A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
UNIVERSAL REGRET AT HIS DEATH
A SUMMARY OF HIS LIFE-WORK IN
(1) POLITICS, (2) THE LAW, (3) THE FIELD OF RATIONALISM
HIS INFLUENCE ON RELIGIOUS THOUGHT
The death of Robert G. Ingersoll, on July 21, 1899, was one of the most widely — noted events of that year in the civilized world. It was also one of the most widely and profoundly regretted, — the most deeply deplored. Everywhere, the wisest knew (and the noblest felt) that the cause of humanity had met its greatest loss. To many thousands who realized the intellectual amplitude, the moral heroism and grandeur, the boundless generosity and sympathy, the tenderness and affection, of this incomparable man, his passing was as an intimate and bitter bereavement.
Ingersoll was doubtless known, personally and otherwise, to more people than any other American who had not sat in the presidential chair; and, notwithstanding either the number or the wishes of his critics, his death probably brought genuine grief to more hearts than has that of any other individual in our history. Twice before, “a Nation bowed and wept”; this time, a people.
No sooner was the world apprised of its loss, than wires and cables were freighted with words that indicated, as unmistakably as volumes could have done, the place which he who had so unexpectedly passed the somber portals had occupied in the esteem and love of mankind. Hundreds of messages reached “Walston,” many from humble individuals, many from distinguished personages in America and in Europe; while from like sources came thousands of letters. Of course, these communications differed widely in wording; bat their common burden seemed to be: “The greatest and noblest of his kind has fallen, and we mourn.”
The attention of the daily press was universal, the papers of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and even of Africa, publishing accounts of his death, biographical sketches, anecdotes, and extracts from his works. These accounts, sketches, and so forth varied in length, from a quarter of a column or so, to a full page or more, of the principal dailies. Countless editorials appeared, some of them several columns long. Sermons and briefer clerical comments were quite innumerable; and there. were many magazine reviews. Distinctively eulogistic offerings to newspapers and periodicals were impressively numerous. It is especially notable that very many of these tributes took the form of verse. One such was written by a native of South India. Memorial meetings were held in many places in the United States, north and south, east and west, and in Canada and England. Societies were formed in his name, days set apart to his memory. Subscriptions for the erection of monuments were started in several places. It is particularly significant that the citizens of Peoria opened such a subscription only two days after his death.
In their public invitation to subscribers, they stated, in part, through the instrumentality of the Ingersoll Monument Association; —
“The late Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll was a conspicuous figure in the history of the present century. Of heroic character, indomitable preservrance, and fearlessness, born of what he believed to be the right, he was once the gentlest, most affectionate, loveable, and the strongest character of his day.”
The monument association just mentioned was formed at the memorial meeting which was held in the Tabernacle, on July 23, 1899, and which, in its manifestations of esteem, admiration, and love, was impressive beyond description. Numerously attended, — by Freethinkers and Christians alike, — the leading citizens of Peoria, — it is impossible to do more than to note, in passing, the scores of individual tributes, — many of which, from hearts overfull, were uttered in broken words. But the final resolutions (although partially quoted, in a particular connection, in Chapter 4) are presented in full: —
“Whereas, in the order of nature — that nature which moves with unerring certainly in obedience to fixed laws — Robert G. Ingersoll has gone to that repose which we call death.
“Resolved, That we, his old friends and fellow-citizens, who have shared his friendship in the past, hereby manifest the respect due his memory. At a time when everything impelled him to conceal his opinions or to withhold their expression, when the highest honors of the state were his if he would but avoid discussion of the questions that relate to futurity, he avowed his belief; he did not bow his knee to superstition nor countenance a creed which his intellect dissented.
“Casting aside all the things for which men most sigh — political honor, the power to direct the futures of the state, riches and emoluments, the association of the worldly and the well- to-do — he stood forth and expressed his honest doubts, and he welcomed the ostracism that came with it, as a crown of glory, no less than did the martyrs of old.
“Even this self-sacrifice has been accounted shame to him, saying that he was urged thereto by a desire for financial gain, when at the time he made his stand there was before him only the prospect of loss and the scorn of the public. We, therefore, who know what a struggle it was to cut loose from his old associations, and what it meant to him at that time, rejoice in his triumph and in the plaudits that came to him from thus boldly avowing his opinions, and we desire to record the fact that we feel that he was greater than a saint, greater than a mere hero — he was a thoroughly honest man.
“He was a believer, not in the narrow creed of a past barbarous age, but a true believer in all that men ought to hold sacred, the sanctity of the home, the purity of friendship, and the honesty of the individual. He was not afraid to advocate the fact that eternal truth was eternal justice; he was not afraid of the truth, nor to avow that he owed allegiance to it first of all, and he was willing to suffer shame and condemnation for its sake.
“The laws of the universe were his bible; to do good, his religion, and he was true to his creed. We therefore commend his life, for he was the apostle of the fireside, the evangel of justice and love and charity and happiness.
“We who knew him when he first began his struggle, his old neighbors and friends, rejoice at the testimony he has left us, and we commend his life and efforts as worthy of emulation.
“Resolved, That we extend our heartfelt sympathy to his family in their great loss, and that a copy of these resolutions be forwarded to them.”
Even more significant, because coming from a source of still more intimate knowledge, are the resolutions that were adopted at a regimental meeting of the surviving members of the Eleventh Illinois Cavalry Volunteers, in Peoria, on July 26th: —
“Robert G. Ingersoll is dead. The brave soldier, the unswerving patriot, the true friend, and the distinguished colonel of the old regiment of which we have the honor to be a remanent, sleeps his last sleep.
“No word of ours, though written in flame, no chaplet that our hands can weave, no testimony that our personal knowledge can bring, will add anything to his fame, which the American public will not now freely accord.
“The world honors him as the prince of orators in his generation, as its emancipator from manacles and dogmas; philosophy, for his aid in beating back the ghosts of superstition; and we, in addition to these, for our personal knowledge of him, as a man, a soldier, and a friend.
“We know him as the general public did not. We knew him in the military camp, where he reigned an uncrowned king, ruling with that bright scepter of human benevolence which death alone could wrest from his hand.
“We had the honor to obey, as we could, his calm but resolute commands at Shiloh, at Corinth, and at Lexington, knowing as we did, that he would never command a man to go where he would not dare to lead the way.
“Hence we recognize only a small circle around his recent heaven and home, who could know more of his manliness and worth than we do. And to such we say: Look up, if you can, through natural tears; try to be as brave as he was, and try to remember — in the midst of grief which his greatest wish for life would have been to help you to bear — that he had no fear of death nor of anything beyond.
“And we, the survivors, comrades of the Eleventh Illinois Cavalry, extend to his widow and children our condolence in this hour of their sad bereavement.”
At a memorial meeting of Webb Command, Union Veterans’ Union, held in Peoria, on August 11th, it was similarly resolved, among other things, that “this nation has lost one of its brightest ornaments, and humanity one of its best, bravest, and truest friends.”
More numerously attended than any of the meetings thus far mentioned, and quite as impressive in every other respect, was the one held in Studebaker Hall, Chicago, on August 6th, under the joint auspices of the Eleventh Illinois Cavalry Veterans’ Association and the Ingersoll Memorial Association, then just organized in that city. Thousands were present, many having journeyed from distant points in the United States and Canada. The meeting was presided over by Mr. Thomas Cratty, of Peoria; Mr. Darrow (the eminent lawyer and author), Colonel Davidson, and Colonel Carr, whose works were quoted in Chapters 3 and 8, being among the speakers. Perhaps a majority of the latter not only, but of the audience as well, were adherents to the Christian religion. The services occupied about four hours.
Of this remarkable demonstration, little further can be stated than that every word with which the mortal living are wont to voice their esteem, their admiration, their love and adoration, for the immortal dead was utilized in its most meaning eloquence. Earnestly, tenderly, reverently was the opinion avowed, by every speaker, Christian and Freethought alike, that the fame of Ingersoll was secure. Some went far beyond this, Mr. Cratty declaring, in substance, that ‘upon the likeness of Ingersoll, future generations would gaze with more tenderness and joy than upon that of any other man, living or dead.’ Another speaker expressed the belief that ‘temples will be built to Ingersoll, and his image be worshiped, when all gods and religions now known on earth shall have been forgotten.’ “He uttered more sublime words,” said Mr. C. A. Wendle, of Ottawa, “than any other man who ever lived.” Mr. Darrow touched the keynote of his address in the following: —
“Robert G. Ingersoll was a great man. a wonderful intellect, a great soul of matchless courage, one of the great men of the earth — and yet we have no right to bow down to his memory simply because he was great. * * * Great orators, great soldiers, great lawyers, often use their gifts for a most unholy cause. * * * We meet to pay a tribute of love and respect to Robert G. Ingersoll * * * because he used his matchless power for the good of man.”
