Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

This lecture will be concerned with the Golden Age of American Freethought, from about 1860 to 1900, and its most famous spokesperson, Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899.)  The events and spread of freethought played out against the backdrop of a very conservative, although dynamic, period of American history. Many books about Ingersoll and freethought often merely mention the Gilded Age in passing, but I would like to talk about what conditions were like in our nation during the flowering of unbelief.

Mark Twain, the irreverent novelist, wrote a book he titled The Gilded Age in 1873. The meaning of his title was that the era’s corruption was covered over with a shiny surface. Gilt is a gold overlay on a cheaper material, like silver or wood.  It is usually employed as a cheap substitute for expensive, solid gold. The period from about 1870 to 1900 was very energetic, with many new forms of industry, corporations and technological inventions. It is often seen as a time of huge inequality between the wages of the business owners and the workers, of government corruption, of robber barons, dishonest business practices and so on.  It was. But the picture is much more complex than such a shallow description.

The United States economy grew at a very rapid rate during the Gilded Age, with the output of corn, wheat, coal and railroad track increasing in the 200th percentiles.  This era is sometimes called the Second Industrial Revolution.  500,000 patents were issued for new inventions and the United States became a world leader in the field of applied technology. Wages rose quickly, but the earnings of the wealthy and the business class far outstripped the rest of the population. In many ways, the inequality and technological advance were quite similar to economic conditions in the present day.  The wealthiest households, 2%, had control of 2/3 of the nation’s wealth. The left wing historian, Howard Zinn, maintained that such unfair disparity, coupled with terrible working conditions for the working class and a precarious job market gave rise to the populist, anarchist and socialist movements.  Nevertheless, the wages for the working classes were higher in America than most of Europe. Immigrants flooded the United States, further depressing the job market.

The allegations of the rapacious and unfair tactics of the great industrialists, such as John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew W. Mellon and other so-called “Robber Barons,” were often true.  But many of these business men ultimately endowed libraries, colleges, universities, hospital and museums in the United States.

The Gilded Age saw increased mechanization, the great Intercontinental Railroad, more use of machines for production, and the rise of corporations, machine shops and engineering colleges. There was an expansion of the American middle class.

But the poor were oppressed. There was no employment compensation for those workers injured on their jobs, and the rate of injury to employees was high. This period also saw the rise of labor unions as well as frequent strikes by disgruntled workers.  The new mode of doing business was now the corporate model, and there was a decrease in the number of small farms. Despite the great inventions that increased productivity during the era, there were serious depressions, such as the Panic of 1873 and the Panic of 1893. Reformers were at work as well, attempting to gain an eight hour day for workers, abolish child labor, institute civil service reform and attain woman’s suffrage, among other goals.

I would like to emphasize that while freethought was very strong during the Gilded Age, so was religion.  The United States was experiencing what is called The Third Great Awakening, a significant religious revival and its accompanying activism that began before the Civil War of 1861-1865 and lasted until the 20th Century. There was a belief among many of the religious that the Second Coming of Christ would come about after the entire earth became reformed. This notion gave impetus to the Protestant denominations in the United States.  Many of the Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Congregationalist Churches experienced rapid growth of members and of wealth.  New religions were begun, as well, such as the Holiness, Nazarene and Christian Science faiths. Missionary work became popular and its practitioners were zealous.  There was a wave of what has been called “muscular Christianity,” a movement that emphasized piety but dedicated to physical health. Muscular Christianity engaged in an aggressive outreach to those who were unchurched.

This era saw the rise of the Salvation Army in the United States, along with the influential growth of the YMCA and other Christian groups.  Most of the mainstream Protestant churches supported the Republican Party.  The new Catholic immigrants arrived in the United States accompanied by their faith and their priests. The Roman Catholic Church began to build a nationwide network of Catholic schools.  Some Protestant denominations built their own schools as well.  Church schools gave rise to the controversy over government funding of private religious schools in a nation where the Constitution prescribed separation of church and state.

Revivalism came to the fore after the Civil War, as part of America’s Third Great Awakening.  Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) was a popular evangelist and publisher.  Hymn composer, Ira D. Sankey, and Moody often collaborated. They also preached to large crowds all over Europe.  Moody centered his United States activity around the Chicago, Illinois area and was the founder of the Moody Bible Institute.  The Woman’s Temperance Union united many Protestant women in the crusade against liquor, pornography and prostitution.  Some good actually came out of the temperance movement, however, as it helped to raise the demand for woman’s suffrage. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution had extended the right to vote to black people, but not to women.  The push for women to have access to birth control information gained strength at this time, too.

This lecture has provided a glance at a dynamic era in United States history.  It was against this mainstream culture that freethought, always in a precarious position, grew and flourished.

