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Chief Justice Comegys

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Robert Green Ingersoll


Brooklyn Eagle, 1881.

Question. I understand, Colonel Ingersoll, that you have been indicted in the State of Delaware for the crime of blasphemy?

Answer. Well, not exactly indicted. The Judge, who, I believe, is the Chief Justice of the State, dedicated the new court-house at Wilmington to the service of the Lord, by a charge to the grand jury, in which he almost commanded them to bring in a bill of indictment against me, for what he was pleased to call the crime of blasphemy. Now, as a matter of fact, there can be no crime committed by man against God, provided always that a correct definition of the Deity has been given by the orthodox churches. They say that he is infinite. If so, he is conditionless. I can injure a man by changing his conditions. Take from a man water, and he perishes of thirst; take from him air, and he suffocates; he may die from too much, or too little heat. That is because he is a conditioned being. But if God is conditionless, he cannot in any way be affected by what anybody else may do; and, consequently, a sin against God is as impossible as a sin against the principle of the lever or inclined plane. This crime called blasphemy was invented by priests for the purpose of defending doctrines not able to take care of themselves. Blasphemy is a kind of breastwork behind which hypocrisy has crouched for thousands of years. Injustice is the only blasphemy that can be committed, and justice is the only true worship. Man can sin against man, but not against God. But even if man could sin against God, it has always struck me that an infinite being would be entirely able to take care of himself without the assistance of a Chief Justice. Men have always been violating the rights of men, under the plea of defending the rights of God, and nothing, for ages, was so perfectly delightful to the average Christian as to gratify his revenge, and get God in his debt at the same time. Chief Justice Comegys has taken this occasion to lay up for himself what he calls treasures in heaven, and on the last great day he will probably rely on a certified copy of this charge. The fact that he thinks the Lord needs help satisfies me that in that particular neighborhood I am a little ahead.

The fact is, I never delivered but one lecture in Delaware. That lecture, however, had been preceded by a Republican stump speech; and, to tell you the truth, I imagine that the stump speech is what a Yankee would call the heft of the offence. It is really hard for me to tell whether I have blasphemed the Deity or the Democracy. Of course I have no personal feeling whatever against the Judge. In fact he has done me a favor. He has called the attention of the civilized world to certain barbarian laws that disfigure and disgrace the statute books of most of the States. These laws were passed when our honest ancestors were burning witches, trading Quaker children to the Barbados for rum and molasses, branding people upon the forehead, boring their tongues with hot irons, putting one another in the pillory, and, generally, in the name of God, making their neighbors as uncomfortable as possible. We have outgrown these laws without repealing them. They are, as a matter of fact, in most communities actually dead; but in some of the States, like Delaware, I suppose they could be enforced, though there might be trouble in selecting twelve men, even in Delaware, without getting one man broad enough, sensible enough, and honest enough, to do justice. I hardly think it would be possible in any State to select a jury in the ordinary way that would convict any person charged with what is commonly known as blasphemy.

All the so-called Christian churches have accused each other of being blasphemers, in turn. The Catholics denounced the Presbyterians as blasphemers, the Presbyterians denounced the Baptists; the Baptists, the Presbyterians, and the Catholics, all united in denouncing the Quakers, and they all together denounced the Unitarians — called them blasphemers because they did not acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ — the Unitarians only insisting that three infinite beings were not necessary, that one infinite being could do all the business, and that the other two were absolutely useless. This was called blasphemy.

Then all the churches united to call the Universalists blasphemers. I can remember when a Universalist was regarded with a thousand times more horror than an infidel is to-day. There is this strange thing about the history of theology — nobody has ever been charged with blasphemy who thought God bad. For instance, it never would have excited any theological hatred if a man had insisted that God would finally damn everybody. Nearly all heresy has consisted in making God better than the majority in the churches thought him to be. the orthodox Christian never will forgive the Universalist for saying that God is too good to damn anybody eternally. Now, all these sects have charged each other with blasphemy, without anyone of them knowing really what blasphemy is. I suppose they have occasionally been honest, because they have mostly been ignorant. It is said that Torquemada used to shed tears over the agonies of his victims and that he recommended slow burning, not because he wished to inflict pain, but because he really desired to give the gentleman or lady he was burning a chance to repent of his or her sins, and make his or her peace with God previous to becoming a cinder.

