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Robert Green Ingersoll
THIRTEEN CLUB DINNER. New York, December 13, 1886. TOAST. 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 Bank of Wisdom Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201 13 THIRTEEN CLUB DINNER. 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 belief. 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 honor. 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 Bank of Wisdom Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201 14 THIRTEEN CLUB DINNER. 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." END