It gained the numbers and strength it needed to push back against the vociferous Christian culture that had flooded the country.  There were draconian laws in place that freethinkers were forced to contend with, sometimes being prosecuted and jailed for outspoken views that contradicted received opinion.

Before I begin to talk about its Golden Age and its avatar, Robert Ingersoll, I would like to take a few minutes to discuss what freethought is and what its principles consist of. Freethought is the basic philosophic position that ideas and opinion should be based on science and reason, not faith or religion or societal tradition.  The philosopher, Paul Foulkes, gave a speech to the National Secular Society in 1966, in which he laid out what he considered the five essentials or characteristics of freethought.  I will quote his categories, and then I shall try to elaborate on them before turning to the freethought movement in the United States and its Golden Era. Foulkes maintained that freethought (1) has no party line; (2) no absolutes, (3) no censorship, (4) no sacred books and (5) no sacred names.

I am gratefully indebted to Foulkes for the following discussion on freethought. No party line means exactly what it says- in freethought, political and philosophical labels are up to each individual who adheres to the freethought stance to adopt. The second characteristic is very important- the notion that there are absolutes is not part of the freethought philosophy. This does not mean that most freethinkers are moral relativists; some are, but most are not. Freethinkers may understand they do not always know which moral standards are right, but most of them clearly understand which are wrong.  Religion has the claim on absolutes that are valid for all time.

Freethinkers know knowledge is provisional, and find the claim for eternal concepts ridiculous.  Knowledge and scientific findings change with time; thinking people change their minds with valid new information.  Here are some of the things freethinkers know are wrong, as listed by David Tribe: “witch phenomena and persecution, flat-earthism, geocentrism, fortune telling, belief in demon possession, trial by ordeal, animal and human sacrifice, slavery, torture, exploitation, extortion, child abuse, and major felonies. Note how many of the “wrongs” listed have either been practiced by religion or approved by it.

With regard to the third principle, no censorship, most freethinkers are against curbs on free expression, always and everywhere.  Here is a list of laws which are often applied indiscriminately by religion and by oppressive governments: sedition, obscenity, blasphemy, and defamation. Tribe maintains that the aim of such laws is to stifle legitimate criticism of tyranny, prudery, absurdity and corruption.  Most freethinkers try to save manuscripts and books from oblivion, says Tribe, or from burning. They are also in favor of trying to save authors and artists, printers, publishers and booksellers from fines, jail, or in some countries, the death penalty.  Most of us do, however, have qualms about the publication of child pornography, and statements that incite to violence or racial hatred. Most freethinkers are against malicious libel. Many freethinkers disagree on keeping military secrets, military, not government secrets, under wraps. Do all such “secrets” truly pertain to our security?  It’s an area of controversy.

On point four, freethinking individuals may have favorite books, but they have no sacred, inerrant books. Many religious fundamentalists believe that the Bible is inerrant, written by men inspired by god. It is not only the Christians who have such notions. Most religions have their sacred books, which not only purport to be the final word on theological issues, but issue commentary on physical science, such as the age of the earth. The so-called inerrant books also issue prescriptives concerning morality, such as marriage should be between a man and a woman, and on social customs, such as women should keep their hair covered in public.

Freethinkers do have books which they respect and enjoy, but do not venerate. Some of the works they respect are Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), almost anything written by the biologist, Richard Dawkins, the author of The Blind Watchmaker, (1986) Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, (1791) and The Age of Reason (1794), and the speeches of Robert Ingersoll.

Freethinkers are against sacred books because they are aware they have been written by men who were not divinely inspired. Such sacred tomes contain moral, scientific and cultural “facts” which belong to centuries past and continue to be employed by demagogues, religion and political candidates and parties in order to manipulate people. Claims about the sacredness of outdated volumes need to be combated again and again. The final point, number five, is that we freethinkers do not venerate our leaders and writers or think they are infallible or to be blindly followed. 

We consider certain authors and experts whose works are the result of deep study and thought as worthy of studying and accepting. But we do not confer sanctity on those thinkers and writers we respect. 

Now that I have discussed some aspects of contemporary freethought, I would like to move back to its Golden Age.  Early freethinkers were a rowdy lot, many embracing only one or two of the above characteristics of modern freethinkers.  I would like to emphasize that the majority of both modern and historical freethinkers have been united on one important and outstanding issue- the separation of church and state. Most freethinkers have always desired to see a secular state, as well.

According to Susan Jacoby, the fact of religious expansion during the same period as Freethought’s Golden Age was something of a paradox.  She dates the era from 1875 to 1914 as the high water mark for freethought’s significant influence on American society. Here are some of Jacoby’s figures, which bear out my earlier statements about the Gilded Age being an age of religious fervor. Between 1850 and 1906, capital expenditures for construction of churches tripled.  By one estimate, more than 43% of Americans in 1910, compared with only 5% in 1790, had formal ties to a church or synagogue. A significant portion of the growth of church erection was due to the new congregations being established by liberated former slaves in the Southern states.  Jacoby states that blacks clung to the one institution whites did not interfere with- their churches- so the black community did not play much of a part in the freethought movement. W.E.B. Dubois was the exception, but he had been brought up in Massachusetts rather than the south. 

