A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
DID HE PRACTISE WHAT HE PREACHED?
It is, or rather, it ought to be universally recognized, as a fundamental principle, that a precept or a doctrine is valuable solely for what it is in itself. Precepts and doctrines in the realm of logic, of ethics, — of philosophy in general, — like commodities in the realm of commerce, are worth precisely what they in themselves will bring. They neither gain nor lose, from the viewpoint of pure reason, because of the morality or the immorality, the sincerity or the insincerity, of him who professes or proclaims them. The multiplication table, recited parrot-like by one who could not correctly apply it in a simple problem, would be quite as true as if recited by a Descartes or a Newton. The Golden Rule, repeated by the most abandoned and dissolute of wretches, would be just as safe a moral guide as if it fell from the lips of Confucius or of Christ.
But, unfortunately, the average man is not yet a thoroughly logical being; and, consequently, he is apt to value the things that he reads or hears, not at what they themselves are worth, but at what they themselves are worth, plus or minus the personal worth of him who professes or proclaims them. Thus is impersonsl philosophy debited or credited with the personality of the philosopher; the impersonal message, with the personality of the man.
But if mankind is chargeable with illogic in failing to distinguish philosophy from the philosopher, it is, conversely, to be credited with judging the philosopher himself, not by his philosophy alone, but by his philosophy and his conduct together. It is to be credited with judging, not by theories, but by theories and acts; not by words, but by words and deeds; not by mentality, but by mentality and manhood. It demands not only ideals, but a practical application of ideals. It recognizes, that, while it is “a great thing to preach philosophy,” it is “far greater to live it.” Hence the triteness of the query, “Does he practise what he preachcs? “If the latter elicits an affirmative answer, mankind accepts the philosopher concerned; if a negative answer, it rejects him — too often his philosophy included.
Now, we have examined, somewhat at length, the philosophy of Ingersoll. We have pointed out his ideals. We have ascertained his views of the most important subjects of daily human interest. We have studied his “gospel of the fireside,” and his “religion of humanity.” We have read his advice concerning the treatment of wife and child, of the Poor and unfortunate, and of the criminal. And we have seen, that his ideal was lofty; that his views were reasonable; that his advice was sound and good. In other words, we have coucluded that his philosophy was of the highest, the noblest, and the best.
But perhaps we have not fully decided as to the philosopher himself. It is therefore peculiarly fitting that we now ask concerning Ingersoll the usual question, “Did he practise what he preached?”
Those whose knowledge of his personal life has not been acquired wholly from the incidental references thereto in the preceding chapters will surely appreciate the sense of delicacy which any writer must feel in undertaking a reply to the query just propounded. What, enter unhidden the sacred precincts of the fireside king! Standing upon this mental threshold, I feel that one who would take a forward step should wear the white robes of perfection — that he should be clad in vestments of devotion already consecrated at the innermost shrine of the ideal!
As stated in Chapter 3, Ingersoll was married on February 13, 1862, at Groveland, Tazewell County, Ill., to Miss Eva A. Parker. He was then twenty-eight years of age.
Accepting as true the adage, that “all the world loves a lover,” this marriage must have been blessed with far more than the usual abundance of well-wishes; for it is morally certain, that, should we begin even before Shakespeare’s time, — with the earliest predecessors of Romeo and Juliet, — we should not be able to find, either in literature or in life, a more perfect example of mutual devotion than that with which Robert Ingersoll and Eva Parker enriched the annals of human affection. And, whether we accept or reject the other adage, or rather, the teleological notion, that men and women are “made for each other,” we must admit that here were a man and a woman who, in effect at least, had lived and waited, and would continue to live, for each other. Not only was theirs a perfect union of hearts: it was a perfect union of minds — an ideal blending of love and intellectual sympathies. For, as stated in the chapter last mentioned, the Parkers, for generations, had been Freethinkers; and Eva A. Parker was not an exception in this respect. Unusually endowed with intelligence and the spirit of humanity and freedom — “a woman without superstition,” to quote her husband’s exact words of her — she was to Robert Ingersoll (again quoting his words) “the one of all the world.”
But kind as was fortune in effecting a union so perfect, so absolutely ideal, she did not cease her beneficent ministrations; and two daughters came to enhance and share the joys of the Ingersoll fireside. They were Eva R., born at Groveland, and Maud R., born at Peoria. The first and elder became, in 1889, the wife of Mr. Walston H. Brown, the banker and railroad-builder. But she did not thereupon pass from the family circle which included her distingnished father. There was no table of subtraction in the Ingersollian domestic arithmetic; and so, instead of one’s being taken away by the ofttimes cruel god of marriage, simply another chair was drawn at the fireside of the Great Agnostic.
To say of the children of most men, — of even the children of most great men, — that they love and respect and admire their father, would doubtless do full justice to the facts. Not so of the daughters of Iugersoll: they did far more. In childhood they loved him; in youth they adored him; in womanhood they adored and admired him as the one ideal embodiment of domestic affection and moral and intellectual grandeur. For, although enjoying in religious matters, in accordance with the Ingersollian Golden Rule, “every right” that their parents claimed for themselves, they became, on reaching the age of intellectual discretion and have since steadfasdy remained, in keeping with their maternal traditions, in full and perfect accord with the opinions and teachings of their father. “We all feel,” wrote Mrs. Eva R. Ingersoll-Brown, in expression of the sentiments, not only of herself and sister, but of her mother and, in fact, the entire household, “that he is doing the greatest and noblest work of this world.”
