Robert Green Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), American lawyer and lecturer, was a champion of free thought and an orator of almost magical power.

Robert Ingersoll was the son of a Vermont clergyman and spent his boyhood in a series of parish houses, first in New England, later in the Midwest. The family finally settled in Illinois, where Robert read law. In 1854 he was admitted to the bar at Shawneetown. Three years later he moved to Peoria, where he quickly established a reputation as a superlative trial lawyer. When the Civil War came, he was active in raising a volunteer regiment and in 1861 entered the Union Army as a colonel of the 11th Illinois Cavalry. He acquitted himself well in the Tennessee Valley campaigns, but in December 1862 he was captured, along with large numbers of his men. He was paroled and in June 1863 discharged from the Army.

Returning to Illinois, Ingersoll became a champion of freethinking and a defender of the scientific ideas of Charles Darwin and, later, of T. H. Huxley. Ingersoll proudly claimed to be an "agnostic," a word newly coined, and was known in his day as the "great agnostic." Such an identity effectively prevented his entering the elective political world, for there was much opposition to freethinkers among the electorate. Thus he missed a career for which many thought him naturally suited. He was able to contribute something to politics, however, by speaking out for candidates in a style of oratory that seemed to cast a spell over his hearers. This skill, his courtroom mastery, and his quite unexceptionable personal life enabled him to be appointed attorney general of Illinois from 1867 to 1869.

Ingersoll's lectures on religion and science, combined with discourses on literary and historical subjects, made his Midwestern tours as famous as his law practice. As a delegate to the 1876 Republican convention, he received national attention for his nomination speech in favor of James G. Blaine, whom he dubbed, to the delight of the whole country, the "plumed knight."

Riding the crest of this fame, Ingersoll moved to Washington, D. C., in 1879, hoping to further enlarge his practice and to carry on his religious debate in such lectures as "The Gods," "Some Mistakes of Moses," and "About the Holy Bible." His oratory became legendary, and he was sought out and richly rewarded both by patrons who endorsed his intellectual position and by clients anxious to find legal protection behind the magic of his courtroom presence. Ill health forced his retirement during the presidential campaign of 1896, and he died 3 years later at Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., patriarchal leader of a clan of children, grandchildren, and devoted admirers.


Further Reading on Robert Green Ingersoll

There are two full-length studies of Ingersoll, both with extensive bibliographies: Clarence H. Cramer, Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll (1952), is the best of the earlier studies, although not as good as Orvin Prentiss Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll (1962). A good account of the intellectual movement to which Ingersoll belonged is in Merle Curti, The Growth of American Thought (1943; 3d ed. 1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Smith, Frank, Robert G. Ingersoll: a life, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990.