The root, foundation, germ and cause of nearly all religious persecution is the idea that some certain belief is necessary to salvation. If orthodox Christians are right in this idea, then persecution of all heretics and infidels is a duty. If I have the right to defend my body from attack, surely I should have a like right to defend my soul. Under our laws I could kill any man who was endeavoring, for example, to take the life of my child. How much more would I be justified in killing any wretch who was endeavoring to convince my child of the truth of a doctrine which, if believed, would result in the eternal damnation of that child’s soul?

If the Christian religion, as it is commonly understood, is true, no infidel should be allowed to live; every heretic should be hunted from the wide world as you would hunt a wild beast. They should not be allowed to speak, they should not be allowed to poison the minds of women and children; in other words, they should not be allowed to empty heaven and fill hell. The reason I have liberty in this country is because the Christians of this country do not believe their doctrine. The passage from the Bible, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature,” coupled with the assurance that, “Whosoever believeth and is baptized shall be saved, and whoso believeth not shall he damned,” is the foundation of most religious persecution. Every word in that passage has been fire and fagot, whip and sword, chain and dungeon. That one passage has probably caused more agony among men, women and children, than all the passages of all other books that were ever printed. Now, this passage was not in the book of Mark when originally written, but was put there many years after the gentleman who evolved the book of Mark from his inner consciousness, had passed away. It was put there by the church — that is to say, by hypocrisy and priestly craft, to bind the consciences of men and force them to come under ecclesiastical and spiritual power; and that passage has been received and believed, and been made binding by law in most countries ever since.

What would you think of a law compelling a man to admire Shakespeare, or calling it blasphemy to laugh at Hamlet? Why is not a statute necessary to uphold the reputation of Raphael or of Michael Angelo? Is it possible that God cannot write a book good enough and great enough and grand enough not to excite the laughter of his children? Is it possible that he is compelled to have his literary reputation supported by the State of Delaware?

There is another very strange thing about this business. Admitting that the Bible is the work of God, it is not any more his work than are the sun, the moon and the stars or the earth, and if for disbelieving this Bible we are to be damned forever, we ought to be equally damned for a mistake in geology or astronomy. The idea of allowing a man to go to heaven who swears that the earth is flat, and damning a fellow who thinks it is round, but who has his honest doubts about Joshua, seems to me to be perfectly absurd. It seems to me that in this view of it, it is just as necessary to be right on the subject of the equator as on the doctrine of infant baptism.

Question. What was in your judgment the motive of Judge Comegys? Is he a personal enemy of yours? Have you ever met him? Have you any idea what reason he had for attacking you?

Answer. I do not know the gentleman, personally. Outside of the political reason I have intimated, I do not know why he attacked me. I once delivered a lecture entitled “What must we do to be Saved?” in the city of Wilmington, and in that lecture I proceeded to show, or at least tried to show, that Matthew, Mark and Luke knew nothing about Christianity, as it is understood in Delaware; and I also endeavored to show that all men have an equal right to think, and that a man is only under obligations to be honest with himself, and with all men, and that he is not accountable for the amount of mind that he has been endowed with — otherwise it might be Judge Comegys himself would be damned — but that he is only accountable for the use he makes of what little mind he has received. I held that the safest thing for every man was to be absolutely honest, and to express his honest thought. After the delivery of this lecture various ministers in Wilmington began replying, and after the preaching of twenty or thirty sermons, not one of which, considered as a reply, was a success, I presume it occurred to these ministers that the shortest and easiest way would be to have me indicted and imprisoned.