It must ever seem useless to postulate what might or might not have occurred in the life of a given genius but for the one or the other fact or circumstance. It will seem doubly useless to whomever accepts the philosophy, that “all that has been possible has happened.” Nevertheless, I cannot pass this point without at least suggesting the speculation as to what share of the world’s gratitude for the wealth of courage and heroism, of elevating and ennobling sentiment, and of artistic beauty, with which Ingersoll dowered mankind, is due to the three (particularly the first of the three) noble women who completed the circle around ‘the holy hearth of his home.’ Had fate decreed that Robert Ingersoll should walk alone life’s hard, uncertain path, he might still have walked the intellectual giant, the friend of justice, and the fearless advocate and invincible champion of physical and mental liberty. He might have carried the torch of reason, the shield of truth; and the embattled hosts of injnstice, higotry, and superstition, pierced by the deadly arrows of his logic — arrows sweetly poisoned with scorn and satire — might still have fallen in their last pangs, or, mortally wounded, have skulked to cover on either side. He might, and doubtless would, have given to us what is most intellectual in a score or more of the great productions previously mentioned; but it seems equally certain, that, had it not been for the wife, in whom he realized his heart’s ideal, and for the wife and the daughters together, whose affectionate sympathy, constantly sustaining, moved him now to tender expression, now to lofty resolve — for the wife and daughters, who made his domestic life one long sweet symphony — the world would have lost its greatest champion of the fireside, and the greatest prose-poet of our tongne; that the highest and best in the productions to which I refer would not have been uttered; and that many others, as entireties, would not now enrich our literature and our lives. Let us therefore thank the three women, who, hopeless of the laurel and the crown, so nobly did their part in sustaining and inspiring him who will be ardently praised and lovingly remembered till all language is barren and all hearts are dust.
Referring now more specifically to the query as to whether Ingersoll practised the philosophy which he taught, let us first view him as the center of his household. This, although it naturally varied in size, was always very large. Besides Ingersoll himself, it consisted of Mrs. Ingersoll, Miss Ingersoll, Mr. and Mrs. Walston H. Brown and their children (Eva Ingersoll and Robert G. Ingersoll), Mrs. Ingersoll’s mother (Mrs. Benjamin Weld Parker), Mr. Clinton Pinckney Farrell, who sustained to Ingersoll the various relations of private secretary, traveling companion, publisher, etc., Mrs. Farrell (Mrs. Ingersoll’s sister), their daughter (Eva Ingersoll), Miss Sue Sharkey, and others. To this number are to be added “a small army” of individuals in the several capacities of tutor, governess, servant, etc.
There is a saying, as trite as it too often true, that no house is large enough for two families. Yet here was a house which held not two but four families, four generations, in perfect harmony and content. Nothing could have induced them to dwell apart.
In his home, out of hearing and sight of the world, Robert G. Ingersoll was absolutely true to his ideal, — to each and all of the domestic precepts and doctrines, which, publicly taught and professed by him, have heen quoted in the preceding chapters. His honeymoon lasted till death. He sought to make his home a heaven, and he succeeded. There all the refining, ennobling, and inspiring influences of past and present, — of science, philosophy, sculpture, painting, poetry, and music, — blended with the ineffable charm of a great personality to create for a fortunate few the fairest place of earth. There, at last, was a home where Shakespeare was the Bible, Burns the hymn-book, and their most devoted reader a mingling of both. There did the humanitarian, philosopher, and poet realize his fondest dream. There, at last, was the real republic, the ideal democracy — a realm where love was the only law — a realm from whose radiant center there fell upon all a spirit as benign, as halcyon, as joyful as June’s most perfect day.
Ingersoll’s devotion to home was absolute, it being manifested even to the extent of relieving his wife of the usual household responsibilities and cares. In this, he was as prolicicut, as resourceful, as much himself, — -in short, as supreme, — as in the realms of intellect and art.
Those who are familiar with About Farming un Illinois will recall that he emphasizes the relation which cooking bears to civilization: —
“The inventer of a good soup did more for his race than the maker of any creed.”
Hence these directions for broiling beefsteak on a stove: —
“Shut the front damper — open the back one — then take off a griddle. There will then be a draft downwards through this opening. Put on your steak, using a wire broiler, and not a particle of smoke will touch it, for the reason that the smoke goes down. If you try to broil it with the front damber open, the smoke will rise. For broiling, coal, even soft coal, makes a better fire than wood.”
Surely a unique deliverance for the author of the many wondrous words quoted in preceding chapters! And yet he was speaking from practical experience.
Nor was his kuowledge of cooking limited to this recipe: he was adept in the several branches of the culinary art. And when, during the early years of his married life, the houshold cook chanced to be absent, as on a Sunday afternoon, Ingersoll did not feel that he was measuring to his ideal of devotion unless he sacrificed the delights of the study or of the parlor, and entered into active operations in the kitchen. The success of these operations, it is said, was so well attested as markedly to diminish the reputation of the regular cook.
His relief of Mrs. Ingersoll from the usual annoyances incident to the management of servants was equally characteristic. If, for example, it happened that one of them had been careless or delinquent, she would be reproved with a kindliness, a gentle irony, which, revealing to her, without the slightest offense, her shortcomings, would not only produce the desired effect, but would leave her with an added sense of gratitude to her genial employer. However, it was seldom necessary to resort to even this gentle procedure; for the employees of the Ingersoll household served with rare faithfulness. And at the time of his death, several negro men journeyed from Washington to Dobbs’ Ferry, that they might look once more upon the face of him in whose employ, as servants, in years gone by, they had felt the warmth of genuine human kindness.
In all the evidence of Ingersoll’s domestic devotion, nothing is more notable than that every possible hour was spent at home. Once there, he remained until unavoidably called away, when, if possible, he took with him one or all of his loved ones. If unaccompanied, he lost no opportunity for speedy return. He sometimes resorted to very unique means of returning. For example, during the early years of his forensic career, he was frequently called from Peoria in connection with cases that required his daily attention for a considerable period. It often happened, that, by the time he concluded his legal labors for the day, the last train for Peoria had departed; and the distance involved would be too great to cover with the usual conveyance. He would thereupon telegraph to the railroad authurities for a “light” locomotive, and return in its cab to Peoria.
His relations with his children were invariably those of sweet and affectionate companionship. He was oak and sunshine to the violets beneath, — with no shadows, clouds, or rain. His private practice in this regard tallied exactly with his unique public advice. His method consisted in seeking and developing goodness, — not in condemning “badness,” — in the nature of the child. It was the method of sympathy. He would praise and reward, but he would not blame nor censure. He recognized that the child’s actions have necessary causes in physical and mental states. Accordingly, if one of his little children was doing some mischievous act, he would divert its attention in some kindly way. He would not resort to the usual method of “Don’t! Don’t! Stop! — You mustn’t do that!” etc., which, as we have seen, he so heartily disliked. He knew better than to plant, with “mustn’t,” the seeds of rebellion in the mind of a child too young to reason. His children never heard him utter any of these words.