The same eloquent testimony, with much other which was far more eulogistic, but which cannot he presented here, was borne by Colonel Carr: —
“He was the boldest, most aggressive, courageous, virile, and the kindest and gentlest and most considerate and loving man I ever knew. His was a nature that yielded to no obstacles, that could not be moved nor turned aside by the allurements of place or position, the menaces of power, the favors of the opulent, or the enticing influences of public opinion. Entering upon his career in an age of obsequiousness and time-serving, when the values of political and religious views were estimated by what they would bring from the ruling party and from the church, in offices and emoluments and benefices, he assailed the giant evils of the times with the strength and power of Hercules and ground them to dust under his trip-hammer blows. Throughout his whole active life, there has been no greater and more potential influence than the personality of this sublime character in breaking the shackles of the slave, and in freeing men and women and children from the bonds of ignorance and superstition.”
How truly the several speakers whom I have quoted reflected the consensus of their auditors, may be judged by the following extract from the resolutions that those auditors adopted: —
“Resolved, That in the consideration of the place to be worthy and properly accredited to him in the estimation of his countrymen for his discharge of the duties and responsibilities of the citizen, the soldier, and the statesman, his comrades and friends in Illinois feel that the state which gave to the nation a Lincoln and a Grant has contributed to enrich the records of American citizenship in the life, person, and character of Robert G. Ingersoll. In him broad-minded toleration was tempered with even- handed justice and a gracious beneficence was qualified by a keen sense of private responsibility and public duty. His companions and friends can share with his family the substantial satisfaction of knowing that no impure motives or unworthy aims ever sullied the purity of his private life or marred the unblemished integrity of his personal character.
“Resolved, That in his career as a soldier and commanding officer in the Union army the example of Robert G. Ingersoll is worthy of emulation by the American citizen at any time or in any emergency when the interests of his country may demand his services. We recall with pride and affection his prompt and earnest devotion to the cause of the Union in the hour of its greatest peril.”Resolved, That as a statesman and publicist Robert G. Ingersoll achieved a high and enduring place in the estimation of all who stand for good citizenship, social and civic morality and a high standard of private and public life.
“A master spirit in a masterful and prolific age, the gentle life and mighty work of Robert G. Ingersoll have reflected luster upon American institutions, and have won for him undying fame in the hearts of those who are devoted to the achievements for their countryman of the greatest good for the greatest number.”
On the same date as that of the preceding resolutions, thousands of the citizens of Denver met, in the Broadway Theater there, in another very notable manifestation. To pay a debt of gratitude and love to “the champion of freedom, the most earnest and eloquent defender of the rights of man, woman, and child, the most fearless opponent of superstition, and the advocate of the oppressed against the oppressor,” was, in the language of the memorial minutes, the object of the meeting. The latter was most impressive, — impressive in the same respects as the meetings in Peoria and Chicago. Therefore, it would be but repetition to do more than to indicate the substance and spirit of the principal address.
In this, Governor Thomas declared that the character of Ingersoll “was as nearly perfect as it is possible for the character of mortal man to be”; that ‘none sweeter or nobler had ever blessed the world’; that ‘the example of his life was of more value to posterity than all the sermons that were ever written on the doctrine of original sin.’ “He had,” said the speaker, “the earnestness of a Luther, the genius for humor and wit and satire of a Voltaire, a wide amplitude of imagination, and a greatness of heart and brain that placed him upon an equal footing with the greatest thinkers of antiquity. * * * He stands, at the close of his career, the first great reformer of the age.”
Not less notable, as evidence of the widespread appreciation of Ingersoll’s love of and efforts for humanity, regardless of creed or race, are the following resolutions, which, proposed by a Christian clergyman, were enthusiastically adopted by the Indiana State Afro-American conference at Indianapolis, on July 26th: —
“Resolved, That in the recent death of Robert G. Ingersoll, the nation has lost one of its greatest orators, statesmen, and patriots, and to the Afro-Americans one of the greatest champions of civil rights. Mr. Ingersoll always advocated the rights of the oppressed. His ability and his purse were always at the service of our people. On all questions that arose concerning the colored people, Mr. Ingersoll was always found on our side.
“Resolved, That this conference, in common with the colored people of this nation, do deplore the death, and hereby tender our greatest sympathy to his bereaved family.”
Even more significant, as will be evident from its source, is the next manifestation of regard and sympathy to be presented here. In the form of a letter to Mrs. Ingersoll, from Mr. Owen Miller, president of the American Federation of Musicians, it shows how truly appreciated by the profession concerned were the highest and finest attributes of Ingersoll’s many-sided nature: —
“On behalf of 15,000 professional musicians, comprising the American Federation of Musicians, permit me to extend to you our heart-felt and most sincere sympathy in the irreparable loss of the model husband, father, and friend. In him the musicians of not only this country, but of all countries, have lost one whose noble nature grasped the true beauties of our sublime art, and whose intelligence gave those impressions expression in words of glowing eloquence that will live as long as language exists.”
Of the numerous memorial meetings and resolutions of societies having a distinctively rationalistic purpose, no specific mention has been, or will be, made. Assumed as inevitable, such meetings and resolutions are less truly indicative of Ingersoll’s place in the public esteem and affection than those of a more general character. On the other hand, such of the resolutions as have been quoted, representing, as they do, merely the formal consensus of the meetings concerned, afford but an inadequate notion of the individual feelings of thousands who were present, — feelings which, indeed, it was altogether impossible for any memorial resolutions to convey. They were doubtless most truly voiced by Mr. John McGovern when he said, at Chicago: “This great public meeting is not a proper testimonial to him. Only silence is adequate to express the world’s irreparable loss.”
Nor can these individual expressions be noted to any considerable extent; and this applies alike to those of the avowed rationalist and the religionist, — to the extraordinarily eulogistic tributes of hundreds of rationalists as well as to the estimates of a score or so of Christian clergymen who have publicly admitted that, in purity and nobility, the life of Ingersoll was like that of Christ.
But while these individual tributes, for the most part, must be excluded for spacial reasons, there is in connection with them, or nearly all of them, whether of rationalistic or Christian authorship, a fact so peculiarly significant as to preclude the possibility of its being ignored. It is this: The praise which their authors bestow upon Ingersoll is directly proportional to their own recognized artistic and intellectual standing. In other words, they seem to bear with reference to him the same sympathetic mental relation that he himself declares that all men bear to Shakespeare: they get from him all that they are capable of receiving. This may be noted in the various tributes and comments of Garfield, Beecher, Whitman, Booth, Barrett, Joseph Jefferson, Remenyi, Seidl, Conway, Hubbard, Mark Twain, and many others in America. It may be noted in the action of Haeckel, “the Darwin of Germany,” — foremost biologist of the world, — who, in 1899, sent his portrait, together with one of his latest works, inscribed “To Colonel Robert Ingersoll, the valorous champion in the struggle of truth.” It may be noted in the case of Bjornson, who has translated Ingersoll into Norwegian (and into the translator’s own heart!), and who writes: “I am very sorry, that, when I was in America, I did not have the opportunity to grasp the hand of a man who, with the sword, fought to free from bodily slavery three millions of people, and who has shown the way to intellectual freedom to many millions more”; and, “I envy the land that brings forth such glorious fruit as an Ingersoll.” It may be noted in tributes from just across the Atlantic — in the tribute of Huxley, of Holyoke, and of Saladin, who declares that Ingersoll “is with Homer and Tully and Shakespeare and Burns”; and, lastly, in that of Swinburne, who, from the golden summit of English letters, wrote that prior to July 21, 1899, he had one reason for desiring to visit America.
Not less expressive of admiration and devotion than the latter references to the dead, had been the letters from like sources to the living himself. Typical of these is the one quoted, in part, below, — from the poet, novelist, and thinker Edgar Fawcett: —
August 10th .
“My Dear Colonel:
“I read your splendid letter in the World [on Is Suicide a sin?], and it made me more loyally found of you than ever; more devotedly your admirer too. That is truly a great deal for me to say, as you know, since my devotion and admiration are both an old story. How ridiculous is the state law! * * * You put the whole thing with a superb lucidity, and with a gentle eloquence which reminds one of an athlete’s hand in a silken glove. The answer of ____ ____ was pitiably vacuous and fatuous, but not more so than that of _____ _____.