In this I entirely agree with them. It is the old and time-honored way. I believe it is, as it always has been, easier to kill two infidels than to answer one; and if Christianity expects to stem the tide that is now slowly rising over the intellectual world, it must be done by brute force, and by brute force alone. And it must be done pretty soon, or they will not have the brute force. It is doubtful if they have a majority of the civilized world on their side to-day. No heretic ever would have been burned if he could have been answered. No theologian ever called for the help of the law until his logic gave out.

I suppose Judge Comegys to be a Presbyterian. Where did he get his right to be a Presbyterian? Where did he get his right to decide which creed is the correct one? How did he dare to pit his little brain against the word of God? He may say that his father was a Presbyterian. But what was his grandfather? If he will only go back far enough he will, in all probability, find that his ancestors were Catholics, and if he will go back a little farther still, that they were barbarians; that at one time they were naked, and had snakes tattooed on their bodies. What right had they to change? Does he not perceive that had the savages passed the same kind of laws that now exist in Delaware, they could have prevented any change in belief? They would have had a whipping-post, too, and they would have said: “Any gentleman found without snakes tattooed upon his body shall be held guilty of blasphemy; “and all the ancestors of this Judge, and of these ministers would have said, Amen!

What right had the first Presbyterian to be a Presbyterian? He must have been a blasphemer first. A small dose of pillory might have changed his religion. Does this Judge think that Delaware is incapable of any improvement in a religious point of view? Does he think that the Presbyterians of Delaware are not only the best now, but that they will forever be the best that God can make? Is there to be no advancement? Has there been no advancement? Are the pillory and the whipping post to be used to prevent an excess of thought in the county of New Castle? Has the county ever been troubled that way? Has this Judge ever had symptoms of any such disease? Now, I want it understood that I like this Judge, and my principal reason for liking him is that he is the last of his race. He will be so inundated with the ridicule of mankind that no other Chief Justice in Delaware, or anywhere else, will ever follow his illustrious example. The next Judge will say: “So far as I am concerned, the Lord may attend to his own business, and deal with infidels as he may see proper.” Thus great good has been accomplished by this Judge, which shows, as Burns puts it, “that a pot can be boiled, even if the devil tries to prevent it.”

Question. How will this action of Delaware, in your opinion, affect the other States?

Answer. Probably a few other States needed an example exactly of this kind. New Jersey, in all probability, will say: “Delaware is perfectly ridiculous,” and yet, had Delaware waited awhile, New Jersey might have done the same thing. Maryland will exclaim: “Did you ever see such a fool!” And yet I was threatened in that State. The average American citizen, taking into consideration the fact that we are blest, or cursed, with about one hundred thousand preachers, and that these preachers preach on the average one hundred thousand sermons a week — some of which are heard clear through — will unquestionably hold that a man who happens to differ with all these parsons ought to have and shall have the privilege of expressing his mind; and that the one hundred thousand clergymen ought to be able to put down the one man who happens to disagree with them, without calling on the army or navy to do it, especially when it is taken into consideration that an infinite God is already on their side. Under these circumstances, the average American will say: “Let him talk, and let the hundred thousand preachers answer him to their hearts’ content.” So that in my judgment the result of the action of Delaware will be: First, to liberalize all other States, and second, finally to liberalize Delaware itself. In many of the States they have the same idiotic kind of laws as those found in Delaware — with the exception of those blessed institutions for the spread of the Gospel, known as the pillory and the whipping — post. There is a law in Maine by which a man can be put into the penitentiary for denying the providence of God, and the day of judgment. There are similar laws in most of the New England States. One can be imprisoned in Maryland for a like offence.

In North Carolina no man can hold office that has not a certain religious belief; and so in several other of the Southern States. In half the States of this Union, if my wife and children should be murdered before my eyes, I would not be allowed in a court of justice to tell who the murderer was. You see that, for hundreds of years, Christianity has endeavored to put the brand of infamy on every intellectual brow.

Question. I see that one objection to your lectures urged by Judge Comegys on the grand jury is, that they tend to a breach of the peace — to riot and bloodshed.