The reader of the preceding chapter will recall the following: — “I intend to treat my children, that they can come to my grave and truthfully say: ‘He that sleeps here never gave us a moment of pain. From his lips, now dust, never came to us an unkind word.'” That prophetic declaration could be absolutely fulfilled but for this circumstance: Ingersoll has no grave. [NOTE: The ashes of
Robert G. Ingersoll has been buried in the Arlington National Cemetary and there is now (1989) a large stone with his name engraved on it.] His loved ones would not give back to nature his sacred form. But his children can stand by the urn that holds his ashes “and truthfully say” not only what I have just quoted, but this also: “We never heard our fathcr utter an impatient word, nor a word that we now regret.”
And even this touching, this unprecedented tribute, in conjunction with all of similar significance that has preceded it in this chapter, is wholly inadequate to convey a fitting impression of the ideal domestic relations here concerned. Doubtless, therefore, such impression could best be realized, not in further biographical description, but in the words of the incomparable husband and father himself. It could best be realized in those woudrous messages of affection, of adoration, which now and then, duriug a long period of years, passed from Ingersoll as an itinerant propagandist, to those who remained behind at ‘the holy hearth of his home.’ But to reproduce those messages, — to enter, by baring their golden threads, the sacred place of affection, — would involve a sacrilege the mere thought of which it were impossible to entertain. At the same time, to undertake the impression which I have mtentioned, and to which it almost seems that the world is entitled, by way of ethical example, would be to commit, through sheer inadequacy, a sacrilege just as great! Perhaps a compromise on the middle ground of such meager extracts as will follow is a pardonable solution.
It has already been stated, that Ingersoll’s relations with his children were invariably those of sweet and affectionate companionship. That this is but feebly descriptive of the relations mentioned, however, is evident in such letters as the one from which the following fragment is taken: —
“Words cannot express the feelings I have for you [Eva] and Maud and mother. You are the Trinity that I adore. All that I am capable of loving I love you. * * * We will be together in a few days.”
“When I think of mother and you and Maud in that house, it seems as though it would emit light in the darkest night.”
In the spring of 1891, accompanied by his wife and his younger daughter, Maud, he was on the westward journey of his second trip of that year to Montana; but an extract from a letter, or prosepoem, rather, written at St. Paul, on May 16th, to Eva and her husband, at Dobbs’ Ferry-on-Hudson, shows, as characteristically and charmingly, perhaps, as could any similar extract, that, as ususl, home and loved ones were not out of his thoughts, nor even his sight: —
“We talk about you both most of the time. I think of you as looking away across the shining river, at the shadowy and billowy hills, lost in the purple of distance — of you down in that garden, where every leaf is the promise of some joy, and where, it seems to me, that everything will be glad for you — of you watching those cows standing beneath the apple-trees, the blossoms falling at their feet — and, above all, of you both loving each other.”
And then, only four days later (having arrived at Butte), the invariable longing to return: —
“Another day nearer home. That is the first thought each morning. It will only be a few more, and then we will sit together at ‘Walston’ and watch for the cantaloupes to grow. * * * We will have a long summer together — many, many beautiful days.”
On the 23d he writes, from Helena, happy that on the following morning “we are to turn our faces towards yours.” Well on his way, another of those charming and inimitable prose-poems in the form of a letter is written at St. Paul, on the 26th: —
“Here we are in the ‘East’ again. * * * we are in perfect health, * * * and feel that we are nearer home. St Paul seems close to New York — nearer to Dobbs’ Ferry. We had a beautiful journey from Helena — no dust — the plains as green as paradise — everything lovely, and along the road the larks were singing. We talk about you both. We say: ‘They are eating breakfast.’ ‘It is bedtime now at Dobbs’ Ferry.’ ‘they are probably in the garden.’ And so we go on gabbling about the ones we love above all others in the wide world; and when I lie down at night I can hear Eva say: ‘Can you go to sleep?’ ‘Good night’ ‘Do you feel well? — Well, good night; and the voice sounds as though there were only love in the world. * * * “
And then — the arrival; but that, undescribed by Ingersoll himself, is better left, by him who would write, to the reverential fancy of him who reads.
“How happy I was when the girls were babes!” wrote Ingersoll to a nephew, on August 9, 1890. “Well, I am happy still. I am now reaping the harvest of my life. The house is filled with affection, and we are all really happy. I hope that you will be as joyous at 57 as I am now.”
Another interesting indication that his happiness continued after his own babes, as such, were replaced by grandchildren is furnished by a “fragment” which was written on the first anniversary of Eva Ingersoll-Brown. The fragment also furnishes a glimpse of the playful, sunny spirit of its author in his home: —
“One year of perfect health — of countless smiles — of wonder and suprise — of growing through and love — was duly celebrated on this day, and all paid tribute to the infant gueen. There was whirling things that scattered music as they turned — and boxes filled with tunes — and curious animals of whittled wood — and ivory rings with tinkling bells — and little dishes for a fairy-feast — horses that rocked, and bleating sheep and monstrous elephants of painted tin. A baby-tender, for a tender babe, garments of silk and cushions wrought with flowers and pictures of her mother when a babe — and silver dishes for another year — and coach and four and train of cars — and bric-a-brac for baby’s house — and last of all, a pearl, to mark her first round year of life and love.”
Quite as interesting, for the same reasons, is the following letter, written five years later: —
“Hot Springs, Ark., Feb’y 16th 1898.
“Dear Eva and Robbie:
“We received your sweet letter this morning, and we are glad to hear that you love us and want us to come home. We will see you in a few days and tell you where we have been and what we have seen. We have been over the prairies and bridges, and through the forests, and in the towns and cities. We have seen thousands of men, women, and children, and lots of babes; but we have seen no girl and boy as sweet as you. This is a beautiful day, and Grandma and I are going to take a walk. The sun is shining, and the sky is blue as Robbie’s eyes and as bright as Eva’s smile. We love you both and would like to hug and kiss you this morning. Kiss mamma and papa for us, and tell them to be good — as good as you are, and that will be good enough. I hope you had good dreams last night. Hope you have had the cow mended, and that all dolls and animals are well — that no legs are broken. As soon as I get back I will eat some baked apples with you and give you both a lot of whipped cream. We will have gay times. Give our love to grandmother Parker, and to Eva Farrell and her mother, and to aunt Maud, and Judy with her beautiful nose, and to Annie.