“I do so wish, that, in all these big questions, literary men would take you more for a guide than they do, or seem to do. You have, of course, an immense constituency; but your love of letters and your deeply poetic spirit render you worthy of a far greater reverence and respect from writers than it seems to me that you receive. I want the brilliancy of your thought to penetrate our literature profoundly and permanently. But of course that will come. The younger generation of writers cannot escape you any more than the air they breath. You will, indeed, be the air they breath, — and hence, in many cases, if not all, their inspiration. Especially should the poets love you and sit at your feet. If you die before you see the change, I believe that those who now love you and survive you will see how much of the mere pietistic rubbish in modern poetry has been gradually yet surely swept away by the mighty besom of your fearless and noble intellect. * * *
An after-song, as it were, to the poem which he had recently addressed to Ingersoll, and of which the last stanza read: —
Shall remain to the centuries regnant from centuries lulled into sleep,
Then thy memory as music shall float amid actions and aims yet to be,
And thine influence cling to life’s good as the sea-vapors cling to the sea!”
The Himalayan immensity of Ingersoll’s labors and achievements can best be realized by viewing him in three separate fields: First, that of Rationalism, — in its most radical and comprehensive sense; second, that of the Law; third, that of Politics. For, to be more specific, his vocation was Rationalistic Reform; his two principal avocations were, first, the Law; second, Politics. Beginning inversely to this order, let us therefore finally consider his work and his influence.
We should exceed the requirements of comprehensiveness, while failing of our very object, if we should crowd these pages with Ingersoll’s opinions and teachings regarding the numerous questions that concern with ever-varying interest the citizens of the nation. Comparatively at least, many if not most of those questions are of minor and temporary importance. Beside the great fundamentals, they are as clouds that hang for a day on the political horizon, or flit rapidly across it, blown by the winds of partisan intrigue or of selfish personal ambition. Earnestly, masterfully, unanswerably as Ingersoll dealt, from time to time, during a long career, with such questions as the sphere and functions of government, the tariff, revenue, money, and so forth, he must be judged, if adequately and justly, upon far more basic and enduring ones.
In this connection, it seems barely necessary to remind the reader that Ingersoll possessed, in his very physical, intellectual, and moral constitution, In at least as full measure as any other individual who has lived, the essentials of a profound, broad, and lofty appreciation of the significance and destiny of the American Republic. To paraphrase what he himself said of Humboldt: Great men, — great patriots, — seem to be a part of the infinite — brothers of the mountains and the seas. Ingersoll was one of these. Belonging, as he announced, “to the great church that holds the world within its star-lit aisles,” — loving all lands that love liberty, — he loved his own America most dearly of all. Its geographic amplitude; the wide range of climate, — from the imperishable white of Alaska’s “skyish” peaks, to tropic groves of orange, pine, and palm; the magnificent lakes, — oceans within a continent; the mighty Mississippi, “nature’s eternal protest against disunion” — “the Father of Waters” that “again goes unvexed to the sea”; the vast and boundless prairies, with golden wheat and bannered corn rustling like the murmur of the sea; the great plateaux, — fit stages for the dramas of Shakespeare, the operas of Wagner; the canons, wild and grand; the Rockies, awful and sublime; and the Sierras, — nature’s dauntless picket-line to guard the Golden Gate — all these tallied with Ingersoll’s conception, not only of continental America, but of the physical, intellectual, and moral character of the ideal American. And, believing that “we are molded and fashioned by our surroundings,” that “environment is a sculptor,” he believed that the things which I have mentioned tended to make the ideal American: —
“The great plains, the sublime mountains, the great rushing, roaring rivers, shores lashed by two oceans, and the grand anthem of Niagara, mingle and enter into the character of every American citizen, and make him or tend to make him a great and grand character.”
And so Ingersoll would have the citizen as grand as the continent. He would have him “stand erect,” not only beneath the Stars and Stripes, but beneath its eternal prototype, “the flag of nature, the blue and stars, the peer of every other man.” He would have him share the aboriginal freedom of Whitman’s declaration, “I’ll sound my barbaric yap over the roofs of the world,” and of that of Harriet Martineau, “I want to be a free rover on the breezy common of the universe.” He longed for the time when every American would declare with him, in his incomparable “Apostrophe to Liberty”: —
“O Liberty, thou art the god of my idolatry! Thou art the only Deity that hates the bended knee! In thy vast and unwalled temple, beneath the roofless dome, star-gemmed and luminous with suns, thy worshipers stand erect! They do not cringe, or crawl, or bend their foreheads to the earth. The dust has never borne the impress of their lips.” * * *
“Thou askest nought from man except the things that good men hate. — the whip, the chain, the dungeon key.”
And just as Ingersoll would have the citizen as grand as the continent, so, too, would he have the nation; for his ample appreciation of America’s continental grandeur, together with his ardent love of liberty and justice, is evident in the intellectual breadth of his views and teachings on all fundamental political questions.
Strongly devoted, therefore, to the idea of national greatness, he was naturally opposed to the doctrine of “state rights,” — to “mud patriotism,” as he termed it, — whenever such “rights” would detract, in the slightest degree, from the rights and the welfare of the nation as an indivisible whole. “I am in favor of this being a Nation. Think of a man gratifying his entire ambition in the State of Rhode Island!” So he believed in the absolute sovereignty of the Federal government in all disputed questions affecting the people in common.
He taught that the citizen’s first duty was to the nation; his second, to his state; that the nation’s first duty was to the citizen; its second, to his state. He insisted that the citizen who, voluntarily or otherwise, placed his body between an enemy’s bullets and the nation’s flag was thereby entitled to the protection of the nation, — not only abroad, — but in any state in which he chanced to be, provided, of course, that the state itself had not afforded him protection. He declared that “any government that will not defend its defenders, and protect its protectors, is a disgrace to the map of the world.”
He believed in just and honest national expansion. He desired the Great Republic to march on as long as she could keep the highway of the right, and wear the mantle of honor and glory. He said, for instance: “I want Cuba whenever Cuba wants us,” adding, in characteristic humor, “and I favor the idea of getting her in the notion of wanting us.” And he expressed great satisfaction over the acquisition of Porto Rico, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Philippines.
This he desired for the sake of liberty and humanity. For he regarded his country as “the chart and beacon of the human race” — “the one success of the world” — “the first and only republic that ever existed.” And did our fair Columbia ever hear from human lips words of more ardent devotion than these? —
Oh! I love the old Republic, bounded by the seas, walled by the wide arc, domed by heavens blue, and lit with the eternal stars. I love the Republic; I love it because it I love liberty. Liberty is my religion, and at its altar I worship, and will worship.”
He was always faithful. Never did he fail to rebuke any enemy of America who chanced to come to his notice, whether that enemy was a native traitor or a foreign statesman or monarch. Least of all would he brook unjust criticism by a fellow-citizen. Referring, in one of the leading reviews, to such a criticism, he once wrote, by way of rebuke: —
“No American should ever write a line that can be sneeringly quoted by an enemy of the Great Republic.”
He loved “Old Glory”: —
“Say what you will of parties, say what you will of dishonesty, the holiest flag that ever kissed the air is ours!” “It represents the sufferings of the past, the glories yet to be; and like the bow of heaven, it is the child of storm and sun.”
“I have been in other countries and have said to myself, ‘After all, my country is the best.’ And when I come back to the sea and saw the old flag flying, it seemed as though the air, from pure joy, had burst into blossom.”
These few quotations, typically Ingersollian, — beautiful and inspiring as they are unavoidably brief, — would admirably express the convictions and sentiments of many of our greatest patriots. But how inadequate, in their brevity and fewness, to express the convictions and sentiments of the very brain and heart, — the mighty personality, — from which they blossomed! I wish that I had the genius, — the alembic of thought and feeling, — to do justice to the patriotism, the Americanism, of Robert G. Ingersoll. But I have not. I wish that I could distil into these fleeting lines the hatred of tyranny, slavery, and caste; the love of liberty and equality; the worship of justice; the gratitude for the founders and defenders of the Republic; the pride in her present, and the confidence in her future, greatness and glory, which are manifest in the Centennial Oration, A Vision Of War, the political speeches, the reunion addresses, the Decoration Day orations. But I can not. It is a task ‘too subtle potent for the capacity of my ruder powers.’
