New England blue-laws, — laws based largely upon the Bible, — they chose to prolong their lives and “break” their “wills,” in accordance with the more humane, if less scriptural, teachings of some such gentle kindergarten advocate as John Wesley, for example. To be sure, it often happened that this preference for the Wesleyan method produced precisely the same result that was formerly produced by the more strictly biblical method. But even so, the parents could console themselves with the blessed thought, that both methods bore the orthodox sanction; and that even if, in the application of the more modern one, the exigencies of the case concerned required the exercise of seemingly undue zeal, they had done what they conceived to be their “level best.”
Thus in the average orthodox home, the idea of arbitrary and humiliating obedience, born of tyranny and “original sin,” was carried out in detailed perfection. From the iron throne of Jehovah in heaven, to the cradle of the tenderest babe on earth, the chain of cruelty hung unbroken. The husband lived “in fear and trembling,” at the frightful mercy of Jehovah; the wife, at the mercy of both Jehovah and the husband; the children, at the mercy of all. They were the sport and prey, the helpless galley-slaves, of orthodoxy. Under such conditions, the ideal family life, — the ideal child-life, — was not only unknown, but impossible. The sky was overcast; the clouds seemed always lowering, the atmosphere gloomy and oppressive. Through the day seemed long, the night came early; and the real hearth-fire was out: it had never been kindled. The parents, fearing the untimely removal of their children as a jealous judgment of Jehovah, often withheld from them their natural love. The parental affection of children thus reared scarcely differed in kind or degree from that which the whipped cur manifests for its master.
If we apply here what seems to be the supreme test of nobility, namely, that the commiseration of an individual is invariably in direct ratio to the helplessness of its object, we shall scarcely need to be told, that, against the old ideas of rearing children, — against the Wesleyan nursery methods, — Ingersoll revolted with as intense indignation as against orthodox Christianity itself. Indeed, we shall readily perceive that his “gospel of the fireside “was not circumscribed by the relations of husband and wife, but that it encompassed, with a beneficence as wide as it was tender, the cradle of even the lowliest babe. He says: —
“If women have been slaves, what shall I say of children; of the little children in a alleys and sub-cellars; the little children who turn pale when they hear their father’s footsteps; the little children who run away when they only hear their names called by the lips of a mother; littler children — the children of poverty, the children of crime, the children of brutality, wherever they are — flotsam and jetsam upon the wild, mad sea of life — my heart goes out to them, one and all.”
Passing from this declaration of sympathy and commiseration to his ideas and teachings on the subject of childhood, we find that the latter, like the rest of his philosophy, are preeminently sane, natural, and humane — the unified product of a perfectly logical brain and a perfectly human heart — the triune efflorescence of reason, compassion, and love of the ideal. Nothing is more evident in any of his works than is this fact throughout his utterances concerning the treatment of children. Wherever he touches the subject, purposely or incidentally, it is clarified and ennobled by the inimitable Ingersollian garnishment of reason and beauty.
In the first place, since no one is born of his own volition, Ingersoll taught, as a fundamental proposition of reason and justice, that every babe should be sincerely welcomed. Not in even the remotest sense should it be regarded or treated as either a theological charge or an economic burden. Next to maternity itself stood, in his tender and sympathetic regard, the helplessness and innocence of childhood. Gifted, like the born poet that he was, with imaginative sympathy which enabled him, for the time, to live and love, to yearn and suffer, as a little child, and perceiving, as only the intuitive philosopher can, how absolutely dependent is the salvation of the future upon the cradles of the present, he believed and taught that “a child should know no more sorrow than a bird or a flower.” This was but a natural idealistic sequence of his fundamental declaration, that every babe should be sincerely welcomed. For the sweet children, — the stainless flowers of human kind, — he would have the air and light of liberty, — the sunshine of love and affection, — everywhere. Concerning the old idea, that “little children should be seen, not heard”; that they should always be somewhat serious; and that, at table, they should deport themselves as though eating were a religious ceremony, he said: —
“I like to see the children at table, and hear each one telling of the wonderful things he has seen and heard. I like to hear the clatter of knives and forks and spoons mingling with their happy voices. I had rather hear it than any opera that was ever put upon the boards. Let the children have liberty. Be honest and fair with them; be just; be tender, and they will make you rich in love and joy.”
He spurned the very thought of limiting their happiness, as is shown by this matchless eloquence, aimed at the Puritan Sabbath — the day which cast so dark a shadow over his own boyhood: —
“The laugh of a child will make the holiest day more sacred still. Strike with hand of fire, O weird musician! thy harp strung with Apollo’s golden hair; fill the vast cathedral aisles with symphonies sweet and dim, deft tocher of organ keys; blow, bugler, blow, until the silver notes do touch and kiss the moonlit waves, and charm the lovers wandering midst the vine-clad hills: but know, your sweetest strains are discords all, compared with childhood’s happy laugh — the laugh that fills the eyes with light and every heart with joy. O rippling river of laughter! thou art the blessed boundary line between the breasts of men; and every wayward wave of thine doth drown some fretful fiend of care. O Laughter! rose- lipped daughter of Joy, make dimples enough in thy cheeks to catch and hold and glorify all the tears of grief.”