“Well, good-bye. Love and kisses for you both. Your letters make us happy.
“We love you.
“Grandma and Grandpa.”
The pecuniary features of Ingersoll’s domestic philosophy were carried out in a very characteristic way. One of the drawers of a particular bureau served as a household bank, the contents of which were replenished from time to time with odd amounts — greater or less, as circumstances might prompt. Without key or accountant, this unique monetary institution, with one depositor, was equally accessible to all. Wife and children were simply told by husband and father, that what was his was theirs. He did this that they might be free from the necessity of asking for money. He desired that their pecuniary liberty, so to speak, as well as their liberty in all other respects, should be absolute. At the same time, as regards his children, he preferred, for ethical reasons, that they should not have the actual handling of money — lest they might come to care for it in itself. Instead, therefore, of being put to the necessity of availing themselves of the very liberty which they so well knew was theirs, namely, the privileges of the “household bank,” they were accompanied to the “shops” and there told to sclect what they wished.
The ethical result of this method was the very one that their father had hoped to attan. The children, knowing that they were at liberty to draw upon the common fund at any time, rarely did so, — rarely had money in their personal possession, — and, consequently, never acquired the mental attitude which tends to make of money a fetich. Similarly with respect to the things that money could procure: knuwing that they might have whatever they chose, they seldom asked for anything, and never for anything unreasonable. In fact, they were very economical, it being their constant aim to avoid puttiug any unnecessary burden upon their noble and generous father. Their solicitude in this regard was also manifest in the care of things with which they or the household in common had already been provided. Here again, knowing that if they chanced to break or mar a doll or a dish or a piece of furniture no blame would attach, they were unusually careful; and when such an accident did occur, they felt it even to the keenest sorrow. All this could only have been due to the ideal relations which they enjoyed — to affection, justice, and freedom — to the restraint of liberty.
Very often, at the conclusion of lectures in which Ingersoll had set forth his doctrine of domestic finance, people would gather about him and say that they could never treat their children as he had taught.
“Why,” some man would declare, “my children would rob me — bankrupt me!”
“That would be because you had not treated them rightly at the start,” Ingersoll would reply, in effect. “But take your children aside and have a good honest talk with them. Tell them that you are going to give them a little liberty, and that if they do not abuse it, it will continue.”
Sometimes the advice given in the lectures themselves required no supplemental remarks. To mention a case in point: A Uuited States senator from one of the Pacific states had disowned his daughter in his will, because she married contrary to his wishes. He had not spoken to her for twenty years. It chanced that Ingersoll visited the senator’s place of residence and delivered The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child. After hearing the latter, the aged senator went home and wrote to his daughter. He told her that he had just heard a lecture which had convinced him that he was “an old fool.” He begged her forgiveness, and asked that she come to him. But he did not await her arrival: he took a carriage that night and drove to her home, a long distance, reaching his destination at some unseemly hour.
The ennobling effect of the lectnre just mentioned has often been remarked. It has been said, for instance, that a man on his way home from hearing it would, if possible, purchase some gift or other for his family.
An intimate associate of Ingersoll has stated, that he himself was never able to sit with the audience during a delivery of the lecture, without being moved to tears, because he knew that its every word came straight from the orator’s heart, and was lived during every moment of his life.
The wife of a certain prominent citizen of Illinois, although herself a Christian, would never permit a detractor of Ingersoll to go unrebuked in her presence, because the latter’s influence upon her husband had been so elevating and ennobling.
The remaining space of this volume might be devoted to similar cases and incidents. But enough concerning this single phase of Ingersoll’s character. For it is already evident, that the influence of his teachings and of his great personality, radiating beyond the ideal circle in which he dwelt, made for the domestic ideal in the remotest parts of the continent.
Hardly less notable than his devotion to his family was his devotion to his friends. His heart, his purse, his house, his great prestige, his most arduous intellectual endeavors, were freely theirs. Probably no other man ever had greater capacity for friendship. To know him was to be his friend forever.
Innumerable as were his misguided enemies, his personal friends were legion. And what a miscellaneous assembly they would have made! They represented nearly every race, every reputable vocation, every social stage. In official life, they ranged from president to messenger, from general to private, from admiral to landsman; in commerce, from the president of the great railway- system to the clerk; in literature, from the poet to the pennya- liner. Inventors, jurists, physicians, painters, actors, musicians, were his friends; and all loved him with woudrous devotion. Each of them who survives can say, with Mark Twain: “His was a great and beautiful spirit; he was a man — all man, from his crown to his foot-soles. My reverence forhim was deep and genuine. I prized his affection for me, and returned it with usury.”
Whether in Peoria, in Washington, or in New York, the home of Ingersoll was an attractive and ever-welcoming center. Indeed, few were his notable contemporaries who had not experienced the rare lehghts of an evening there. For it was not, like so many other luxurions homes, a rendezvous for the mentally commonplace. Its attractions were for individualities — for such as have, in all ages and lands, been accustomed to think and to act. They possessed little capacity for polite fatuities and the private affairs of others; and even had they inclined to the latter, they would have been wasting their precious hours. For their host entertained a most hearty dislike for social gossip. It was utterly beneath him. ‘It is just as easy to be familiar with the history of Julius Caesar,’ he would say, in effect, as to be familiar with the affairs of your next-door neighbor.’ Hence the topics of conversation were of the most substantial and engaging sort. They would have interested women like de Stael and George Eliot, and men like Voltaire, Goethe, Burns, Huxley, Emerson, and Lincoln. How much they interested men of lesser note is a matter of social history. Thus in Washington, of a Sundsy evening (always the “at-home” evening of the Ingersnll), men of national and international reputation — prominent members of the House and of the Senate, members of the Cabinet, etc. — invariably formed part of the circle of which the great orator was the magnetic center. During “presidential years,” it was not unusual to find in the Ingersoll drawingroom a half-dozen prospective candidates for the presidency, absorbed in the discussion of current political questions.