Answer. Yes; Judge Comegys seems to be afraid that people who love their enemies will mob their friends. He is afraid that those disciples who, when smitten on one cheek turn the other to be smitten also, will get up a riot. He seems to imagine that good Christians feel called upon to violate the commands of the Lord in defence of the Lord’s reputation. If Christianity produces people who cannot hear their doctrines discussed without raising mobs, and shedding blood, the sooner it is stopped being preached the better.

There is not the slightest danger of any infidel attacking a Christian for his belief, and there never will be an infidel mob for such a purpose. Christians can teach and preach their views to their hearts’ content. They can send all unbelievers to an eternal hell, if it gives them the least pleasure, and they may bang their Bibles as long as their fists last, but no infidel will be in danger of raising a riot to stop them, or put them down by brute force, or even by an appeal to the law, and I would advise Judge Comegys, if he wishes to compliment Christianity, to change his language and say that he feared a breach of the peace might be committed by the infidels — not by the Christians. He may possibly have thought that it was my intention to attack his State. But I can assure him, that if ever I start a warfare of that kind, I shall take some State of my size. There is no glory to be won in wringing the neck of a “Blue Hen!”

Question. I should judge, Colonel, that you are prejudiced against the State of Delaware?

Answer. Not by any means. Oh, no! I know a great many splendid people in Delaware, and since I have known more of their surroundings, my admiration for them has increased. They are, on the whole, a very good people in that State. I heard a story the other day: An old fellow in Delaware has been for the last twenty or thirty years gathering peaches there in their season — a kind of peach tramp. One day last fall, just as the season closed, he was leaning sadly against a tree, “Boys!” said he, “I’d like to come back to Delaware a hundred years from now.” The boys asked, “What for?” The old fellow replied: “Just to see how damned little they’d get the baskets by that time.” And it occurred to me that people who insist that twenty-two quarts make a bushel, should be as quiet as possible on the subject of blasphemy.

**** ****

Chicago Times interview, Feb. 14, 1881.


Question. Have you read Chief Justice Comegys’ compliments to you before the Delaware grand jury?

Answer. Yes, I have read his charge, in which he relies upon the law passed in 1740. After reading his charge it seemed to me as though he had died about the date of the law, had risen from the dead, and had gone right on where he had left off. I presume he is a good man, but compared with other men, is something like his State when compared with other States.

A great many people will probably regard the charge of Judge Comegys as unchristian, but I do not. I consider that the law of Delaware is in exact accord with the Bible, and that the pillory, the whipping-post, and the suppression of free speech are the natural fruit of the Old and New Testament.

Delaware is right. Christianity can not succeed, can not exist, without the protection of law. Take from orthodox Christianity the protection of law, and all church property would be taxed like other property. The Sabbath would be no longer a day devoted to superstition. Everyone could express his honest thought upon every possible subject. Everyone, notwithstanding his belief, could testify in a court of justice. In other words, honesty would be on an equality with hypocrisy. Science would stand on a level, so far as the law is concerned, with superstition. Whenever this happens the end of orthodox Christianity will be near.

By Christianity I do not mean charity, mercy, kindness, forgiveness. I mean no natural virtue, because all the natural virtues existed and had been practiced by hundreds and thousands of millions before Christ was born. There certainly were some good men even in the days of Christ in Jerusalem, before his death.

By Christianity I mean the ideas of redemption, atonement, a good man dying for a bad man, and the bad man getting a receipt in full. By Christianity I mean that system that insists that in the next world a few will be forever happy, while the many will be eternally miserable. Christianity, as I have explained it, must be protected, guarded, and sustained by law. It was founded by the sword — that is to say, by physical force, — and must be preserved by like means.