As I have already mentioned, the growth in Catholic Church membership was very strong, as immigrants from eastern and southern Europe entered the United States.

The matter was quite different with regard to the Jewish immigration, which occurred during the same time frame.  Rabbis arrived in America along with other Jewish immigrants, but Jews were very different from one another in both their beliefs and religious observances.  There was a strong current of atheism and agnosticism among many Jewish immigrants, especially those from Germany, and the current grew stronger with Jewish immigration from Poland and Russia. The German-Jewish immigrants started to form connections with American freethinkers.  Felix Adler founded the Ethical Culture Society in 1876.  The Truth Seeker, the most important of the plethora of freethought publications that flourished during that era, always covered Adler’s lectures with enthusiasm.  Ingersoll’s lectures were frequently translated into Yiddish.  His most popular speech with Jewish citizens was “Some Mistakes of Moses.” We shall be spending more time with Jewish freethought next month when the lecture will discuss with Emma Goldman, atheism, anarchism and birth control.

Late 19th Century freethinkers were involved in many diverse areas of social reform and are often difficult to characterize.  Some of the areas were free speech, women’s rights and suffrage, free dissemination of birth control information, better conditions in prison, the end of the death penalty and so on. 

But the most important issues were the same ones that freethinkers are united on in the present day- separation of church and state and strong opposition to state support of institutions that propagated religion, such as the Catholic School network. Most freethinkers opposed using government money for Catholic and Protestant religious schools, and were vehement about using government funds to strengthen the public school system.  By the late nineteenth century, those who were for public schooling free of any religious propaganda or content were called secularists by both friends and enemies.

Freethought periodicals proliferated after the Civil War. Please see Tom Flynn’s excellent article, “Unbelief in the United States,” listed in the bibliography at the end of the written lecture at for an extensive listing of them.  I have already mentioned the famous Truth Seeker, begun by D.M. Bennett and his wife, Mary, in 1873.  It remained influential until about 1937. There were also the Boston Investigator, 1831, the Blue Grass Blade, the Freethought Ideal and Freethought Vindicator.  Some interesting names were the Iconoclast, and what a lovely title- Lucifer, the Light-Bearer, which was based in Topeka, Kansas. More influential than the periodicals, however, was the lecture circuit that was so popular in the United States during that era. But I shall expand on that topic when I begin to talk about Robert Green Ingersoll, the foremost proponent of freethought in the United States during its Golden Age.

I shall be talking about some of the most important women in the American freethought movement in next month’s lecture, when I speak about Emma Goldman and her contribution to the birth control movement.

Please see the lecture on Atheist History in the United States at for a more comprehensive listing of the influential women in the movement for woman’s suffrage and emancipation.  One of the most significant women was Susan B. Anthony. She was personally agnostic, but encouraged alliance between her most important cause, the suffrage movement she was strongly affiliated with, and the Christian Temperance groups. However, some scholars state that by courting the temperance groups, she betrayed Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, her close allies and supporters, who became alienated by suffrage’s increasing conservatism. Stanton was a member of the Secular Union and a regular writer for the Free Thinker. In 1895, she published The Woman’s Bible, an expose of male misogyny in the Christian Bible. She had been an important member of the women’s rights movement before coming out as a freethinker, so her memory was not as obscured as was Matilda Joslyn Gage’s.  

Gage’s 1893 Woman, Church and State attacked religion, especially Christianity, for propagating women’s oppression. Gage had a significant influence on her son-in-law, L. Frank Baum. His 1900 book, the wonderful Wizard of Oz, later made into a movie, with the injunction to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” reveals the contribution Gage made to Baum’s thinking. Fortunately, present day women’s study programs have begun to acknowledge her important contributions to the early woman’s movement.

According to Bill Flynn, sex radicalism and the free-love movement was distinctly American and original to America. 

Anarchy had its roots in Europe. Birth control was a very important issue during the freethought era, which I shall be taking up in a few moments when I begin to discuss Ingersoll. But I will deal with these issues in more depth with my next lecture on Emma Goldman and Anarchism in America.  During this lecture, we shall encounter Anthony Comstock and his postal laws against dissemination of obscene material through the postal system, which included birth control information. But he will have an even more prominent place in the Goldman lecture.  He was a religious opponent of freethought and sexuality.  Religion, as I have said in previous lectures, never rests, and Comstock is a sterling example of the continuous, vigorous resistance of religion to freedom.