Needless to state, that, in the Ingersoll domestic circle, there was not only the most generous material hospitality: there was genuine intellectual hospitslity, — something which, alas, too rarely prevails in the home. A prominent intellectual man who was a frequent caller at the Great Agnostic’s used to remark, that it was the only place where he felt free to express his real convictions on all matters whatsoever. He had found, at last, with trtie appreciation, a circle in which he not only could express his honest thoughts without offense to anyone else, but in which he must express them, if he would enjoy the highest respect of all its members.
If we consider the immensity of Ingersoll’s personality, his encyclopedic knowledge, his charm of presence and conversation, we need not tax the fancy to conceive something of the delights of an evening at his fireside. There are individuals who would minify those delights, as far as Ingersoll’s conversation is concerned, by charging that he was not a thinker. The truth is, that he was one of the profoundest of thinkers. There were few if any suhjects of human interest on which he had not thought deeply, and on which he was not preparedinstantly to express an opinion, whether from the rostrum or from his seat by the hearth. In this he had schooled himself from youth. But it was his misfortune, that he was neither solemn in manner nor ambiguous in expression. If he had only been void of humor, and if his language could only have been misunderstood, he would have been universally regarded as profound. Perspicuity, especially if wedded to humor, has ever been the enemy of philosophic fame.
Despite the depth and the range of his original thought, he read the thoughts of others. It was said by Schopenhauer, that if one wished to become a fool, one should pick up a book at every spare moment. This advice evidently is not always to be relied on; for very rarely did Ingersoll pass a leisure hour without a book.
In this connection should be specially mentioned two features of his remarkable mentality. The first was the faculty of divining just where to extract “the pith and marrow” of the matter before him. Surprising as it would sound to his anti-theological critics, it is said by those who know best that there seemed to be some sort of good demon in attendance to guide him forthwith to the most interesting and profitable parts. He would read a page at a glance and yet he never appeared to be in a hurry.
The other feature of mentality to which I have referred was memory. He never forgot what he read. Mr. Baldwin, editor of the Peoria Star, is authority for the statement tbat Ingersoll once repeated from memory, without hesitation or error, and with perfect elocutionary effect, upwards of thirty separate poems which he had read, on the same day, for the first time, in the train between Chicago and Peoria. Mr. Baldwin, unobserved by Ingersoll, held a copy of the poems during the recitation, which was instigated by a Mr. Breed, in his drug-store, in Peoria.
Considering the attributes here briefly indicated, it is hardly surprising that Ingersoll’s intimate friends declare, as their conviction, that ‘if his private conversations could have been preserved, it would have been better to let the writings go.’ “I have been with him on a hundred political platforms,” says Colonel Clark E. Carr. “I have heard him many times in literary addresses, always thrilled and moved by snch eloquence as could ‘haunt the heart, rouse the passions, lull rampant multitudes, scatter to dust the thrones of kings, and effect more wonders than the grandest chorus or the deftest pen,’ and still it always seemed to me that Colonel Ingersoll was more sublime in conversation than anywhere else. As Macaulay says, the life of Dr. Johnson is the biography of biographies. Splendid as this biography is, and enchanting as are its pages, it has always seemed to me since I came to know Colonel Ingersoll well, that if some Boswell could have been his constant companion to jot down every day the incidents and what he said in every position and relation of life, he would be able to give to the world a volume more interesting than Boswell’s Life of Johnson. On several occasions Ingersoll’s stenographic secretaries, evidently sharing this opinion, endeavored to suit their action thereto, as far as preserving the conversation was concerned; but they were always prevented from doing so. His inherent modesty would promptly assert itself, as it invariably did in matters of personal biography, and he would say: “I can’t allow that,” “You will have to stop that.” And so, for the most part, those wondrous words of philosophy, of wit and wisdom, of humor and pathos, were lost to the world, and will live but a few brief years in the minds of a fortunate few.
However, with many other words of like nature, addressed to frieuds through the medium of writing, it has happily been different, as the following letters show. They are typical of their author in the several moods disclosed.
ON RECEIVING A PRESENT OF A VISIT
“Peoria, Oct. 21, 1893.
“J.W. Proctor, Esq.
“Dear Friend: Day before yesterday Messrs, Mawhynter & French, of this city, handed me an elegant vest, for which, as they informed me, I was indebted to you.
“I must say that I think you made a good investment, at least for me. I thank you for your kindness and hope that you may live long in the enjoyment of all the vestal virtues of life; that your vested rights may never be wrested from you, at least without legal investigation. I also hope that after your death you will not long be kept in the vestibule of the better world, but be allowed to enter heaven at once.
“In conclusion, I am in favor of prosecuting the war until not a vestige remains of the rebellion.
“Remember me to Dr. McDowell and family.” [NOTE: This amusing play on the word ‘vest’ was brought about by a Mr. Proctor, then a resident of Lewistown, Fulton County, Ill., who had prevailed upon Ingersoll to visit Lewistown and deliver a speech to constrict the anti-war sentiment which was rife in Fulton County, and had endeavored to induce the speaker to accept compensation for his services. Failing in this, Mr. Proctor went to Ingersoll’s tailors, in Peoria, and ordered the vest as a suprise. Dr. McDowell was Ingersoll’s host at Lewistown.]
DECLINING AN INVITATION TO THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY DINNER OF THE CLOVER CLUB, PHILADELPHIA,
JANUARY 28, 1883
(TO COLONEL THOMAS DONALDSON)
“I regret that I cannot be ‘in clover’ with you on the 28th instant.
“A wonderful thing is clover! It means honey and cream, — that is to say, industry and contentment, — that is to say, the happy bees in perfumed fields, and at the cottage gate ‘bos’ the bountiful serenely chewing satisfaction’s cud, in that blessed twilight pause that like a benediction falls between all toil and sleep.
“This clover makes me dream of happy hours; of childhood’s rosy cheeks; of dimpled babes; of wholesome, loving wives; of honest men; of springs and brooks and violets and all there is of stainless joy inpeaceful human life.
“A wonderful word is ‘clover’! drop the ‘c,’ and you have the happiest of mankind. Drop the ‘r,’ and ‘c,’ and you have left the only thing that makes a heaven of this dull and barren earth. Drop the ‘r,’ and there remains a warm, deceitful bud that sweetens breath and keeps the peace in countless homes whose master frequent clubs. After all, Bottom was right:
“‘Good hay, sweet hay, hath no fellow.’ “Yours sincerely and regretfully.