In many of the States of the Union an infidel is not allowed to testify. In the State of Delaware, if Alexander von Humboldt were living, he could not be a witness, although he had more brains than the State of Delaware has ever produced, or is likely to produce as long as the laws of 1740 remain in force. Such men as Huxley, Tyndall and Haeckel could be fined and imprisoned in the State of Delaware, and, in fact, in many States of this Union. Christianity, in order to defend itself, puts the brand of infamy on the brow of honesty. Christianity marks with a letter “C,” standing for “convict” every brain that is great enough to discover the frauds. I have no doubt that Judge Comegys is a good and sincere Christian. I believe that he, in his charge, gives an exact reflection of the Jewish Jehovah. I believe that every word he said was in exact accord with the spirit of orthodox Christianity. Against this man personally I have nothing to say. I know nothing of his character except as I gather it from this charge, and after reading the charge I am forced simply to say, Judge Comegys is a Christian.

It seems, however. that the grand jury dared to take no action, notwithstanding they had been counseled to do so by the Judge. Although the Judge had quoted to them the words of George I. of blessed memory; although he had quoted to them the words of Lord Mansfield, who became a Judge simply because of his hatred of the English colonists, simply because he despised liberty in the new world; notwithstanding the fact that I could have been punished with insult, with imprisonment, and with stripes, and with every form of degradation; notwithstanding that only a few years ago I could have been branded upon the forehead, bored through the tongue, maimed and disfigured, still, such has been the advance even in the State of Delaware, owing, it may be, in great part to the one lecture delivered by me, that the grand jury absolutely refused to indict me.

The grand jury satisfied themselves and their consciences simply by making a report in which they declared that my lecture had “no parallel in the habits of respectable vagabondism;” that I was “an arch-blasphemer and reviler of God and religion,” and recommended that should I ever attempt to lecture again I should be taught that in Delaware blasphemy is a crime punishable by fine and imprisonment. I have no doubt that every member of the grand jury signing this report was entirely honest; that he acted in exact accord with what he understood to be the demand of the Christian religion. I must admit that for Christians, the report is exceedingly mild and gentle.

I have now in the house, letters that passed between certain bishops in the fifteenth century, in which they discussed the propriety of cutting out the tongues of heretics before they were burned. Some of the bishops were in favor of and some against it. One argument for cutting out their tongues which seemed to have settled the question was, that unless the tongues of heretics were cut out they might scandalize the gentlemen who were burning them, by blasphemous remarks during the fire. I would commend these letters to Judge Comegys and the members of the grand Jury.

I want it distinctly understood that I have nothing against Judge Comegys or the grand jury. They act as most anybody would, raised in Delaware, in the shadow of the whipping-post and the pillory. We must remember that Delaware was a slave State; that the Bible became extremely dear to the people because it upheld that peculiar institution. We must remember that the Bible was the block on which mother and child stood for sale when they were separated by the Christians of Delaware. The Bible was regarded as the title-pages to slavery, and as the book of all books that gave the right to masters to whip mothers and to sell children.

There are many offenses now for which the punishment is whipping and standing in the pillory; where persons are convicted of certain crimes and sent to the penitentiary, and upon being discharged from the penitentiary are furnished by the State with a dark jacket plainly marked on the back with a large Roman “C,” the letter to be of a light color. This they are to wear for six months after being discharged, and if they are found at any time without the dark jacket and the illuminated “C” they are to be punished with twenty lashes upon the bare back. The object, I presume, of this law, is to drive from the State all the discharged convicts for the benefit of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland — that is to say, other Christian communities. A cruel people make cruel laws.

The objection I have to the whipping-post is that it is a punishment which cannot be inflicted by a gentleman. The person who administers the punishment must, of necessity, be fully as degraded as the person who receives it. I am opposed to any kind of punishment that cannot be administered by a gentleman. I am opposed to corporal punishment everywhere. It should be taken from the asylums and penitentiaries, and any man who would apply the lash to the naked back of another is beneath the contempt of honest people.

Question. Have you seen that Henry Bergh has introduced in the New york Legislature a bill providing for whipping as a punishment for wife-beating?