Just here, it’s well to remind the reader of what undoubtedly seems a paradox. In rationalism, Ingersoll was a rationalist; in law, Ingersoll was a lawyer. but in politics, Ingersoll was not a politician. He did not even belong to a party, in the usual sense, — that of being a subservient mouthpiece. He said: —
“I do not believe in being the slave or serf or servant of a party. Go with it if it is going your road, and when the road forks, take the one that leads to the place you wish to visit, no matter whether the party goes that way or not. I do not believe in belonging to a party or being the property of any organization. I do not believe in giving a mortgage on yourself or a deed of trust for any purpose whatever.”
“I go with the party that is traveling my way. I do not pretend to belong to anything or that anything belongs to me. When a party goes my way I go with that party and I stick to it as long as it is traveling my road.”
In other words, Ingersoll in politics, like Ingersoll elsewhere, was absolutely true to himself. During the long period of his service for the party that most nearly represented his political principles, he never for a moment lost his independence. He kept the spiked collar off his neck, the tweezers off his tongue, and, spurning the politicians’ gold, ofttimes ill-gotten, he preserved the perfect veracity of his soul. Although he usually contributed to the sums out of which smaller men were paid for speeches, not one penny ever found its way from a campaign fund to the pocket of Robert G. Ingersoll. Moreover, he invariably paid his own expenses. He used to say to the political managers: “All I want from you is information as to where and when I can do the most good; and I will be on hand at the specified hour.”
Such manifestations of individuality, — such extraordinary fidelity to principle and conscience, — would alone have titled him patriot, in the highest and noblest sense; but, as previously indicated, it is far from being his only claim:’ upon our memory as a patriot. Indeed, (to summarize) his fearless denunciation of slavery, the Dred Scott decision, and the Fugitive Slave Law, while a Democratic candidate for Congress, in 1860; his masterful rallying of the local Democracy of Peoria to the support of Lincoln, as against the Confederacy; his support of Lincoln and the Union with his sword, during a part of the three succeeding years; his refusal to sell his mental manhood for the governorship of Illinois, in 1868; his eager response to the call to battle in subsequent years, whenever and wherever he saw in peril the political principles upon which depended, in his opinion, the safety and welfare of the Republic; and his clear visioned appreciation of the latter’s meaning and mission, and of the position it occupies in relation to the other nations of the earth, not only demonstrate that he was one of the greatest of patriots, but afford a reasonable and logical foundation for the conviction, that, had it not been for the prejudice of the masses, he would have become in practice, as he already was in theory, one of the greatest of statesmen.
Manifesting, even in youth, the most characteristic American traits, and placed, during that period, in an environment constantly agitated with questions of the gravest import, — questions which awakened, among the masses, far wider and profounder concern than do any similar ones of the present day, — it was inevitable that he should become interested in politics at an early age. However, his noteworthy labors therein did not begin until he was about twenty-seven years old, when, in 1860, as previously stated, he was a candidate for Congress. It was in his own local campaign of that year, as a Democrat, that he laid the foundations of the oratorical fame which he subsequently achieved in one of the national conventions, and which he so admirably maintained in several national campaigns, of the Republican party. Long before the close of the Civil War, his advice and oratorical services were in urgent political request. Nor were they but twice withheld. Even when treachery and ingratitude, in fullest measure, were his lot, they were given with a cheerfulness that was heroic — given, not to men, not to a party, but given for the triumph of principles on which depended, in his opinion, the welfare of the Republic.
Beginning with the second campaign of Lincoln, in 1864, and excepting two, he participated in every Republican national campaign that was held during a period of thirty-two years, his services ending, as before stated, with the campaign of McKinley, in 1896.
And, first viewing it quantitatively, what a vast amount of work he performed! In the Hayes campaign, for example, entering the field unusually early, he delivered two or three addresses on at least every third day until the election. And his addresses, instead of the fifteen-minute conversational sort now in vogue, were from two to three hours or so in length. Moreover, they were supplemented by numerous private interviews; for, wherever he went, he was beset by local politicians and members of the press, eager for a personal word. Of the twelve volumes comprised in his works, the single volume containing such of his political utterances as have been permanently preserved gives but a meager idea of the extent of his labors in the field concerned.
And, next viewing those labors qualitatively (whether or not we accept any or all of his political principles), how shall we find words to do him even simple justice? We may say that he possessed every conceivable excellence of the great popular orator; but this conveys no adequate meaning to those who are not personally familiar with his power and charm, and who are imperfectly familiar with the written accounts and oral traditions of his eloquence. We may state, on the best of authority, that, when he was only twenty-seven years of age, or in 1860, he actually drew to himself, at an “overflow” meeting, in Chicago, the greater part of an audience which Stephen A. Douglas was addressing near by, and that, thirty-six years later, or in 1896, in the same city, he held, for over two hours, as though it were entranced, an audience of twenty thousand people which, a few nights before, had completely disconcerted and discomfited two veteran Republican orators whose names are familiar on both sides of the Atlantic.’ But even this account seems inadequate to convey an impression of his powers. Possessing, as I have stated, every conceivable oratorical excellence, there was, in the largest and most heterogeneous assembly, no mental or temperamental element whose interest he could not arouse and hold. This may be best realized by observing how widely divergent in him were the two poles of expressional genius. He was the most florid and imaginative orator that ever uttered English speech, and, at the same time, he was the most practical. He had the simplicity of expression that is born of profundity of thought. He was as deep as the sea, but as clear as the sky. His sentences were crystallized light. He was preeminently the teacher of the masses. Farmers, mechanics, laborers, used to say, on hearing his explanation of a political or an economic question, “Well, I understand that now.” He simply could not be misunderstood.
His influence on the electorate was believed to be exactly commensurate with the extent of his oratorical efforts. That he was a vote-winner was the opinion of the political managers. They used to make some desperate appeals to him from “doubtful” sections. I quote one of those appeals, a telegram, without its date and signature: “For God’s sake come here and pull us out. You are the only one on earth who can do it.” During the campaign of 1896, the Chicago Inter-Ocean, in the course of a lengthy editorial appreciation of Ingersoll’s genius, remarked: “The Tribune truly and pertinently says, that, ‘If Colonel Ingersoll had the physical strength he had at thirty, and could be turned loose in the doubtful districts of the West, he would cut a wide swath of conversions as far as his voice could reach. He is the inimitable American orator of our time.'” When we consider the number and the source of similar expressions, and how near he came, in 1876, to making Blaine the next president, we are inclined to infer something more than coincidence from the fact that in the only two campaigns in which Ingersoll took no part, namely, those of Blaine and Harrison, in 1884 and 1892, respectively, the Republican party was defeated. And, even ignoring this as being too problematical, we are still confident that there was not in Ingersoll’s day, among professional politicians themselves, a man whose political judgment and services were more highly valued than his; and that, all in all, he was (to be necessarily paradoxical) the must potent and interesting extra-political individuality which the political history of his country reveals.
As stated in Chapter 2, Ingersoll commenced the practice of law in his twenty-second year, or in 1855, and continued its practice until 1899, — a period of forty-four years. He was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States on February 2, 1865, during the term beginning in December, 1864, and, as indicated in Chapter 4, was attorney-general of Illinois from February 28, 1867, to January 11, 1869. Before the court just mentioned, he appeared in numerous oral arguments, not one of which, as far as is known, was ever reduced to print or writing.
As a counselor and advocate, Ingersoll was among the very first of his time, the equal of the very first of any other time — as great and formidable a warrior as ever fought for justice beneath the aegis of the law. It was not what he learned by rote from text-books, decisions, reports, and so forth that made him a great counselor. An individual can no more learn to be a truly great legal adviser than he or she can learn to be a truly great inventor, metaphysician, wit, musical conductor, or poet. The seeds of genius are in the mental soil at birth; and unfavorable indeed must be the conditions if they do not fill the air with fragrance, the land with fruitage. As in the other departments in which he was supreme, it is doubtful that in the law Ingersoll ever deliberately learned more than a small fraction of what he knew. Individuals of talent learn details; individuals of genius know principles, universals. Ingersoll knew law from the start. He thought law. He possessed that ethical instinct and insight, that innate sense of equity and justice, that unerring and implacable logic, which are its very foundations. It is said that if he ever erred in his judgment of the common law, it was because the latter, in some minor respect, failed to square with his sense of justice.
