Robert Green Ingersoll was an American political leader and orator,
noted for his broad range of culture and his defense of agnosticism.
He was prominent during the Golden Age of Freethought. Colonel Bob
Mountain in Washington state was named after him by the climbers
who discovered the peak in 1893.
father, John Ingersoll, was an abolitionist preacher. Ingersoll
was born in Dresden, New York, but his family moved frequently
because of his father's radical views before finally settling
in Peoria, Illinois. Ingersoll apprenticed himself to lawyers
there and hung out his shingle.
the advent of the American Civil War, he raised the 11th Illinois
Cavalry Regiment and took command. The regiment fought in the
Battle of Shiloh. Ingersoll was later captured, then paroled on
his promise that he would not fight again. (This was common practice
early in the war.)
the war, he served as Illinois Attorney General. He was a prominent
member of the Republican Party. Although he never held any office,
he was an active participant. His nominating speech for James
G. Blaine in 1876 did not result in Blaine's candidacy, but the
speech itself, known as the "Plumed Knight" speech,
was considered the gold standard for political oratory.
was involved in several prominent trials as an attorney, notably
the Star Route trials, a major political scandal in which his
clients were acquitted. He also defended a New Jersey man for
blasphemy. Although he did not win acquittal, his vigorous defense
is considered to have discredited blasphemy laws and few other
was most noted as an orator, the most popular of the age, when
oratory was public entertainment. He spoke on every subject, from
Shakespeare to Reconstruction, but his most popular subjects were
atheism and the sanctity and refuge of the family. He committed
his speeches to memory although they were sometimes more than
three hours long. His audiences were said never to be restless.
radical views on religion, slavery, woman's suffrage, and other
issues of the day effectively prevented him from ever pursuing
or holding political offices higher than that of Attorney General.
Illinois Republicans tried to pressure him into running for Governor
on the condition that Ingersoll conceal his atheism during the
campaign. He refused the nomination because he thought concealing
information from the public was immoral.
of Ingersoll's speeches advocated freethought and humanism, and
often poked fun at religious belief. For this the press often
attacked him, but neither his views nor the negative press could
stop his rising popularity. At the height of Ingersoll's fame,
audiences would pay $1 or more to hear him speak, a giant sum
for his day.
died of heart failure at age 65. Soon after his death, Clinton
P. Farrell, a brother-in-law, collected copies of Ingersoll’s
speeches for publication. The 12-volume Dresden Editions kept
interest in Ingersoll's ideas alive and preserved his speeches
for future generations.
are no Gods, no angels, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is
only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition
that hardens the hearts and enslaves minds."
crime against god is a demonstrated impossibility."
good deed is the best prayer."
after age, the strong have trampled upon the weak; the crafty
and heartless have ensnared and enslaved the simple and innocent,
and nowhere, in all the annals of mankind, has any god succored
is an epithet bestowed by superstition upon common sense."
without conscience is a wild beast."
nation has created a god, and the god has always resembled his
creators. He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he
invariably found on the side of those in power. Each god was intensely
patriotic, and detested all nations but his own."
library is an arsenal."
the most part, colleges are places where pebbles are polished
and diamonds are dimmed."
hands that help are far better than the lips that pray."
man who invented the telescope found out more about heaven than
the closed eyes of prayer ever discovered."
nature there are neither rewards nor punishments - there are consequences."
admit that reason is a small and feeble flame, a flickering torch
by stumblers carried in the star-less night, blown and flared
by passion's storm, and yet, it is the only light. Extinguish
that, and nought remains."
gentlemen! I am not asking to be Governor of Illinois ... I have
in my composition that which I have declared to the world as my
views upon religion. My position I would not, under any circumstances,
not even for my life, seem to renounce. I would rather refuse
to be President of the United States than to do so. My religious
belief is my own. It belongs to me, not to the State of Illinois.
I would not smother one sentiment of my heart to be the Emperor
of the round world."
are becoming political organizations.... It probably will not
be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political,
as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there
are not liberals enough to hold the balance of power, this Government
will be destroyed. The liberty of man is not safe in the hands
of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership,
man is a slave. All laws for the purpose of making man worship
God, are born of the same spirit that kindled the fires of the
auto da fe, and lovingly built the dungeons of the Inquisition.
All laws defining and punishing blasphemy -- making it a crime
to give your honest ideas about the Bible, or to laugh at the
ignorance of the ancient Jews, or to enjoy yourself on the Sabbath,
or to give your opinion of Jehovah, were passed by impudent bigots,
and should be at once repealed by honest men. An infinite God
ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership
with State Legislatures. Certainly he ought not so to act that
laws become necessary to keep him from being laughed at. No one
thinks of protecting Shakespeare from ridicule, by the threat
of fine and imprisonment. It strikes me that God might write a
book that would not necessarily excite the laughter of his children.
In fact, I think it would be safe to say that a real God could
produce a work that would excite the admiration of mankind. Surely
politicians could be better employed than in passing laws to protect
the literary reputation of the Jewish God."
good schoolteacher is worth more than 100 priests."