On the intellectual front, Lyell, Darwin and Huxley did much to open the way for freethought with their books and ideas.  Biblical criticism began to reveal the Bible as a cultural artifact, and its tenets, narratives and statements were subjected to the same standards of veracity as other documents. The German critics were most rigorous in their research and the results had a positive impact on the freethought movement of the United States.  Please see Biblical Criticism at 

Charles Lyell (1797-1875), a British geologist, was determined to free geology from, as he stated, “Moses.”  Biblical fundamentalists attempted to reconcile geology with Genesis. They argued that the earth’s geology demonstrated that it had been changed and formed by the one catastrophic Noah’s Flood of the Bible. (Please see The Conflict between religion and science and Noah’s Flood at for more detailed discussion of these issues.)

Lyell’s 1830 Principles of Geology argued, cohesively and vehemently, for the concept of gradual change of the earth’s geology and strictly local floods.  His concept became the more popular and accepted one.  The book helped freethought to flourish in America when educated people were exposed to the science in it.

Lyell’s work, in turn, had some influence on Charles Darwin, whose 1859 Origin of Species, was at complete odds with the Genesis narrative of creation. (Please see Evolution versus Creationism, Intelligent Design and The Conflict between Science and Religion at for more complete discussions of these issues.) Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s fierce defender and exponent, published Man’s Place in Nature in 1863. Huxley maintained that humans had arisen and been formed by the same evolutionary forces as other animals. Darwin confirmed Huxley’s statements in his 1871 Descent of Man. Then in 1874, William Draper, a chemist and historian, published a vehement book, History of the Conflict between Science and Religion. Bill Flynn states that Draper first produced the “military metaphor” of the conflict.  More volumes from other authors on the topic followed.

Bill Flynn maintains that among many educated Americans, the ideas that the Earth was very old, that the Bible was a cultural artifact, developing over time, and that living things had gone through a gradual process of evolution rather than an instant act of creation, were accepted as true. Freethinking was strengthened, heartened and buoyed up by all the preceding currents I have mentioned.

Now I would like to turn to Robert Green Ingersoll, the man who exemplified the best of freethought in his character and his actions.  He was an intrepid and humorous foe of religion, a lawyer and orator who was the most brilliant lecturer and apologist for irreligion in his era.  The people, events and ideas that I have just discussed would create an environment that would influence him and help form him as a freethinker. His own character and cultural stance would leave an indelible mark on the age and pave the way for later infidels of the 20th Century, such as the great Clarence Darrow and others.  He helped smooth the path for secularism in our own age as well, which is enjoying a current resurgence of irreligion.

To achieve a flavor of the atmosphere in which Ingersoll lectured, we need to look back to a time before our current television and news culture.  Audiences now receive sound bites from radio and television stations that copy each other. Many of our citizens accept received opinion from the media and parrot it in conversation with others. The situation is somewhat better with regard to web culture, but too many of us are guilty of going exclusively to those sites with which we are in agreement, never exposing ourselves to different points of view.

In the late 19th Century, the most popular and educational events were lectures that people attended from all parts of the country.  In big cities such as New York, people paid as much as a dollar to hear speakers such as Ingersoll. In Dowagiac, Michigan, where the most prominent business man was a freethinker, people could pay a nickel and listen to heretical lectures at the Universalist Church.  The large and well-established newspapers treated such talks as news events to be reported.

Farmers saddled up their horses and buggies and rode sometimes as much as 400 miles to hear Robert Ingersoll. It was a heady era, in which many citizens were eager and willing to expose themselves to different ideas, to weigh the evidence of the things they were told and to decide for themselves what they believed. 

Robert Ingersoll sometimes made as much as $7,000 a lecture, in an era that did not have the income tax. At the height of his career, his lectures and thriving law practice brought him $150,000 to $200,000 a year. He often spent a yearly sum of $25,000 or more on charity and good causes, and lost a fair sum on bad investments, like his friend, the novelist Mark Twain. Ingersoll was called the “Great Agnostic,” the title we use to refer to him today. 

Ingersoll was born in Dresden in upstate New York in 1833.  The Ingersoll Birthplace Museum is in the modest, wood frame house he was born in.  It is open for visitors and is run by the Council for Secular Humanism, an organization supported by the Center for Inquiry.  His parents were the Reverend John Ingersoll and his wife, Mary Livingston Ingersoll.  The area they lived in was a hotbed for dissident ideas and religion.  Abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates clashed there.  The Reverend Ingersoll was a fundamentalist minister, but he was also a fervent abolitionist, as was his wife. Mary Ingersoll publicly petitioned the District of Columbia to abolish slavery shortly after New York abolished the practice.  Women were not supposed to engage in such behavior and Mary became the object of some criticism.

 Reverend Ingersoll was frequently in conflict with his members.  He was overbearing when he expressed his views on abolition and other points of religion as well.