And so, with Ingersoll, the happiness of childhood was of transcendent importance.
As to the general conduct of children, he knew that, in at least one fundamental respect, the latter are precisely like their elders — they seek happiness, according to their light; and he believed that if, in this purely natural course, mistakes are made, they call, not for the qualities of a parental Torquemada or martinet, but for reason and justice, as in the case of adults, and for something more — affection. He said: —
“I tell you the children have the same rights that we have, and we ought as though they were human beings. They should be reared with love, with kindness, with tenderness, and not with brutality.”
He denounced the heartless, infamous doctrine, that children can be “spoiled” with love and affection. Indeed, it was these very influences, guided by intelligence, that he proposed as the only agency of correction or reformation: —
“When your child commits a wrong, take it in your arms; let it feel your heart beat against its heart; let the child know that you really and truly and sincerely love it. Yet some Christians, good Christians, when a child commits a fault, drive it from the door and say: ‘Never do you darken this house again.’ Think of that! And then those same people will get down on their knees and ask God to take care of the child they have driven from home. I will never ask God to take care of my child unless I am doing my level best in that same direction.
“But I will tell you what I say to my children: ‘Go where you will; commit what crime you may; fall to what depth of degradation you may; you can never commit any crime that will shut my door, my arms, or my heart to you. As long as I live you shall have one sincere friend.'”
After the preceding, it may be well, in the interest of those who would retain their children beneath the native roof-tree, to quote the following —
” * * * Make your home happy. Be honest with them. Divide fairly with them in everything.
“Give them a little liberty and love, and you can not drive them out of your house. They will want to stay there.
” * * * do not commence at the cradle and shout ‘Don’t!’ Don’t!’ ‘Stop!’ That is nearly all that is said to a child from the cradle until he is twenty-one years old, and when he comes of age other people begin to saying ‘Don’t!’ And the church says ‘Don’t!’ and the party he belongs to says ‘Don’t!’
“I despise that way of going through this world. Let me have liberty — just a little. Call me infidel, call me atheist, call me what you will, I intend so to treat my children, that they can come to my grave and truthfully say: ‘He who sleeps here never gave us a moment of pain. From his lips, now dust, never came to us an unkind word.'”
This resolution, so manly, so noble, so near to pathos in its tenderness, leaves in the mind no doubt, that, of all the hideous, inhuman features of the old doctrine of rearing children, the idea of corporal punishment — “the gospel of ferule and whips,” as he termed it — filled Ingersoll with greatest indignation. Possessing a heart that instinctively shrank from the infliction of pain; dowered with imaginative sympathy that not only enabled but impelled him to put himself in the place of others, even of babes, the mental picture of parents beating and scarring their own flesh was one which he could not contemplate with toleration: —
“Think of being fed and clothed by children you had whipped — whose flesh you had scarred! Think of feeling in your of death upon your withered lips, your withered cheeks, the kisses and the tears of one whom you had beaten — upon whose flesh were still the marks of your lash!”
Whether “conscience is born of love,” as stated by Shakespeare, and just what weight we should attach to Ingersoll’s suggestion that conduct depends upon the imagination, it may be difficult to say; but it does seem certain, that, if all possessed imagination equal to his, there would be no beaters of babes.
Notwithstanding the strong influence which sentiment exerted in his revolt at the idea of corporal punishment, Just as strong if not stronger influence was exerted by reason. For here, again, “his brain took counsel of his heart.” This is clearly and forcibly evident in many a passage like the following: —
“The man who cannot raise children without whipping them ought not to have them. The man who would mar the flesh of a boy or girl is unfit to have the control of a human being. The father who keeps a rod in his house keeps a relic of barbarism in his heart. There is nothing reformatory in punishment; nothing reformatory in fear. Kindness, guided by intelligence, is the only reforming force. An appeal to brute force is an abandonment of love and reason, and puts father and child upon a savage equality; the savageness in the heart of the father prompting the use of the rod or club, produces a like savageness in the victim.”
These splendid convictions — these royal children of the heart and brain — often found expression in rare rhetorical form. Was more pungent irony, more humiliating satire, than the following ever used in a sweeter, manlier cause? —
“I do not believe in the government of the lash. If any one of you ever expects to whip your children again, I want you to have a photograph taken of yourself when you are in the act, with your face red with vulgar anger, and the face of the little child, with eyes swimming in tears and the little chin dimpled with fear, like a piece of water struck by a sudden cold wind. Have the picture taken. If the little child should die, I cannot think of a sweeter way to spend an autumn afternoon than to go out to the cemetery, when the maples are clad in tender gold, and little secret runners are coming, like poems of regret, from the sad heart of the earth — and set down upon the grave and look at that photograph, and think of the flesh now dust that you beat.”