“When I have a difficult case to consider,” he once stated, “I first make up my mind as to what the law ought to be, and then I go in search of that law, and rarely fail to find it.”
“Every student of Colonel Ingersoll felt his extraordinary gifts as a lawyer,” writes Octave Thanet (Miss Alice French), whose brother studied law in Ingersoll’s office. “‘He was a great lawyer,’ said my brother. ‘He had a most remarkable power to go straight to the principles of things. Often he would say to me: “Now, the law used to be so and so; and the reasons for it were so and so; but the reasons have changed, and now they are so and so; and therefore the law should have changed also — French, you look up the decisions!” So I would look up the decisions — and find them.'”
Ingersoll’s quickness “in grasping the salient points of a case,” writes another of his intimate associates, “was equally remarkable. For example, Colonel Ingersoll and a lawyer who was and is one of the leaders of the New York bar, met at the office of a New York banker to consult about a complicated and important legal matter in which the banker was interested. The matter was new to the Colonel. He listened for a while to the statement of the case, asked a number of questions, and then suddenly announced that he understood it all, and stated his opinion regarding it. This was followed by putting on his hat and walking out. The lawyer associated with him regarded him with surprise, and when he had gone said he could not pass on such a complicated and important matter in any such off-hand way. He must have time to study it. Yet when he did arrive at a conclusion, he was obliged to agree with the Colonel in every particular. Stories of this kind regarding him might be multiplied indefinitely.”
And even the extraordinary qualifications thus far mentioned did not surpass his faithfulness to clients. Once satisfied that a client was in the right, the latter’s cause, his innermost feelings, were Ingersoll’s own. Instantly he stood in his client’s position — robed in the mantle of sympathy. Ingersoll the counselor and advocate could put himself as absolutely in place of the client as Ingersoll the humanitarian could put himself in place of the outcast — as absolutely as grand old Lear on the heath put himself in place of the ‘poor naked wretches that bide the pelting of the pitiless storm.’ Or, again, like Whitman, Ingersoll could say: “I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.” Or: “Judge not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling upon a helpless thing.”
A case once rightly in his thoughts, never left them day or night, until he saw the end, — until his client either received the palm of victory, or was shrouded in the rayless gloom of defeat. There was no possible source of information from which Ingersoll did not draw. No stone was left unturned. Did the case require historical, genealogical, mechanical, chemical, medical, or bacteriological research, he made the research. To apply in this connection a saying which he applied in another, the case “was in his head all day and in his heart all night.” Especially is this true of the early days of his forensic career, when many of his cases were of the “criminal” sort. And in later years it was perhaps the chief reason why his practice was confined to cases of a “civil” nature, in which other considerations than human sympathy play the leading role. The tragedy and pathos of criminal practice weighed heavily upon him.
In the selection of a jury, in the examination of witnesses, in objections to the court, in short, from beginning to end in the management of a case, he was “the soul of courtesy.” What is particularly remarkable, he would not quarrel with opposing counsel; and as opposing counsel very quickly learned not to quarrel with him, the trials in which he took part were generally models of order and decorum. He was alert, tactful, resourceful, original, unique. No one ever knew what was “coming next.” It may be safely said that there were two wise rules for the guidance of his opponents: first, do not become his opponent; second, having unfortunately become such, let him be unmolested, as far as exigencies permit.
Nor does our enumeration, even thus far, include all of his splendid qualifications as a lawyer. Passing hastily over at least one of the most important of them, — mastery of the foundations and intricacies of the law,. — there remains to be considered another of his qualifications which alone would have placed him among the very first of his profession in any age. That there was nothing within the realm of possibility which he could not accomplish with a jury is well known. Himself the most human of men, he understood, as clearly and fully as lawyer ever did, the capacities, susceptibilities, weaknesses, prejudices, and predilections of his kind. As the sculptor knows his mass of clay, so Ingersoll knew his fellow-beings; and over those masses of animate clay, his power was even more nearly absolute than the sculptor’s over his. Ingersoll could make his clay laugh and weep and reason, — reason in his own way: the sculptor can only make his clay seem to do these things. And of the two, Ingersoll manifested the more composite genius. With a personality magnetically irresistible; overflowing with good nature, — enjoying every pulse and breath; frank and candid; all but infallible in memory; lightning itself at repartee, but never wounding unless compelled, and then instantly ready with the balm of humor; saying just the right thing at the right time, and nothing at the wrong time; eloquent on even the commonplace, — sublime on the sublime; able to clarify at once the oiliest problem, — to put the complex and intricate in words that even a child not only could, but mast, understand — with all these attributes and powers, he was the most impressive and convincing advocate that ever appealed to the heart and brain of an American Jury.
As tending to support this claim, the following account of his conduct of a case at Metamora, Ill., during his early forensic career, is of typical interest. Two farmers had quarreled concerning a boundary-line, and one had killed the other with a spade. Ingersoll was counsel for the accused. Instead of bringing the latter’s wife and children into court, as another advocate probably would have done, Ingersoll chose to rely wholly upon his own unaided influence with the jury. He presented his case from the standpoint of the evidence and of the law, and then — he painted a picture with words, — a picture of a lowly cottage, at twilight. The wife and children were standing at the little gate, — the children wondering why papa was so late, — the wife peering into the dimming distance for him who was still the one of all the world. And with the last touch to the pathetic scene, the lawyer- poet suddenly said to the jury: —
“Now, gentlemen, are you going to let this man go home?”
“Yes, ‘we are!” came the sobbing answer from the burly foreman; and “Bob” dropped into a seat as though he himself had been shot.
We must not here overlook a fact which reflects still more to his individual greatness: In the courtroom he always labored at a disadvantage that no other eminent American lawyer experienced the disadvantage of religious prejudice. And what other disadvantage could have been greater? Can it be imagined that there was a community which could have furnished, in the usual course, twelve men of whom one or more would not be prejudiced against Ingersoll because of religious belief? Can it be imagined that in another lawyer precisely the same powers which Ingersoll possessed would not have had far greater effect upon the average jury? We who have long observed the general tendency to withhold his rightful dues know that it can not. How much higher, then, than we otherwise would must we, in simple justice, rate his abilities as a legal advocate?
May we not extend our inquiries even further? Is it not doubtful, taking into consideration all of the requisites of the really great counselor and advocate, that another as great as Ingersoll ever practiced at the American bar? What other American has combined, in as full and rounded measure, the many necessary qualities and attributes? Let us be candid, — reasonable. In what type of man should we naturally look, not for a great, but for the greatest, counselor and advocate? Should we look to one who was profound in law, but who was not an orator? Should we look to one who was an orator, but who was superficial in law? Should we look to one who, in the law, trusted in the reasonable, the natural, the probable, and who was an orator, but who, outside the law, trusted in the unreasonable, the supernatural, the improbable? “Assuredly not,” will be your reply to all of these questions. “We should look to him who was intellectually free; who possessed the widest horizon; who had the most perfect sense of justice; who was the greatest logician; who relied absolutely upon reason, observation, and experience, — upon the reasonable, the natural, the probable, — not only in law, but in every possible department of mental effort, and who was a great orator, — one who could set his thoughts to verbal magic that would enrapture, enthrall, convince.” Then you would turn, were he still among us, to Robert G. Ingersoll.
In making this statement, I am unmindful neither of his possible limitations nor of others’ excellencies. Let us see. There was one other American who was perhaps as versatile, — as “many- sided,” — as Ingersoll, but he was neither lawyer nor orator. There was another American who was a great orator (as great as he could be without having been born a poet) and a great lawyer (as great as he could be without a perfect sense of justice), but he was not a universal logician; he believed in the supernatural; he defended the Fugitive Slave Law. There was yet another American who was profound in law. and profound in justice and mercy, but he was not particularly versatile; he was not free from superstition; and he was not a great orator. Still others were profound in law, but they were not great orators; their mental horizon was narrow; they were believers in superstition.