He was, for many years, an old-fashioned Calvinist. Consequently he often found himself at odds with his parishioners and moved on to new churches, sometimes at his own desire and sometimes at the request of his members.

Robert Green Ingersoll often made even Christians roar with laughter when he described the dour misery of Sundays when he was a child.  “When I was a boy,” he recalled, “Sunday was considered too holy to be happy in. When the sun fell below the horizon on Saturday evening, there was a darkness fell upon the house ten thousand times deeper than that of night. Nobody said a pleasant word. Nobody laughed; nobody smiled; the child that looked the sickest was regarded as the most pious. That night you could not even crack hickory nuts.  If you were caught chewing gum, it was only another evidence of the total depravity of the human heart.”  This was the kind of humor Ingersoll was known for and his great personal charm added to the charisma he exercised on his audiences.  Die hard Methodists would whoop with laughter at his sallies on the ridiculous excesses of organized religion, and sometimes, even clergymen were seen to smile.

Robert Ingersoll’s mother, Mary, died in 1835. She was an easy prey to illness because she was worn out from childbearing and from the moves their family made. Ebon, often called Clark, was only four at the time, and Robert was one and a half. The two boys were very close all their lives, going into a law practice as partners until Clark’s death in 1879.  The older children were nine, ten and twelve.

Robert’s formal education was often interrupted by his father’s frequent change of parishes, but he did attend various schools at all the locales they lived in.

He learned to read at five years old, and he had the opportunity to peruse his father’s library as he grew older.  Later, he encountered an old gentleman reading Shakespeare. He was so moved by the writing that he went out the next day and bought a complete edition of the bard for $4.00, a hard sum to come by in that era.  His love of Shakespeare and the irreverent Scottish poet, Robert Burns, (1759-1796) remained with him all his life. Around this time, he began to view the Protestant ministers, Jonathan Edwards and Calvin, as insane and to question many Christian notions.  He was moving away from his early upbringing.

He left school and tried various occupations, finally passing the county board exams to become a teacher.  Later he found employment as an assistant to the clerk of the county and circuit courts. While studying law in the offices of Willis Allen and his son, John, around 1853, Ingersoll was exposed to John’s irreligious ideas. John was spoken of as an atheist and Ingersoll had many conversations with him.  Ultimately, both Ingersoll and his brother, Clark, read for the bar on their own and both passed the exams and requirements.  They went into law together in 1859 and quickly developed a thriving law practice in Peoria, Illinois. From his letters during that period of his life, it appears that Ingersoll still believed in a vague sort of deity. But he was adopting irreligion more and more. He made a few forays into politics but had only lukewarm success.

On April 12, 1861, the bombardment at Fort Sumter began, which was the first battle of the Civil War. Robert Ingersoll raised a regiment, and then entered the Union Army with the rank of colonel.  In 1862, he, along with many of his men, was taken prisoner by the Confederates. 

He was shortly paroled and left the army in 1863.  He had acquitted himself well in battle and was, during his lifetime, usually addressed as Colonel Ingersoll. In the meantime, he had married Eva Parker, a young woman from a distinguished family with very unorthodox religious views.  Eva’s parents loved Voltaire and Thomas Paine, the great freethinkers of the Enlightenment. Her very intelligent grandmother was said to have been an infidel.  Eva was an important influence on Ingersoll’s development as a freethinker.

Ingersoll was appointed Attorney General of Illinois during the years 1867 to 1869, which was the only office he would ever hold. As his development into a freethinker progressed and became established, he was increasingly seen by his Republican Party as ineligible for election to public office. However, as his oratorical skills and fame grew, he was always in demand to speak for other Republican candidates. He was the most famous post Civil War speaker of the Republican Party.  In June, 1876, he agreed to nominate James G. Blaine as the candidate for the United States presidency at the National Republican Convention. He was applauded for ten minutes before he even began. His speech compared Blaine to a “plumed knight,” and his reputation as an orator became firmly established with this successful address, although it was Hayes and not Blaine who was nominated in the end.

 It is important to remember that during that post Civil War era, the Republican Party was more liberal than the Democratic one. The Republicans had been led during the Civil War years by Abraham Lincoln, and their party was known to have taken the harder lines against both slavery and secession.

The Democrats were less liberal by far. Ingersoll campaigned for the Republican presidential candidates from Grant to McKinley and helped them win.  He refused to campaign for Blaine at a later date and Blaine lost the presidency. One of Ingersoll’s objections to Blaine was what he perceived as Blaine’s pandering to the Protestant religion.

I have mentioned how important Ingersoll’s wife and new in-laws were in encouraging his openly agnostic and anti-organized religious stance. They urged him to use his formidable skills to expose the wrongs of organized religion, and he did so until his death in 1899. His florid oratory, his scathing humor and his formidable intellect made him an opponent of religion to be feared.  He particularly loathed the doctrine of eternal punishment and attacked it regularly.

