Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) is too little known today. Yet he was the foremost orator and political speechmaker of late nineteenth-century America—perhaps the best-known American of the post-Civil War era. On tour after tour, he crisscrossed the country and spoke before packed houses on topics ranging from Shakespeare to Reconstruction, from science to religion. Known as the Great Agnostic, Ingersoll was the best-known and most widely respected ambassador the American freethought movement would ever have.
In an age when oratory was the dominant form of public entertainment, Ingersoll was the unchallenged dean of American orators. He was seen and heard by more Americans than would see or hear any other human being until the advent of radio and motion pictures.
Ingersoll bitterly opposed the religious Right of his day—yet though he was an outspoken agnostic, he was also the foremost political speechmaker of the Republican Party. During Ingersoll’s public life, no GOP candidate for whom he declined to campaign attained the White House.
Ingersoll first attained regional prominence in Peoria, Illinois, where and his brother, Ebon Clark Ingersoll, had a thriving legal practice. It was in Peoria that he raised the Civil War regiment that he commanded with the rank of Colonel. He gained national attention with his bombastic speech nominating James G. Blaine for the Republican presidential nomination in 1876. The next year he moved to Washington, D. C. In 1885, already a prominent national figure, he relocated to New York City.
At various times, Ingersoll held high offices in most of the major American freethought groups of the time, including the National Liberal League. When atheist publisher D. M. Bennett was arrested at an 1878 freethinkers’ conference in Watkins, now Watkins Glen, for selling a birth control and marriage reform tract some deemed obscene, Ingersoll—who had not attended the conference—offered his legal services and personally appealed to President Rutherford B. Hayes to drop the charges. (For details of this incident, click here.)
In 1887, Ingersoll defended Rochester-based minister-turned-freethinker Charles B. Reynolds, who had been arrested on blasphemy charges in New Jersey. The entire defense consisted of Ingersoll’s summation, which lasted several hours. Reynolds was found guilty, but given only a token fine. Ingersoll paid the fine himself and charged Reynolds nothing for his services. Though his client was convicted, Ingersoll succeeded in his larger agenda: no American state or municipality would take a defendant to trial on a charge of blasphemy again.