“Washington, D.C., January 16, 1883.”
ON RECEIVING A PRESENT OF OPALS.
“November 26, 1885.
“My Dear Mr. Johnston:
“A thousand thanks for your beautiful gift. Had I dreamed of your doing any such thing, I should never have spoken of the jewels. Now I can only express my surprise, my thanks, and ask you and Mrs. Johnston to come and see them and us.
“Diamonds are cold as intellect; rubies, warm and selfish as desire; but the ominous opel, with its imprisoned fire, is a combination of head and heart — of brain and blood — a mingling of purity and passion — virtue glorified by love.
“Thanking you again and again, and again, saying Come and see us,
R.G. Ingersoll. “J.H. Johnston, Esq.”
ACKNOWLEDGING A GIFT OF CIGARS.
“117 East 21st Street,
“Gramercy Park, April 14, 1899.
“My Dear Major Smith:
“To-day I opened a box of cigars and found your letter. I read it and said: ‘He certainly was good to me.’ I am smoking one now, and there starts over me a sense of gratitude — a feeling that I have a friend — that I am not forgotten. Let them say what they will, there is in tobacco the essence, the aroma of friendship. The ‘pipe of peace’ is not a savage fancy — it is a civilized and scientific fact. Tobacco is social. It is a medium of mental exchange. The doctors may say it shortens life — but the longer life is without it, the worse it is. The preachers say that to use it is wicked. The reason, and the only one they have, for saying this is that it gives us joy. For my own part, I had rather smoke one cigar than hear two sermons. In fact I had rather chew ‘green twist’ than to read the best chapter in Leviticus.
“But whether smoke shortins life or not, whether it puts my soul in peril or not, I send you a thousand thanks for sending me a box of temptations — from which my sincere prayse is not to be delivered. I will smoke and thank you.
PRESENTING A COPY OF LES MISERABLES.
“New York, Dec. 30, 1885.
“I send you the greatest novel in the world — a novel filled with philosophy, beauty, pathos — with all that is tender, heroic, and dramatic. You will find all the lights and shadows that fall upon the heart — all the buds and blossoms, and all the withered leaves, that belong to Hope and Memory.
“This novel goes over the whole field of human experience — war, religion, politics, love, government, crime, punishment, education, history, and prophecy. It is filled with the divine — that is to say, with pity, with love. The good bishop, the sublime convict, the pure ‘sister’ Simplice, the purer Fantine — all these contradictions, are higher forms of truth.
“No man can read this book without becoming much better or much worse. This great light will either illumine the soul, or deepen the shadow.
“You will read it with wonder and tears.
“You will finish it with a sigh.
In dealing with strangers, as in intercourse with friends, Ingersoll ever manifested the most admirabletraits. Whether in contact with high public officials, or with employes of railroads and hotels, or with members of the press, his manner and conversation were above criticism. Invariably courteous and considerate, — generous at every opportunity for being so, — he frequently acted the role of friend.
Consider his relations with newspaper men. Aside from the probability that he created for them more work than any other individual publicist, he was, in his personal dealings, one of the very best friends, if not the best friend, that the reporters have ever had. He was the most approachable of men. And not only did he make the interview socially pleasurable, he made it a practical success, for the reporter. He possessed the sense of “news” — knew just what was wanted, and gave it. This is interestingly evidenced by the fact that his permanently published interviews alone, extracted from the press of the United States, Canada, and England, occupy more than seven hundred octavo pages, and deal with almost every subject of human concern. He was interviewed on even “the interviewer.” It is said by the reporters themselves, that Ingersoll was never known to decline an interview, and that many men who hold high positions in journalism achieved their first professional success at his hands. Precisely the same could he stated with reference to members of other professions who, as strngers, songht his wise and kindly counsel.
One of the best proofs of moral greatness and mental largeness is absence of caste and of racial, religious, and political prejudice. Ingersoll had none of these — was not prejudiced against the individual. Take the two worst forms of prejudice, — racial and religious. With reference to the latter, he said: —
“Understand me. I hate Methodism, and yet I know hundreds of splindid Methodists. I hate Catholicism, and like Catholics. I hate insanity but not the insane.”
He was as generous with the orthodox Catholic, as an individual, as he was with the dogmatic atheist. As to racial prejudice: he would have treated a negro evangelist with as much consideration as he would Professor Huxley. He was graciously afflicted with the colorblindness of true democracy. Like so many other members of the negro race, the late Frederick Douglass has furnished most interesting evidence of this. On page 560 of his Life and Times, he says: —
“A dozen years ago, or more [1868 or earlier], on one of the frostiest and coldest nights I ever experienced, I delivered a lecture in the town of Elmwood, Illinois, twenty miles distant from Peoria. It was one of those bleak and flinty nights, when prairie winds pierce like needles, and a step on the snow sounds like a file on the steel teeth of a saw. My next appointment after Elmwood was on Monday night, and in order to reach it in time, it was necessary to go to Peora the night previous, so as to take an early morning train, and I could only accomplish this by leaving Elmwood after my lecture at midnight, for there was no Sunday train. So a little before the houre at which my train was expected at Elmwood, I started for the station with my friend Mr. Brown, the gentleman who had kindly entertained me during my stay. On the way I said to him, ‘I am going to Peoria with something like real dread of the place. I expect to be compelled to walk the streets of that city all night to keep from freezing.’ I told him that ‘the last time I was there I could obtain no shelter at any hotel and fear I shall meet a similar exclusion to-night.’ Mr. Brown was visibly affected by the statement and for some time was silent. At last, as if discovering a way out of a painful situation, he said, ‘I know a man in Peoria, should the hotels be closed against you there, who would gladly open his doors to you — a man who will receive you at any hour of the night, and in any weather, and that man is Robert G. Ingersoll.’ ‘Why,’ said I, ‘it would not do to disturb a family at such a time as I shall arrive there, on a night so cold as this.’ ‘No matter about the hour,’ he said; ‘neither he nor his family would be happy if they thought you were shelterless on such a night. I know Mr. Ingersoll, and that he will be glad to welcome you at midnight or at cock-crow.’ I became much interested by this description of Mr. Ingersoll. Fortunately I had no occasion for disturbing him or his family. I found quarters for the night at the best hotel in the city. In the morning I resolved to know more of this now famous and noted ‘infidel.’ I gave him an early call, for I was not so abundant in cash as to refuse hospitality in a strange city when on a mission of ‘good will to men.’ The experiment worked admirably. Mr. Ingersoll was at home, and if I have ever met a man with real living human sunshine in his face, and honest, manly kindness in his voice, I met one who possessed these qualities that morning. I received a welcome from Mr. Ingersoll and his family which would have been a cordial to the bruised heart of any proscribed and storm-beaten stranger, and one which I can never forget or fail to appreciate. Perhaps there were Christian ministers and Christian families in Peoria at that time by whom I might have been received in the same gracious manner. In charity I am bound to say there probably were such ministers and such families, but I am equally bound to say that in my former visits to this place I had failed to find them.”