Here are some of the titles from his huge repertoire of two, three and four hour speeches, which usually cost fifty cents to attend, the equivalent of $7.oo today.  Revivalists would often speak for free, but were shunned in favor of Ingersoll. He spoke on “The Gods,” “Heretics and Heresies,” “The Ghosts,” “About the Holy Bible,” and “Some Mistakes of Moses,” among other irreverent topics.

Ingersoll was a friend to many American presidents and accepted by the American establishment. He represented corporations in suits brought against them and sometimes defended politicians and government officials accused of corruption.  But he used many of his profits to do pro bono work for people who could not afford legal costs.  They were the grateful recipients of his formidable legal skills.

Ingersoll’s most famous government case was the Star Route scandal in the late 1800’s. He was lead counsel for Stephen W. Dorsey, who was an old friend. Dorsey and other Republicans were accused of corruption when they awarded postal contracts to private businesses. There was no direct evidence that money had actually changed hands between the defendants and the business men who obtained the routes in the south and the west. However, Susan Jacoby, one of Ingersoll’s best biographers, is fairly sure it had. Two long trials ensued but Dorsey and the others were all acquitted.  The notorious case helped to lead to reforms in the civil service. Ingersoll was not a saint.  But when all the facts of his life are weighed, he was a good, admirable, charitable and evolved human being.

I would now like to glance at some of the cases he undertook for freethinkers and his involvement with an important freethought organization, The National Liberal League. Ingersoll became its vice president in 1877.  The League’s members were very opposed to the infamous Comstock Laws, which prohibited the circulation of immoral or obscene matters through the United States mails. The next lecture, on Emma Goldman, will have much more to say about Anthony Comstock, the religious zealot and sin-obsessed special agent of the Post Office.  Although the Comstock Laws made it, probably purposefully, difficult to define immoral or obscene matter, Anthony Comstock had no problem with the definition. Orvin Larson states that Comstock maintained that the designation of obscene or immoral material included advertisements for abortions, contraceptive information, erotic pictures and stories, serious but unconventional treatments of sex, love and marriage, and freethought materials. 

The Liberal League scrutinized the laws and the majority of the members were in favor of a platform that included a resolution to repeal them. A vocal minority, Ingersoll among them, wanted an amendment to protect those who expressed honest and conscientious opinions, and did not want to press for repeal. Ingersoll, happily married and the father of two daughters, was very much against promiscuity and free love of any kind, so while in favor of birth control and universal suffrage, he wanted no part of immoral behavior or expressions of immorality.

In 1877, the same year Ingersoll became the League’s vice president, Comstock arrested Ezra Harvey Heywood and D.M. Bennett, the publisher of the Truth Seeker, on charges of mailing obscene matter through the mails.  Harvey had been an abolitionist and at the time of the charges, was a fervent supporter of labor reform, woman’s suffrage and temperance.  He was married, but advocated free love. He was arrested for mailing Cupid’s Yokes, his own work, and Trail’s Sexual Physiology, a medical work. Bennett was arrested for mailing his An Open Letter to Jesus Christ, and a scientific treatise, How Do Marsupials Propagate? This last was by a clergyman.

Ingersoll wrote to the Postmaster General and enclosed the two publications Bennett had sent through the mails.  He also protested Comstock’s methods.  Bennett’s printers had been visited by Comstock and threatened with arrest if they continued to print The Truth Seeker. Furthermore, Comstock had attempted to coerce the American News company to stop selling the publication.  The case against Bennett was dismissed.

Ingersoll did not help with Heywood’s case.  He found Heywood’s opinions in Cupid’s Yokes simply silly.  Heywood maintained that marriage was legalized prostitution and so on. He was sentenced to two years in prison but obtained a presidential pardon.

Bennett found himself in trouble again in 1878. He was apprehended because Comstock, seeking to entrap him, had sent him an illiterate letter under a different name with $3.50 enclosed. The letter asked for several tracts, one of which the author said, “was Cupid’s something or other.”  Bennett mailed him Cupid’s Yokes and was arrested.  He was convicted and sentenced to thirteen months hard labor in the penitentiary. Ingersoll tried to intervene with Hayes, the United States President, but Hayes would not grant Bennett a pardon because of political pressure and dislike of overturning the Appeals Court.

Ingersoll discovered many prejudicial decisions the judge had made at Bennett’s trial, such as throwing out the testimony of scholars and experts who did not find the work obscene. Ingersoll did a thorough job of laying out the many legal mistakes connected with Bennett’s case. But in the meantime, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, a powerful group, mounted significant pressure on Hayes to have Bennett incarcerated. Then, to Ingersoll’s chagrin, indiscreet letters that the married Bennett had written to another woman became public.  Ingersoll dropped his efforts on Bennett’s behalf with the appearance of the letters and Hayes did not grant a pardon.  Bennett served out his entire sentence.

