On this date in 1833, Robert Green Ingersoll, who became the best known advocate of freethought in 19th-century United States, was born in Dresden, N.Y. The son of an impoverished itinerant pastor, he later recalled his formative church experiences: “The minister asked us if we knew that we all deserved to go to hell, and we all answered ‘yes.’ Then we were asked if we would be willing to go to hell if it was God’s will, and every little liar shouted ‘Yes!’ ” He became an attorney by apprenticeship, and a colonel in the Civil War, fighting in the Battle of Shiloh. In 1867, Ingersoll was appointed Illinois’ first Attorney General. His political career was cut short by his refusal to halt his controversial lectures, but he achieved national political fame for his thrilling nomination speech for James G. Blaine for president at the national convention of the Republican Party in 1876. Ingersoll was good friends with three U.S. presidents. The distinguished attorney was known and admired by most of the leading progressives and thinkers of his day. “Who can over estimate the progress of the world if all the money wasted in superstition could be used to enlighten, elevate and civilize mankind?” (Some Mistakes of Moses)
Ingersoll traveled the continent for 30 years, speaking to capacity audiences, once attracting 50,000 people to a lecture in Chicago—40,000 too many for the Exposition Center. His repertoire included 3 to 4-hour lectures on Shakespeare, Voltaire and Burns, but the largest crowds turned out to hear him denounce the bible and religion. Ingersoll’s speaking fees ranged as high as $7,000, in an era of low wages and no income tax. He married Eva Parker Ingersoll, a rationalist whom he deemed a “Woman Without Superstition,” in dedicating his first freethought book to her. He initially settled in Peoria, Illinois, then in Washington, D.C., where he successfully defended falsely accused men in the “Star Route” scandal, the most famous political trial of the 19th century. The family later relocated to New York. A devoted family man, he lived with his extended family, and the Ingersoll “at homes” were celebrated, both in Washington D.C., and in New York. Religious rumors against Ingersoll abounded. One had it that Ingersoll’s son was a drunkard who more than once had to be carried away from the table. Ingersoll wrote: “It is not true that intoxicating beverages are served at my table. It is not true that my son ever was drunk. It is not true that he had to be carried away from the table. Besides, I have no son!” The 12-volume Dresden Edition of his lectures, poetry and interviews was collected after his death and has been reprinted many times. D. 1899.
“All religions are inconsistent with mental freedom. Shakespeare is my bible, Burns my hymn-book.”
“I do not borrow ideas. I have a factory of my own.”
“I do not believe in putting out the sun to keep weeds from growing.”
“With soap, baptism is a good thing.”
“[Of William Jennings Bryan] He talks, but he does not think.”