Besides this appreciative expression, Mr. Douglas is said to have stated, that, of all the great men of his personal acquaintance, there had been only two in whose presence he could be without feeling that he was regarded as inferior to them — Abraham Lincoln and Robert G. Ingersoll.
On the day of the latter’s death, a negro waiter at the Cadillac Hotel, Detroit, having indicated to one of the guests, by word and manner, that he (the waiter) was feeling “powerful bad,” the following colloquy took place: —
“I’ve lost a good friend to-day. Oh! a very good friend,” explained the waiter.
“Indeed,” said the guest. “Who was it?”
“Colonel Ingersoll, sir; Colonel Ingersoll.”
“Was he yonr friend?”
“He was, indeed, sir; he was my friend, one of the best of them, sir. He always used me as a gentleman, Colonel Ingersoll did. He never knew whether my skin was black or white.”
The last sentence could be truthfully uttered by every other colored man with whom Ingersoll came in contact. Whethcr in private, or in the rostrum, or on the field of battle, the negro never had a truer friend.
In the bestowal of charity, Ingersoll was quite as careless of race, color, and creed as in the bestowal of friendship. His beneficence compassed all. This is so widely known, despite the modesty which he exercised, and so many incidental references to it were made in previous chapters, that, toanswer here in the affirmative the query as to whether he practised the charity which he advocated, seems all but needless. One would think that his benevolence, inseparably blended as it is with the most cherished memories of him, would live even if left wholly to tradition. Certain it is, that the declaration of Hamlet has proven false for once: —
” * * * there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year; but by’r lady, he must build churches then * * * .”
Still, it may not be well to place implicit confidence in tradition.
It is peculiarly interesting, that the Great Agnostic’s sentiments on the unfortunate had been perfectly expressed for him in a prayer — “the best” that he “ever read” — the prayer of Lear upon the heath: —
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your unhoused heads, your unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
too little care of this. Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.”
Yet, notwithstanding his admiration for this marvelous deliverance, he himself declared: —
Than lips that pray.”
He used to say that he did not understand how one could live in possession of great wealth where thousands were starving, any more than one could keep a pile of lumher on the beach and watch thousands drown in the sea. And he acted in perfect accord with these sentiments. A gentleman who was intimately scquainted with Ingersoll’s private affairs remarked to the author, while Ingersoll was yet living: “The world will never know the extent of ‘the Culonel’s’ benefactions. He will not permit it to be known while he lives; and after he is dead, no one will be able to believe the truth about it, even if divulged by his family.”
The sufferings of the poor and wretched filled his heart with anguish. It was an unwritten law, that no one should go hungry from his door. It is morally certain, that he never turned a deaf ear to poverty. It is just as certain, that he was constantly imposed upon. Some of his friends, feeling sure of this, used to advise him to mingle more Judgment with his charity. To such he replied: “The trouble with most people is, that they mingle so much ‘judgment’ with their charity that it is nearly all ‘judgment.'” And so his responses to the countless appeals that reached him in various ways, from all sides, were practically indiscriminate. He said that he should rather be deceived a dozen times, than that one poor soul should suffer through mistaken suspicion.
Though Ingersoll gave his dollars by hundredsand thousands, it was not the size of his individual gifts that proved most clearly his beneficent qualities: it was the number and the spirit of those gifts — the countless acts which he performed, in private, with the understandiug that they were not to become generally known, and which, in fact, did become known to only a few.
As has so often been observed by his detractors, he founded no college or asylum. He was too busy with the individual. He never experienced, nor cared to experience, the haughty, egotistic satisfaction of one who sees his own name chiseled amid the cold embellishments of architecture; but a thousand times he heard the words, or saw the tears, of those who, in need, felt the warmth of his heart. To assist the ragged, hungry, and despairing wretch of the street; to make a substantial gift to some man or woman grown prematurely old with menial toil; to relieve the necessities of some poor girl, some clerk or student; to care for the mother and child that death has left with naught but tears; to sympathize with the failures, — the victims, — of nature; to uplift the fallen; to pity even the criminal and despised — to do all these, as did Ingersoll, is to demonstrate, not merely “philanthropy,” but the possession of as tender and noble a heart as ever throbbed in human breast.
Even should we decline to ascribe to Ingersoll higher attributes than are ordinarily implied by “philantltropic,” we should still be bound to inquire, in simple fairness, whether he could well have been more so. For a score of years, his annual income ranged from fifty thousand to one hundred and fifty thousaud dollars. He did not dissipate nor gamble, and yet did not own a foot of earth, nor even the house in whick he died; and his personal property did not exceed in value ten thousand dollars. He had often made that much in a day or two. With the income of a prince, he died in comparative poverty. What had become of his money? Such of it as had not been lavished on his loved ones had been given to others. If we apply the term “philanthmpist” to one who gives a part of his possessions, expecting, in return, honor in this world, and a reward in another, what term shall we apply to him who gave all, expecting neither of these?
In this connection, both justice and accuracy require a word of comment upon the assertion, frequently made, that Ingersoll cared nothing for money. It implies, of course, that his monetary generosity was not generosity at all. Now, it is true that he did not care for money for money’s sake; that he did not make a fetich of money. He did not care for a dollar, nor, appreciably, for a thousand dollars; but he cared for a million dollars — not for what it is in itself, but for the comforts and luxuries which it brings. And no one had the capacity to enjoy them more than he. In this sense, he cared a great deal for money.