The Liberal League had many excellent goals, the foremost one being the complete secularization of the state. The members wanted to abolish Sunday Laws, civil recognition of religious feast days and Thanksgiving, religious worship in public institutions and teaching the Bible in public schools.  They also endorsed universal education, universal suffrage and equal civil rights for all citizens. In 1880, after several years of various disagreements between members, the Liberal League met in Chicago, Illinois. Ingersoll stated that he would resign if the League pressed for repeal of the Comstock Laws. He warned the League would be accused of favoring the dissemination of immoral and obscene matter.  The League passed the resolution to repeal the Comstock Laws and Ingersoll resigned, along with several other delegates. Some members of the League admitted later that Ingersoll’s resignation had been partly responsible for the League’s failure in political action.

During these heated trials and controversies, Ingersoll never ceased his attacks on organized religion. Time does not allow quoting enough of his perspicacious and outrageously funny remarks about religion, but a small gathering that is particularly well chosen, is collected in Ingersoll: Immortal Infidel, which I have listed in the Bibliography. Here are a few samples. “There may be a god, who will make us happy in another world. If he does, it will be more than he was able to accomplish in this.” “Is there an intelligent man or woman in the world who now believes the Garden of Eden story? If you find a man who believes it, strike his forehead and you will hear an echo.” On the Christian Trinity: “The Father is uncreated, the son uncreated, the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father is incomprehensible, the son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.

And that is the reason we know so much about the thing.” I heartily recommend reading Ingersoll himself, first for enlightenment and then for laughter.

Ingersoll usually did not take cases involving criminal law, but when the case of Charles B. Reynolds came up, involving blasphemy, Ingersoll was most eager to engage with the court. In 1886, Reynolds, a former minister, arrived in Boonton, New Jersey, to give some freethought speeches and hold tent meetings. A suspicious and angry crowd pulled the canvas of his tent down, and threw rotten eggs and vegetables at Reynolds. He escaped the violent group, leaving behind a large amount of freethought pamphlets, which many citizens read.

But on October 13 of the same year, he appeared in Morristown, New Jersey, to distribute pamphlets.  Reynolds’s pamphlet depicted a tent in the background, and pigs in the foreground of the front cover. Reynolds himself was shown as scattering pearls to the swine, and there were slogans that said: “Pig Sty of the Holy Virgin.” A Methodist minister held a bucket labeled “Methodist slop,” and the other sty showed a Catholic priest, whose bucket was labeled “Catholic swill.” The entire pamphlet was filled with such remarks and drawings.

Ingersoll had serous throat difficulty at that time, and argued the 1887 case after recovering from surgery.  He was eloquent, as always, pointing out that the dominant religion historically labeled alternative views as blasphemy. He asked New Jersey to show it was not rooted in the Dark Ages.  But Reynolds was found guilty. The Judge was lenient, fining Reynolds $25.00 plus court costs.  Ingersoll paid the $50.00 court costs out of his own pocket. 

A Presbyterian minister asked to shake hands with Ingersoll, telling him that his speech was the noblest defense of liberty the minister had ever heard. Ingersoll lost the case, but he had won the war. He so thoroughly ridiculed and criticized blasphemy notions that no state in America has ever brought another blasphemy case forward. The Reynolds trial is just one instance of Ingersoll battling for freedom of belief and not seeking any monetary reward.

Ingersoll was so famous for his oratory that a speech he made in 1876 on behalf of Rutherford B. Hayes, who was running for President of the United States, was attended by an estimated crowd of 50,000 people.  His speech was given in a huge venue, the Interstate Industrial Arts Exposition Building in Chicago, and there was no public address system. Most of the crowd would not have been able to make out the speech and they knew it, but they wanted to hear the sound of his voice.

Ingersoll was not only an associate to presidents of the United States, he was also the friend of two of our greatest authors, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Twain heard him and then met him at a banquet given for Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. Twain wrote his wife about how moved he was by Ingersoll’s speech.  The two men kept up a correspondence all their lives.

Ingersoll did not meet Whitman until 1890, but had exchanged letters with him. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which Ingersoll first read in the middle 1860’s, was one of his favorite poems. Whitman said of Ingersoll: “Ingersoll stands for perfect poise, nonchalance, equability; he is non-conventional: runs on like a stream: is sweet, fluid- as they say in the Bible, like precious ointment.”

They did disagree on some issues, however. Ingersoll did not care for Whitman’s pantheism. He said: “The weakest thing about Whitman was his god belief- that in some way, all is good.” In 1892, Whitman died, and Ingersoll, who had promised that he would speak at Whitman’s funeral, attended the last rites and spoke to a crowd of approximately 3,000 people.