“I once told an eminent jurist,” says Haeckel, “that the tiny spherical ovum from which every man is developed is as truly endowed with life as the embryo of two, or seven, or even nine months; he laughed incredulously.” More than one of America’s great lawyers would have done the same. But Ingersoll? Would he have laughed at a biological truth with which not only the scientist, but every intelligent layman, ought to be perfectly familiar? The answer is that Ingersoll was as conversant with this very Haeckel, with the principal facts, phenomena, and laws of biology, “from moner to man,” as he was with the common law itself. Into the lap of his intellect, Humboldt, Darwin, and Wallace, Huxley, Tyndall, and Helmholtz, had emptied their glittering treasures. Indeed, this list might properly include the name of every savant from Haeckel back to Bacon. In philosophy, he had ranged from Socrates to Spencer. In literature, the characters of Shakespeare, Dickens, Balzac, Hugo, and many others were as familiar to him as the members of his own household. There was not in English a great poem, whether in prose or verse, that did not linger in his heart to polish anon his native graces with its ennobling influence; and in the gallery of his memory, the marbles of the Greeks, — pathetic even in their original completeness, — pointed with double pathos their mutilated arms toward the remnants of a once powerful and tyrannical, but now fast weakening superstition, in the presence of which he had ever stood whole-souled, sane, and free.
Nor have we even yet exhausted the list of attributes and accomplishments that Ingersoll made auxiliary to his extraordinary qualifications as a counselor and advocate. He was familiar with all the mental paths that man had traveled — from midnight to dawn — from dawn to noon. He understood the inscriptions on all the mile-posts along the way — the victories and achievements.
His scope and perception were astounding. He had been known to puzzle mechanics, inventors, navigators, with questions in their own specialties, and then vex them by answering his own questions, after they had failed to do so. He could criticize a novel, a play, a painting,’ a poem, as masterfully as he could a legal brief, a political platform, or a theological creed; and, as indicated in Chapter 9 his knowledge and appreciation of music would have done credit to many a professional musician.
It may be that perfect freedom of thought and encyclopedic knowledge are negligible factors in estimating forensic capabilities. It may be that familiarity with the truths of science; that the intellectual capacity essential to comprehension of the great systems of philosophy; that the insight into human nature imparted by Shakespeare and the great novelists; and that the subtlety, profundity, and sublimity of thought and feeling involved in understanding and appreciating the greatest poetry and the greatest music — it may be that all these can add nothing to the qualifications of the counselor and advocate. But if they can, then I unhesitatingly declare that such versatility as I have indicated, added to the eminent forensic abilities which I have also indicated, and which everybody admits that he possessed, must necessarily place Ingersoll, the capacities of all alike considered, at the head of American lawyers.
Of the many hundreds of cases that he tried, during the forty- four years of his legal career, none has been specifically mentioned in the present chapter, and only five were mentioned in previous chapters — the Munn trial, the “Star-Route” trials, the Reynolds blasphemy trial, the Davis will case, and the Russell will case. To these should be added the Canmer case, and that of the Bankers’ and Merchants’ Telegraph Company against the Western Union Telegraph Company, in which Ingersoll secured a verdict of $1,500,000. These cases were and are mentioned, obviously not because the labor which they involved was necessarily greater than that of many others of which the general public scarcely heard, but because of their interest and magnitude in the eyes of that public.
Of Ingersoll’s practice before the courts of the different states, before various United States circuit courts, and before the United States Supreme Court, I shall attempt no details. Nor shall I specifically note more of the generous compliments that were extended to him by both the bench and the bar, from ocean to ocean, from north to south. No such array of particulars is essential to my present object — a general indication of his abilities and achievements in the law. For it is already apparent that in this, the more important of his avocations, his abilities were extraordinary, his achievements monumental; that, all relevant things considered, he was the most conspicuous figure of his century.
It will have been observed, that I have thus far given no very definite indication of the period or periods covered by Ingersoll’s anti-theological propaganda, and no sort of indication of its geographic scope. And it will doubtless be agreed, that, in so far as I have failed to do this, I have failed to do justice, not only to his physicomental powers, but to the zeal, enthusiasm, and aggressiveness with which he consecrated his life to the cause of physical and intellectual liberty.
In contemplating the work of Ingersoll, we must exclude the mere thinker and the mere writer. It is something, no doubt, to sit in the secluded luxury of the study, — in the gracious ease of the arm-chair, — and think that Christendom is wrong. It is something more, under the same conditions, to put one’s thoughts into magnificent discourses to be read in the luxury of other studies, — in the ease of other arm-chairs. But it is far greater still to go out into a stolid and insolent world, — into “the byways and hedges,” — month after month, year after year, decade after decade, and tell Christendom that it is wrong — tell Christendom that it is wrong, and lay, in scornful defiance, upon the altars of Ignorance, Bigotry, and Hypocrisy, the holy offerings of honest conviction. And this, in brief, did Robert G. Ingersoll. For more than forty years, with all his might, he battled in every direction and quarter for the universal liberty of mankind. Of course, not all of this period was devoted to fighting the beleaguering hosts of superstition. But when, in his earlier days, he was not fighting both mental and physical slavery with his tongue, he was fighting physical slavery with his sword — fighting those who would substitute for the Great Republic, — that radiant hope and glory of mankind, — an autocracy of slavery. And when, after physical slavery was dead, he was from any cause unable to fight mental slavery with his tongue, he used his pen.
As already stated, Ingersoll delivered his first public anti- theological discourse when he was twenty-three years old, or in 1856. His career as a rationalistic reformer may therefore be said to have begun in that year: it ended in 1899, — a period of forty-three years. From 1856 to 1860, few if any rationalistic discourses were delivered. In the latter year, as stated in Chapter 3, he delivered Progress, the first of his anti-theological lectures of which any authentic report has been preserved. He did not again lecture until 1864, when Progress was repeated. His next lecture was delivered in 1869. After that year, he lectured continually, excepting from 1885 to 1890, when the condition of his throat would not permit.
“After he fairly had started on his agnostic career, fanatics commenced to threaten his life. Many a time he mounted the platform with a letter in his pocket stating that he would never live to finish his address.” Such letters were usually written in red ink and signed, “A Lover of Jesus,” “A Friend of the Lord,” or with some other nom de plume of like import. Typical of these communications was one delivered by special postal delivery, in Chicago, to the secretary of Ingersoll, just before the latter began his lecture. It read, in substance: “If you go on the platform to-night and speak against the Bible, you will not live to see your wife and children again.” Although this letter was not delivered to the addressee until after the conclusion of his lecture, and would have had no more effect in changing the course of events had it been delivered before than had the many others of its kind, it represented one of those threats which, one would think, were not to be despised. “Nothing is so blind and cruel as religious fanaticism. The spirit that lighted the fire around Servetus, that deluged Paris with blood on St. Bartholomew’s Day, that devastated Germany in the Thirty Years’ War, that caused the unspeakable horrors of the inquisition — something of that spirit still lingers to-day. More than one half-crazed brain would have imagined that it was doing God’s service by striking down this Antichrist, and that an eternity of bliss would open for it for performing such an act.” In support of this, it may be noted that one man has voluntarily stated that he once attended a lecture resolved and prepared to shoot Ingersoll, but that, when he came under the influence of the latter’s voice and personality, he was unable to consummate his dastardly purpose. And this would seem to confirm, in a measure at least, the assertion of one who knew Ingersoll intimately, that mere association for any length of time with the great humanitarian would have transformed even a criminal into a model citizen.
As to the number and character of the anonymous correspondents previously mentioned, we may further judge by the following extract from an interview published in the Chicago Times of May 29, 1881:
“Yes: I get a great many anonymous letters — some letters in which God is asked to strike me dead, others of an exceedingly insulting character, others almost idiotic, others exceedingly malicious, and others insane, others written in an exceedingly good spirit, winding up with the information that I must certainly be damned. Others express wonder that God allowed me to live at all, and that, having made the mistake, he does not instantly correct it by killing me. Others prophecy that I will yet be a minister of the gospel; but, as there has never been any softening of the brain in our family, I imagine that the prophecy will never be fulfilled. Lately, on opening a letter and seeing that it is upon this subject, and without a signature, I throw it aside without reading. I have so often found them to be grossly ignorant, insulting and malicious that as a rule I read them no more.”
But, to return to the threats, Ingersoll cared precisely the same for any fanatic violence that might spring from orthodoxy as he did for orthodoxy itself: he treated both with that disdainful and scornful defiance which, in his estimation, their dispicableness deserved. His purpose and resolution were never tempered by the thought of deviation. “As long as the smallest coal is red in hell,” he said, in 1884, “I am going to keep on.” He asked and gave no quarter; and he recognized no flag but the flag of surrender.