Answer. The objection I have mentioned is fatal to Mr. Bergh’s bill. He will be able to get persons to beat wife-beaters, who, under the same circumstances, would be wife-beaters themselves. If they are not wife-beaters when they commence the business of beating others, they soon will be. I think that wife-beating in great cities could be stopped by putting all the wife-beaters at work at some government employment, the value of the work, however, to go to the wives and children. The trouble now is that most of the wife-beating is among the extremely poor, so that the wife by informing against her husband, takes the last crust out of her own mouth. If you substitute whipping or flogging for the prison here, you will in the first place prevent thousands of wives from informing, and in many cases, where the wife would inform, she would afterward be murdered by the flogged brute. This brute would naturally resort to the same means to reform his wife that the State had resorted to for the purpose of reforming him. Flogging would beget flogging. Mr. Bergh is a man of great kindness of heart. When he reads that a wife has been beaten, he says the husband deserves to be beaten himself. But if Mr. Bergh was to be the executioner, I imagine you could not prove by the back of the man that the punishment had been inflicted.

Another good remedy for wife-beating is the abolition of the Catholic Church. We should also do away with the idea that a marriage is a sacrament, and that there is any God who is rendered happy by seeing a husband and wife live together, although the husband gets most of his earthly enjoyment from whipping his wife. No woman should live with a man a moment after he has struck her. Just as the idea of liberty enlarges, confidence in the whip and fist, in the kick and blow, will diminish. Delaware occupies toward freethinkers precisely the same position that a wife-beater does toward the wife. Delaware knows that there are no reasons sufficient to uphold Christianity, consequently these reasons are supplemented with the pillory and the whipping-post. The whipping-post is considered one of God’s arguments, and the pillory is a kind of moral suasion, the use of which fills heaven with a kind of holy and serene delight. I am opposed to the religion of brute force, but all these frightful things have grown principally out of a belief in eternal punishment and out of the further idea that a certain belief is necessary to avoid eternal pain.

If Christianity is right, Delaware is right. If God will damn every body forever simply for being intellectually honest, surely he ought to allow the good people of Delaware to imprison the same gentleman for two months. Of course there are thousands and thousands of good people in Delaware, people who have been in other States, people who have listened to Republican speeches, people who have read the works of scientists, who hold the laws of 1740 in utter abhorrence; people who pity Judge Comegys and who have a kind of sympathy for the grand jury.

You will see that at the last election Delaware lacked only six or seven hundred of being a civilized State, and probably in 1884 will stand redeemed and regenerated, with the laws of 1740 expunged from the statute book. Delaware has not had the best of opportunities. You must remember that it is next to New Jersey, which is quite an obstacle in the Path of progress. It is just beyond Maryland, which is another obstacle. I heard the other day that God originally made oysters with legs, and afterward took them off, knowing that the people of Delaware would starve to death before they would run to catch anything. Judge Comegys is the last judge who will make such a charge in the United States. He has immortalized himself as the last mile-stone on that road. He is the last of his race. No more can be born. Outside of this he probably was a very clever man, and it may be, he does not believe a word he utters. The probability is that he has underestimated the intelligence of the people of Delaware. I am afraid to think that he is entirely honest, for fear that I may underestimate him intellectually, and overestimate him morally. Nothing could tempt me to do this man injustice. though, I could hardly add to the injury he has done himself. He has called attention to laws that ought to be repealed, and to lectures that ought to be repeated. I feel in my heart that he has done me a great service, second only to that for which I am indebted to the grand jury. Had the Judge known me personally he probably would have said nothing. Should I have the misfortune to be arrested in his State and sentenced to two months of solitary confinement, the Judge having become acquainted with me during the trial. would probably insist on spending most of his time in my cell. At the end of the two months he would, I think, lay himself liable to the charge of blasphemy. providing he had honor enough to express his honest thought. After all, it is all a question of honesty. Every man is right. I cannot convince myself there is any God who will ever damn a man for having been honest. This gives me a certain hope for the Judge and the grand jury.

For two or three days I have been thinking what joy there must have been in heaven when Jehovah heard that Delaware was on his side, and remarked to the angels in the language of the late Adjt. Gen. Thomas: “The eyes of all Delaware are upon you.

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