In considering his ministrations to the unfortunate, it would be impossible to give due credit to his personality without mentioning a remarkable faculty to which as yet I have not alluded. I refer to his influence over the insane.
For instance, during his eady legal practice, in Illinois, an old coal-miner, surnamed Thomas, was visited at his (Thomas’) house by three men, now supposed to have been strikers, a strike then being in progress. The old man, fearing that they had come to take his life, fired from a window and killed one of them. In a trial for murder, Ingersoll defended Thomas, who was acquitted. But he shortly became insane — from remorse, it was said. At times he was quite rational; at others, violent. Aware of the calmative influence exerted upon him by the personality of Ingersoll, he soon came to regard the latter as his protector. And so, at the approach of a mental attack, he would leave his home, on the Kickapoo, and, accompanied by his scraggy old dog, go straight to Ingersoll’s house, in Peoria. He would follow the latter to his office, and remain till Ingersoll went home; then he would sit all night on the veranda — always perfectly contented so long as he was near to Ingersoll, but wild with fear if they became separated by any considerable distance. In a few days, the mental storm having subsided, he and his faithful old dog would trudge back to the Kirkapoo, — to return again in a few months, perhaps, perhaps not for a year.
Ingersoll was once riding in a train, near Worcester, Mass., he being seated alone, when a strange man who had been eyeing him intently for some time, approached and asked permission to sit with him. “You look so restful,” he said to Ingersoll, by way of excuse. Presently he commenced to pour his confidences into Ingersoll’s ears, stating, among other things, that he had just escaped from an asylum, to which he was sent because the doctrine of hell-fire, taught him hy his mother, made him insane. Remarkable coincidence — a victim of the idea of infinite revenge appealing to its arch enemy for comfort and protection! Strange confirmation of the Great Agnostic’s assertion, that one who really believes in everlasting punishment will go insane!
Believing that the mentally unbalanced, like others, are amenable to kindness, Ingersoll, as a rule, did not unnecessarily question their vagaries or delusions. On at least one occasion, however, his method was humorously different from this. He was again riding in a train, when a strange man suddenly came to his seat and asked:
“Do you know God?”
Instantly recognizing that his questioner was insane, Ingersoll replied, — with face as solemn as a tombstone: “No: I don’t know God, but I know Mrs. God.”
The lunatic’s countenance, as he momentarily stared at Ingersoll, assumed, it is said, a look which unmistakably indicated that in its owner’s opinion he was not the only crazy man in that car! Completely nonplussed, he straightway took his seat, preserving unbroken silence as long as the two occupied the same car.
These arc but a few of the many instances which might be cited to show that Ingersoll possessed — and, too, quite in addition to his tact and wit — an unusual power over the unfortunate individuals concerned. It was doubtless simply a particular manifestation of that general feeling of trust and coufidence which he inspired, in greater or less degree, in all with whom he came in contact.
His treatment of those misguided persons who assumed toward him the role of enemy affords ample proof of his mental largeness and magnanimity. Bitterly as he was hated by some, he never hated in return. In his great heart there was no room for malice. “It is of no use to raise snakes in your bosom — you have to sleep with them,” he would say. And so he never indulged in a pectoral menagerie of any kind. Of course he did not claim to love his enemies, because he knew that it was impossible for him to love them; and he believed it to be quite as impossible for others to love theirs. He did not believe in miracles, either physical or emotional; but he did believe in the “reciprocity” of Confucius. Like that great sage and moralist, his practice was: —
“For benefits return benifits; for injuries return justice, without admixture of revenge.”
A series of incidents that occurred in Illinois will serve to illustrate not only his practice of this rule of ethics, but the way in which he was so often misunderstood.
A minister, during a call at Ingersoll’s home, began to indulge in the usual clerical animadversions on Voltaire, for whom Ingersoll, as we have learned, entertained inordinate admiration and love. The latter asked his reverend guest whether he had read the immortal Frenchman. The minister replied, that he had read everything that Voltaire wrote. Ingersoll doubted this, but said nothing to indicate his doubt. The conversation continued for a few minutes, when he went to his library, and, returning with a book, read aloud a favorite selection. The minister expressed great admiration for it, and inquired the namne of its author. In silence, Ingersoll handed his visitor the volume: it was Voltaire! In the breast of this Protestant clergyman of the prairies, — rendered vulnerable by pretence, — Ingersoll, in silence, had pierced as sharp a wound as Voltaire himself was wont to inflict with words.
The clergyman straightway took his departure, and subsequently preached a series of sermons that were both critical and abusive of the Great Agnostic. But the latter was as silent as when he handed the book to their prospective author.
A few years later, the minister made it his privi-lege to attend (in some town not far from Peoria) a political meeting at which Ingersoll spoke. After the meeting, the minister made it his further privilege to occupy a seat in the conveyance by which the speaker returned to his hotel. Upon reaching the latter, the clergyman asked to see Ingersoll in private. His request granted, he explained that he had grown somewhat, intellectually, since the incident concerning Voltaire; that he understood Ingersoll better, and wished to be forgiven for having preached the abusive sermons. He was generously absolved from the sin.
This one sample of the immense totality of evidence, that Ingersoll lived, in private, to his publicly professed ideal of the treatment of one’s enemies, mast here suffice. It is obviously impracticable to do more than to indicate the conduct that was characteristic of him in this regard.
The same is true concerning his practice of all the other ideals and precepts of his philosophy. Hence, the aim of this chapter has been, not a catalogue of acts, but a characterization.
If the latter has been even partially realized, it has brought us to the unmistakable and unavoidable conclusion: That Ingersoll did “practise what he preached”; that he was a perfect husband and father, a faithful, generous friend, a kind employer; that he was invariably courteous to straugers; that he was a true philanthmpist, — loving his fellow-men regardless of race, or color, or creed, — doing his utmost for the poor and wretched, and pitying even the criminal and despised; that he was just to his enemies — in short, that he was supreme in every relation of life; and that, as we accepted Ingersoll’s philosophy after considering its precepts and doctrines, so now, having considered Ingersoll’s conduct, we must accept Ingersoll the philosopher — Ingersoll the man.