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Robert Ingersoll Thirteen Club

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Thirteen Club

Robert Green Ingersoll


New York, December 13, 1886.

The Superstitions of Public Men.

MR. CHIEF RULER AND GENTLEMEN: I suppose that the superstition
most prevalent with public men, is the idea that they are of great
importance to the public. As a matter of fact, public men, -- that
is to say, men in office, -- reflect the average intelligence of
the people, and no more. A public man, to be successful, must not
assert anything unless it is exceedingly popular. And he need not
deny anything unless everybody is against it. Usually he has to be
like the center of the earth, -- draw all things his way, without
weighing anything himself.

One of the difficulties, or rather, one of the objections, to
a government republican in form, is this: Everybody imagines that
he is everybody's master. And the result has been to make most of
our public men exceedingly conservative in the expression of their
real opinions. A man, wishing to be elected to an office, generally
agrees with most everybody he meets. If he meets a Prohibitionist,
he says: "Of course I am a temperance man. I am opposed to all
excesses, my dear friend, and no one knows better than myself the
evils that have been caused by intemperance." The next man happens
to keep a saloon, and happens to be quite influential in that part
of the district, and the candidate immediately says to him -- "The
idea that these Prohibitionists can take away the personal liberty
of the citizen is simply monstrous!" In a moment after, he is
greeted by a Methodist, and he hastens to say, that while he does
not belong to that church himself, his wife does; that he would
gladly be a member, but does not feel that he is good enough. He
tells a Presbyterian that his grandfather was of that faith, and
that he was a most excellent man, and laments from the bottom of
his heart that he himself is not within that fold. A few moments
after, on meeting a skeptic, he declares, with the greatest fervor,
that reason is the only guide, and that he looks forward to the
time when superstition will be dethroned. In other words, the
greatest superstition now entertained by public men is that
hypocrisy is the royal road to success.

Of course, there are many other superstitions, and one is,
that the Democratic party has not outlived its usefulness. Another
is, that the Republican party should have power for what it has
done, instead of what it proposes to do,

In my judgment, these statesmen are mistaken. The people of
the United States, after all, admire intellectual honesty and have
respect for moral courage. The time has come for the old ideas and
superstitions in politics to be thrown away -- not in phrase, not
in pretence, but in fact; and the time has come when a man can
safely rely on the intelligence and courage of the American people.

The most significant fact in this world to-day, is, that in
nearly every village under the American flag the school-house is
larger than the church. People are beginning to have a little
confidence in intelligence and in facts. Every public man and every
private man, who is actuated in his life by a belief in something

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that no one can prove, -- that no one can demonstrate, -- is, to
that extent, a superstitious man.

It may be that I go further than most of you, because if I
have any superstition, it is a superstition against superstition.
It seems to me that the first things for every man, whether in or
out of office, to believe in, -- the first things to rely on, are
demonstrated facts. These are the corner stones, --  these are the
columns that nothing can move, -- these are the stars that no
darkness can hide, -- these are the true and only foundations of

Beyond the truths that have been demonstrated is the horizon
of the Probable, and in the world of the Probable every man has the
right to guess for himself. Beyond the region of the Probable is
the Possible, and beyond the Possible is the Impossible, and beyond
the Impossible are the religions of this world. My idea is this:
Any man who acts in view of the improbable or of the Impossible -
that is to say, of the Supernatural -- is a superstitious man. Any
man who believes that he can add to the happiness of the Infinite,
by depriving himself of innocent pleasure, is superstitions. Any
man who imagines that he can make some God happy, by making himself
miserable, is superstitious, Any one who thinks he can gain
happiness in another world, by raising hell with his fellow-men in
this, is simply superstitious. Any man who believes in a Being of
infinite wisdom and goodness, and yet believes that that Being has
peopled a world with failures, is superstitious. Any man who
believes that an infinitely wise and good God would take pains to
make a man, intending at the time that the man should be eternally
damned, is absurdly superstitious. In other words, he who believes
that there is, or that there can be, any other religious duty than
to increase the happiness of mankind, in this world, now and here,
is superstitious.

I have known a great many private men who were not men of
genius. I have known some men of genius about whom it was kept
private, and I have known many public men, and my wonder increased
the better I knew them, that they occupied positions of trust and

But, after all, it is the people's fault. They who demand
hypocrisy must be satisfied with mediocrity. Our public men will be
better and greater and less superstitious, when the people become
greater and better and less superstitious. There is an old story,
that we have all heard, about Senator Nesmith. He was elected a
Senator from Oregon. When he had been in Washington a little while,
one of the other Senators said to him: "How did you feel when you
found yourself sitting here in the United States Senate?" He
replied: "For the first two months, I just sat and wondered how a
damned fool like me ever broke into the Senate. Since that, I have
done nothing but wonder how the other fools got here."

To-day the need of our civilization is public men who have the
courage to speak as they think. We need a man for President who
will not publicly thank God for earthquakes. We need somebody with
the courage to say that all that happens in nature happens without
design, and without reference to man; somebody who will say that

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the men and women killed are not murdered by supernatural beings,
and that everything that happens in nature, happens without malice
and without mercy. We want somebody who will have courage enough
not to charge an infinitely good and wise Being with all the
cruelties and agonies and sufferings of this world. We want such
men in public places, -- men who will appeal to the reason of their
fellows, to the highest intelligence of the people; men who will
have courage enough, in this the nineteenth century, to agree with
the conclusions of science. We want some man who will not pretend
to believe, and who does not in fact believe, the stories that
Superstition has told to Credulity.

The most important thing in this word is the destruction of
superstition. Superstition interferes with the happiness of
mankind. Superstition is a terrible serpent, reaching in frightful
coils from heaven to earth and thrusting its poisoned fangs into
the hearts of men. While I live, I am going to do what little I can
for the destruction of this monster. Whatever may happen in another
world -- and I will take my chances there, -- I am opposed to
superstition in this. And if, when I reach that other world, it
needs reforming, I shall do what little I can there for the
destruction of the false.

Let me tell you one thing more, and I am done. The only way to
have brave, honest, intelligent, conscientious public men, men
without superstition, is to do what we can to make the average
citizen brave, conscientious and intelligent. If you wish to see
courage in the presidential chair, conscience upon the bench,
intelligence of the highest order in Congress; if you expect public
men to be great enough to reflect honor upon the Republic, private
citizens must have the courage and the intelligence to elect, and
to sustain, such men. I have said, and I say it again, that never
while I live will I vote for any man to be President of the United
States, no matter if he does belong to my party, who has not won
his spurs on some field of intellectual conflict. We have had
enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough
prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the
American citizen to say: "Hereafter I will be represented by men
who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the
Nineteenth Century."


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