And why, it may be asked in passing, did he suggest “an autumn afternoon”? Because afternoon, the death of day, the retrospective time, and autumn, the death of nature, the season of sadness, make all sad things seem doubly so. He suggested an autumn afternoon because he was a poet and artist, who, unlike the other great reformers (as already pointed out), instinctively clothed his profoundest moral and intellectual convictions in the garments of ideal beauty.
As showing further, and perhaps even more intimately, his tender regard for childhood, the following letters to Mr. and Mrs. John C. Ingersoll, at the death of their son, are of interest here: [John C. Ingersoll was the son of Ebon Clark Ingersoll, Robert’s brother.] —
“400 Fifth Avenue,
Dec. 20, ’91
“Dear John and Lolla:
“I know that your hearts are almost broken over the death of dear little Wilston — and I know that I can say nothing that can save you a tear. But there is one thing in which there is at least a ray of comfort: — The dear little fellow had no fear, and went away on the outflowing tide of sleep. He had not lived long enough to have dread of death. That is something in which there is a little comfort. He is now beyond all suffering, and that is a sweet thought. But whether there is any comfort or not, I know that you must bear the burden. I wish I could help you but I cannot. All I can say is that I love you both, and that my heart feels your grief. All send love to you and yours and to the dear babe that lies asleep.
A day later, prevented from being present: —
“* * * There is no words deep enough and tender enough to soften your grief, or to lighten your burden. I know that the stars have all gone out, and the world seems poor and barren. * * * Time, of course, will in some little degree dull the edge of pain. I wish I could write words of meaning enough to lessen your sense of loss. But I cannot. I know how I should feel under like circumstances, and so I know that my words are nothing. But I love you both. Kiss the dear babe Walston for me. * * *”
Still later: —
“Had it been possible, I should have been with you when you laid little Walston to rest. I thought of you all that day. I know that you will bear it because you cannot choose, but it seems almost a sacrilege for me to write about your loss. * * * A world with in it is an awful world — but we are compelled to carry our burdens, and the best way is to forget if we can. * * * My heart goes out to the mother that has buried her babe.”
These letters, which recall, in sympathy and pathos, the wondrous words of “Whence and Whitlier?” in Chapter 5, could be greatly multiplied.
No less characteristically radical, interesting, and valuable than his ideas of the purely domestic side of rearing children are his ideas of the more intellectual aspect of the problem. Here also love, liberty, and honesty, — the last two especially, — should constitute, according to him, the prevailing influence. Of the necessity for mental honesty, he says: —
“Let us be honest. Let us preserve the veracity of our souls. Let education commence in the cradle — in the lap of the loving mother. This is the first school. The teacher, the mother, should be absolutely honest.
“The nursery should not be an asylum for lies.
“Parents should be modest enough to be truthful — honest enough to admit their ignorance. Nothing should be taught as true that cannot be demonstrated.”
And of the necessity for mental liberty: —
“We have no right to enslave our children. We have no right to bequeath chains and manacles to our heirs. We have no right to leave a legacy of mental degradation.
“Liberty is a birthright of all. Parents should not deprive their children of the great gifts of nature. We cannot all leave lands and gold to those we love; but we can leave Liberty, and that is of more value than all the wealth of India.”
Speaking only a few months before his death, he observed: —
“William Kingdon Clifford, one of the greatest men of this century, said: ‘If there is one lesson that history forces upon us in every page, it is this: Keep your children away from the priest, or he will make them the enemies of mankind.’
“In every orthodox Sunday-school children are taught to believe in devils. Every little brain becomes a menagerie, filled with wild beasts from hell. The imagination is polluted with the deformed, the monstrous and malicious. To fill the minds of children with leering fiends — with mocking devils — is one of the meanest and bassist of crimes. In these pious prisons — these divine dungeons — these Protestant and Catholic inquisitions — children are tortured with these cruel lies. Here they are taught that to really think is wicked; that to express your honest thought is blasphemy; and that to live a free and joyous life, depending on fact instead of faith, is the sin against the Holy Ghost.
“Children are taught — thus corrupted and deformed — become the enemies of investigation — of progress. They are no longer true to themselves. They have lost the veracity of the soul. In the language of Professor Clifford, ‘they are the enemies of the human race.’
“So I say to all fathers and mothers, keep your children away from priests and ministers; away from orthodox Sunday-schools; away from the slaves of superstition.”
With the children thus protected at the start from the warping. blighting, degrading influences of superstition — with “Love the only priest,” according to one of his fundamental maxims — and with absolute mental honesty and perfect mental liberty the aim and gift of every parent, Ingersoll would undertake the realization of the public educational reforms and ideals indicated in Chapter 12. He would undertake the mental, moral, and physical development — harmonious and unified — of every child. He would undertake the process, not merely of “universal education,” which is already advocated and practiced by even the narrowest sects, but the process of educating the child universally, which has never been practiced nor advocated by any sect, nor allowed in even a secular public school. He would undertake the realization of a curriculum in which nature, and nature only, should bound the intellectual horizon of the pupil. He would commence at the cradle. In the sunlight of love, in the open air of honesty and liberty, he would shape the lever of “real education” — “the only lever capable of raising mankind.”