During the forty-three years of his anti-theological crusade, he lectured in every town and city of any considerable size and importance in every state and territory of the United States, except North Carolina, Mississippi, Indian Territory, and Oklahoma, and in many towns and cities in Canada. And in nearly all these places, he lectured not once, but many times, and in some of the larger places, not only many times during his career, but two or three times every season. Year after year, he returned; year after year, the size, intelligence, and enthusiasm of his audiences increased. He had ten eager, sympathetic listeners in 1899 to one in 1860. The entire theological subsoil of North America was honeycombed by his eloquent aggressiveness — converted into vast catacombs for the orthodox dead. His repertoire was always new, changing, inexhaustible. Of the nearly thirty different lectures which he wrote, there was, in effect, a new one for every audience. Thus, on a lecture-tour in one season, he would deliver at A, The Liberty of Man, woman, and Child; at B, Some Mistakes of Moses; at C. Why I Am An Agnostic, etc. The next season, with the same itinerary, the order of delivery would be reversed, or all of the lectures would be different. Verily could it have been said of him: “Age cannot wither, nor custom stale,” his “infinite variety.” Learned “pulpit orators” might be talking to air in the pews, their churches garish with placards of “sociables,” “bazaars,” and amateur theatricals; but Ingersoll, in the viriest “city of churches,” on a brief notice (hardly noticeable), would fill the largest theater, from the first row of the orchestra, to the last row in “the gallery of the gods.” And he could fill the same theater, on the same subject, whenever he chose to return. Indeed, a large majority of his audience would have had him return on the following day. For, from opening to close, his discourse never palled; his hearers were never cloyed. Instead, they were impatient for a wider and deeper view of that new world of love and liberty of which he had opened before their blinded eyes an enchanting and inspiring vista. To oratory born — filling the stage like “an antique god”; graceful as a willow when zephyrs stir the languid air; his face as perfect a mirror of his thoughts as the stream over which the willow bends is a perfect mirror of all that is above; with wit like lightning, humor as kindly as autumn, logic as cold as winter; with the directness of light, the candor of day, the pathos of twilight — a master of verbal melody — he lingered in the memory of auditors like a faultless production of Die Walkure or of Hamlet.
How amply this general representation is warranted by the concrete facts of Ingersoll’s anti-theological career may be seen in such accounts as follow.
The first is from The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer of May 10, 1880: —
“Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll lectured last night at Pike’s Opera-House on his new theme of ‘What We Must Do To Be Saved?’ His vanity must have been touched by the flattering reception which met him. Seldom has such a large and intelligent audience been crowded into four walls of the house as were there when Colonel Ingersoll stepped upon the stage. Parquet, dress-circle, gallery, balcony, stalls, boxes, aisles, lobbies, and stairways were filled with entranced listeners, while even the stage was utilized to seat some of the hearers. The lecture, which lasted over two hours, was listened to with charmed ears and greeted, from time to time, with sincere applause, loud laughter, and cheers of approbation. It was an audience en rapport with the speaker and the doctrines he advanced. To attempt a report of such a lecture verbatim would be to fill columns with words which, coming from other than Mr. Ingersoll’s flowery lips, accompanied by the embellishment of his charmed presence, would be stripped of more than half their force.
“The lecturer came upon the stage without introduction. He needed none, for few of his hearers had never seen him before. Most of them were there, not out of curiosity to hear and see a man they had heard of, but to hear a man whose eloquence had charmed them on a former occasion. There is that to be said to recommend Colonel Ingersoll as a lecturer. If he once succeeds in securing an audience, he is sure of it on any future occasion.”
From the Milwaukee Evening Wisconsin: —
” * * * He is a born. Of fine physical proportions, graceful carriage, possessing a large and finely molded head, an expressive countenance, and genial smile, a voice of great compass, and lungs and throat that seem incapable of failure under the severest strain, his audience receives a favorable impression from the moment that he steps to the front of the rostrum, and utters his first sentence. This impression is deepened by the unobstructed flow of language, his fine intonation, his graceful, yet emphatic, gestures, his vigerous sentences — now sparkling with humor, now loaded with stinging sarcasm or terrible denunciation, and now unfolding into the most splendid imagery. He seems never to lack a word, or a smile, but the volume of his discourse flows on with such fullness, ease, and power, that one wonders it can ever stop. * * * “
From the Boston Herald of Monday April 19, 1880: —
“When the Boston Theatre is enlarged, it will be able to contain a greater audience than that which assembled within its walls last evening — not before. The announcement that Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll was to lecture caused so great a rush for seats that all the desirable sittings were taken two or three days in advance of the appointed time; and when the rotund figure and jolly countenance of the orator appeared upon the stage, last evening, and stepped forward to the reading desk at the footlights, he was greeted by an audience that not only filled every seat in the vast auditorium, even to the upper gallery, but overflowed into the aisles and doorways and thronged the lobbies. There were over three thousand people present. It was an audience, too, which any speaker might be proud to address, for it was composed of ladies and gentlemen whose bearing was that of intelligence and refinement, and who, as far as outward appearance, would indicate, were fully on a level with the church-goers of this city.”
The impression made in the midst of New England culture was repeated in the western mining town, as this extract from Territorial Enterprise, Virginia City, Nev., will show: —
“An overflowing house received Col. Ingersoll, at National Guard Hall, last evening, and hung entrenched upon his words, from the commencement to the close of his incomparable lecture. Of that lecture, we can speak only in general terms to-day. It is a wonderful production. All the beauties of the language; all the enchantment of eloquence; all the splendors of imagination, the plays of wit, the eccentricities of a subtle genius, are handled in it. His appeals for liberty to man; for liberty and protection to woman; for liberty, protection, and kindness to children, are as beautiful as anything in our language. This might be extended over columns, but it is enough to say that the lecture is charming throughout, and that its teachings are pure and true.”
These reportorial items, — quoted as being only fairly representative of the thousands that are available, — might be supplemented with the accounts of many men and women of national and international fame. Thus Elizabeth Cady Stanton, after declaring that “the future historian will rank Robert G. Ingersoll peerless among the great and good men of the nineteenth century,” relates, in the course of her tribute, the following: —
“I heard Mr. Ingersoll many years ago in Chicago. The hall seated 5,000 people; every inch of standing-room was also occupied; aisles and platform crowded to overflowing. He held that vast audience for three hours so completely entranced that when he left the platform no one moved, until suddenly, with loud cheers and applause, they recalled him. He returned smiling and said: ‘I’m glad you called me back, as I have something more to say. Can you stand another half-hour?’ ‘Yes: an hour, two hours, all night,’ was shouted from various parts of the house; and he talked on until midnight, with unabated vigor, to the delight of his audience. This was the greatest triumph of oratory I had ever witnessed. It was the first time he delivered his matchless speech, ‘The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child.'”
And Mrs. Stanton continues: —
“I have heard the greatest orators of this century in England and America; O’Connell in his palmiest days, on the Home Rule question; Gladstone and John Bright in the House of Commons; Spurgeon, James and Stopford Brooks, in their respective pulpits; our own Windell Phillips, Henry Ward Beecher, and Webster and Clay, on great occasions; the stirring eloquence of our anti-slavery orators, both in Congress and on the platform, but none of them ever equalled Robert Ingersoll in his highest flights.”
So, too, Dr. Conway, in My Pilgrimage to the Wise Men of the East, names Ingersoll as “the most striking figure in religious America,” and gives, among other things, the following personal impression: —
“In 1881, being on a visit to Boston, my wife and I found ourselves in the Parker House with the Ingersolls, and went over to Charleston to hear him lecture. His subject was ‘Some Mistakes of Moses,’ and it was a memorable experience. Our lost leaders, — Emerson, Thoreau, Theodore Parker, — who had really spoken to disciples rather than to the nation, seemed to have contributed something to form this organ by which their voice could reach the people. Every variety of power was in this orator, — logic and poetry, humor and imagination, simplicity and dramatic art, moral and boundless sympathy. The wonderful power which Washington’s Attorney-general, Edmund Randolph, ascribed to Thomas Paine of insinuating his ideas equally into learned and unlearned had passed from Paine’s pen to Ingersoll’s tongue. The effect on the people was indescribable. The large theatre was crowed from pit to dome. The people were carried from plaudits of his argument to loud laughter at his humorous sentences, and his flexible voice carried the sympathies of the assembly with it, at times moving them to tears by his pathos.”
“The country,” observes Dr. Conway, “was full of incidents and anecdotes relating to these marvelous lectures”; and he adds, later: “I knew that he was leading an insurrection of human hearts against the inhumanities of the Bible and the cruelties of dogmatic propagandism.”