On January 25, 1893, Ingersoll gave the dedicatory speech for the New Theatre in Dowagiac, Michigan.  I mentioned Dowagiac earlier. The owner of Round Oak Stove Company, Phil D. Beckwith, was a millionaire and an atheist. He died before he could build a theatre, so his wife and children built one in his memory. Its exterior was decorated by large stone medallions of people Beckwith admired, such as Voltaire and Thomas Paine.  Ingersoll was pictured on a medallion as well. Beckwith was a model businessman and employer.  His workers were treated very well, receiving both good salaries and working conditions. 

Susan Jacoby points out that Ingersoll was one of “the grand doubters who labored to clear the environment of poisonous certitude for future generations.” Here are Jacoby’s reasons why Robert G. Ingersoll was so important to secular thinkers, both past and present.  I am quoting from Jacoby’s biography of Ingersoll. “First he explained the true meaning and value of science as a system of inquiry whose tentative conclusions were always open to modification by new evidence. Second, Ingersoll made the connection between repressive religion and everyday burdens and injustices as no one had before him. As far as he was concerned, there were no social injustices in which religion did not play a major role.

Finally, Ingersoll’s primary civic aim was the restoration of the historical memory of a founding generation that had explicitly rejected theocracy as the basis for a national government.”

Robert Green Ingersoll was an important figure who spoke for social justice and equality of opportunity, against racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and the abuse of children. His discussion against vivisection of animals was a brilliant polemic; he ended the piece by saying that people who vivisected their fellow creatures were no friends of his, that he did not want to touch their hands. As we have seen, Ingersoll was for women’s suffrage and universal suffrage.  As the Republican Party began to move further from its earlier stance of pressing for civil rights, Ingersoll began to criticize some of its positions, but remained a member.

Susan Jacoby’s biography of Ingersoll makes some significant points about his importance that have been neglected by other writers. She speaks of the two divergent strains in American secular thought and puts Ingersoll firmly in the tradition of Thomas Paine’s humanism. Paine’s humanism was recognition of common humanity rather than tooth and claw competition.  He wanted a world where wealth and social status would no longer overshadow merit and intellect as the important focus of human society. Paine believed the separation of church and state would help lay the foundation for true equality, as well as guaranteeing freedom of conscience.

Jacoby points out that there was another, undesirable current of American secularism that began with the popularity of Herbert Spenser and the social Darwinism of the 19th Century.

Jacoby argues that this strain has continued “through the objectivism and exaltation of the Ubermensch preached by the 20th Century atheist and unregulated market idolater, Ayn Rand. Jacoby places Ingersoll squarely in the humanist camp rather than the social Darwinist one. I shall be discussing social Darwinism vis-à-vis secular humanism in a future lecture.

Was Ingersoll an atheist, or as he is often called, “The Great Agnostic?” He settled the question with his own words, when he said: “An agnostic is an atheist, an atheist is an agnostic.” What is most important about his freethought was that he was a secularist, which formed the basis of what he believed could be a happy and productive life for humanity.

Susan Jacoby exhorts new atheists of this era to pay our debt to Robert Green Ingersoll by keeping his memory alive. We owe so much to Ingersoll, who spoke eloquently and appealed to the reason of his fellow Americans. He reached not only ivory tower intellectuals but ordinary Americans, many of whom responded. We are presently engaged in a war with those religious fundamentalists who attempt to claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation rather than a secular one, who would try to turn back the clock on women’s rights, black rights and gay rights. They would remove the teaching of Darwinian evolution in our public schools and replace it with the non science of Intelligent Design. They would prevent family planning by banning contraceptive use and would force women to bear children they cannot care for by banning abortion. In short, these Christian fundamentalists would turn our secular government into a theocracy.  We must fight them with all our energy and keep the memory of Ingersoll alive.

I would like to close this lecture with the words of Ingersoll, himself, with his own eloquent words on secularism:

“Secularism is the religion of humanity.  It embraces the affairs of this world.  It is interested in everything that touches the welfare of sentient beings; it advocates attention to the planet on which we happen to live; it means that each individual counts for something; it is a declaration of intellectual independence, it means the pew is superior to the pulpit, that those who bear the burdens shall have the profits and they who fill the purse shall hold the strings.  It is a protest against being the serf, subject or slave of any phantom or of the priest of any phantom. It is a protest against wasting this life for the sake of one we know not of. It proposes to let the gods take care of themselves…It is living for ourselves and each other, for the present instead for the past, for this world instead of another…It is striving to do away with violence and vice, ignorance, poverty and disease…

It does not believe in praying and receiving but in earning and deserving… It says to the whole world, Work that you may eat, drink and be clothed; work that you may enjoy; work that you may not want; work that you may give and never need.”

 Video of Lecture: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

Lecture: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

Video of Discussion: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

Discussion: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought


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_________.  Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2009.

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Smith, Frank. Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1990.