A few sentences from the tribute of Mr. Debbs, the eminent Socialist (who is, of course, fundamentally opposed to the economic views which Ingersoll represented), may well be included here: —
“The name of Robert G. Ingersoll is in the pantheon of the world. More than any other man who ever lived he destroyed religious superstition. * * * He was the Shakespeare of oratory — the greatest that the world has ever known. Ingersoll lived and died far in advance of his time. He wrought nobly for the transformation of this world into a habitable globe; and long after the last echo of destruction has been silenced, his name will be loved and honored, and his fame will shine resplendent, for his immortality is fixed and glorious.”
That no other orator or speaker of the nineteenth century addressed as many people as Ingersoll is very probable. That none other uniformly made such deep and lasting impressions is more than probable — it is historically certain. It is quite un-likely that any notable percentage of such of his hearers as were previously orthodox departed from him with their theological views unchanged.
I would here revert, with emphasis, to one fact: It was not as a rationalistic propagandist that Ingersoll first became generally known. It was as a patriot — as one who loved his country, not because it was his country, but because he loved liberty. It was as a lawyer who had gained a brilliant reputation as a defender of those threatened with injustice. It was as a hard-headed and trusted political adviser, and, preeminently, as an orator with lips “breathing eloquence, that might have soothed a tiger’s rage, or thawed the cold heart of a conqueror.”
Wherever he chose to go, his reputation preceded and assured him of respectful and interested attention. In national and social questions, he was the guiding-star of great numbers of his fellow-citizens; and consequently, when he decided publicly to break the fetters and the idols of tradition, he obtained a far more extensive and honorable hearing than he would have obtained had he first appeared solely as an opponent of “revealed” religion.
Still, it was charged by some that he was not profound; but I have observed that the charge was invariably made by superficial people. As a matter of fact, with all his wit, humor, raillery, persiflage, he was the profoundest logician that ever appealed to the intellect of an American audience. There was logic even in his laughter. He passed the cup of mirth, and in its sparkling foam were found the gems of unanswerable truth.
Ingersoll’s auditors realized, as never before, that they were being addressed by a man! To see him was to believe that he was sincere, to hear him was to know it, to understand him was to be convinced that he was right.
Nor was it due entirely to his own attributes and efforts that he reached and swayed so many minds; opponents gave a helping hand. Whenever he delivered lectures or published religious or sociological opinions which were particularly objectionable to the orthodox, the newspapers, as we have seen, were filled with “answers.” To some of them he replied. Many thousands who probably would not otherwise have heard of the problems at issue thus learned of their existence. Sometimes the good people of the blue- law states refused to rent him a theater, removed his lithographs from the billboards, or threatened him with arrest for “blasphemy.” Overcrowded houses and copious reports of his sayings were the invariable result. And of course “the poor little ministers “preached. If they only could have realized that theology is not to be affirmed by reason, what energy they would have conserved! and how they would have curtailed the influence of their foe!
Another significant fact must be considered here: Ingersoll made science his handmaid. To be sure,he was not a scientist, experimentally, but he was wonderfully familiar with others’ discoveries, as we have previously noted; and he could describe them better than could the discoverers. He popularized the work of the great masters, and championed the masters themselves. Every scientist worthy to hold aloft the sacred torch will also hold in tender reverence the memory of Robert G. Ingersoll. Many thousands first heard the names of Humboldt, Tyndall, Helmholtz, Darwin, Huxley, Haeckel, and others from his ardent lips. And he reached a far more heterogeneous class than those authors could ever reach through their works. Their legitimate audiences are small, at best. Ingersoll went out after the laity, bound them with the golden chain of his eloquence, and threw science in their faces. And they understood; for, as before stated, he was a master of simplification — preeminently the teacher of the masses. The average person got more chemistry, physics, geology, biology, from Why I Am An Agnostic than he could have derived in a month from technical works.
Who will say, that this dissemination of scientific and philosophical truths did not have, on the theological mind, a potent liberalizing influence? Who will deny, that, coupled with the historical method which Ingersoll employed in biblical argument, it did not sustain very important accessory, if not causal, relations to “higher criticism”? We must bear in mind that that term was unheard of when he began his work; whereas, at its conclusion, we were constantly meeting with clerical utterances which, for all the theological bias they showed, might have been extracted from Some Mistakes of Moses Marvelous the change! Principles and sentiments that were received with hisses by a vast majority of the laity, and by nearly all the clergy, when voiced in Ingersoll’s first lecture, in 1860, were sanctioned and even applauded by theologians when the Great Agnostic uttered his last public word. Beginning his work when ignorance was a virtue, — when pandering hypocrisy was wont to place upon the brow of stupidity the wreath of popular sanction, — when candid speech was treated as a crime, — he lived to see in decay the vast structure of supernatural religion.
To the most conspicuous feature of this change, I would invite special attention. It will be recalled that, in a previous chapter (14) I quoted from Ingersoll a description of a Free Will Baptist sermon which he heard when a boy, and in which were vividly detailed the eternal tortures of the damned in hell. The impression which the sermon made upon Ingersoll will also be recalled.
When the latter began his anti-theological propaganda, the same fiendish belief in literal and everlasting hell-fire that was taught in this sermon was still practically universal. To the orthodox, hell was a glaring, scorching, roaring reality. Sermons to that effect, although lacking the luridness of the one which shocked the sensibilities of the boy Ingersoll, could be heard in a large majority of the churches. Even youth and childhood were not exempt. Little children could tell such of their playmates as chanced to have unbelieving parents all about the zealous labors of the trident-wielding, spear-tailed fiends of the underworld. In many thousands of orthodox homes, the monotonous gloom enwrapping the cradle was broken only by the glare of hell.
What a change had occurred when the great warrior fell asleep! The belief in everlasting torture, — in leering fiends, — no longer filled with horror the imagination of childhood. The cradle had been rescued; the nursery had been saved; and through the eastern windows fell warm and golden the sunlight of intelligence and freethought. Preachers had ceased to appeal to the argument of infinite revenge, and were discoursing upon “future retribution” or “conditional immortality.” The text of the Free Will Baptist of Ingersoll’s boyhood remained the same; the creeds still smoldered; but, in the minds of a vast majority, the orthodox hell was a remembered nightmare. As wrote the great propagandist himself, to a friend: —
“There is but little left for me to do. Jehovah is with Jove. The fires of hell have been extinguished. The struggle with superstition is nearly over. ‘We have passed midnight, and the great balance weighs up morning.”
Who had wrought this glorious change? Were the Unitarians a factor? Undoubtedly. Were the Universalists a factor? Undoubtedly. Were the Freethinkers, in general, a factor? Undoubtedly. But who was to be thanked for the existence of many of those Unitarians and Universalists, as such, and, especially, for hundreds of thousands of those Freethinkers? Who had wrought the glorious change? To this question, there is one answer, and in that answer, one word — a name that arches in seven-hued radiance the horizon of the future. It is Ingersoll. Of him it will be said: —
“He sought, by constant appeal to truth, reason, mental and moral integrity, physical and intellectual liberty, justice, mercy, humanity, sympathy, tenderness, love, — and, moreover, by personal example in each and all of these, — to make of earth a heaven; but it is his memory’s richest reward, that he put out ‘the ignorant and revengeful fires of hell.'”
Two hundred and eighty-nine years after the world’s grandest martyr crumbled to sacred ashes at the bigot’s stake, the pope of Rome, with malicious eyes, his own power slowly waning, saw rise within the shadow of the Vatican a monument to Giordano Bruno.
As with the memory of that intrepid man in the land of sun and blue and mirthful vine, so shall it be in every land with the memory of Ingersoll. For, dowered with nature’s noblest gifts, he left,in turn, to all mankind, the imperishable legacy of thought and deed. Sublime as the snow-mantled mountain, vast as the sea, — the origin of his genius as little understood as their origin, — he lived and wrought and passed to silence as naturally as they exist.
Rest at last, O wondrous and unconquered soul! Upon thy tranquil brow fell full and fair the mellow gleam of humanity’s golden hope. In the eternal right beat bravely strong thy noble heart, and to the dim heights where tremulous broods the purpling dawn soared the winged envoys of thy tireless brain. Naught but the dregs of truth could quench thy jeweled lips. But too soon — thou wast not understood; for in the unwalled and limitless temple of thy mind dwelt Love and Liberty in perfect unreserve. Yet, trouble not. The detraction of the present thy fame can well afford; for thou art the hero, — the sage, — the saint, — of the better years to be. A worshiper of the ideal, thou didest live for posterity. Posterity will live for thee.