August 1991

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"Bob" Ingersoll

A Sketch of the Life of
America's Most Noted Agnostic


Rufus R. Wilson

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The Elmira Telegram, Sunday, March 16, 1890

Boyhood as the Son of a Congregationalist.
Preacher in New York and Illinois.
His Picturesque and Amusing Campaign for Congress in 1860.

There are perhaps half a dozen men in New York City whom the average citizen recognizes instinctively when he see him for the first time. Chauncey M. Depew is one of this half dozen and Robert G. Ingersoll is another. Ingersoll nowadays seldom appears in public except in the discharge of his professional duties, but he is one of the best known and most popular residents of New York City, and the admitted leader of his own particular circle. He has been a resident of New York for about five years, and is one of the busiest and best paid members of the metropolitan bar. Current rumor places his income at $100,000 a year. Though now nearly sixty years of age he is a remarkably well-preserved man, and he said the other day that he felt as young and strong and healthy as when in his teens. He seems good for at least ten years more of hard work, and twenty years of happy and contented living.

Ingersoll's career in its radically differing phases, lawyer, politician and agnostic, has been a curiously interesting one. His final settlement in New York City was something in the nature of a home coming, as he was born in Dresden, this state. Though for many years the most noted of American infidels, Colonel Ingersoll was born and reared in a devoutly Christian household. His father, John Ingersoll, was a Congregationalist minister and a man of mark in his time, a deep thinker, a logical and eloquent speaker, broud minded and generously tolerant of the views of others. The popular impression which credits Ingersoll's infidelity in the main to his father's severe orthodoxy and the austere and gloomy surroundings in which his boyhood was spent is wholly wrong. On the contrary the elder Ingersoll's liberal views were a source of constant trouble between him and his narrow-minded parishioners. They caused him to frequently change his charges, and several times made him the defendant in church trials. His ministerial career was, in fact, substantially brought to a close by a church trial which occurred while he was pastor of the Congregational Church at Madison, Ohio, and at which his third wife appeared as prosecutor. Upon this occasion he was charged with prevarication and unministerial conduct. The evidence adduced—the trial is one of the abiding traditions of the dull little town of Madison—was of the most trivial and ridiculous character, but the committee which heard it decided that though he had done "nothing inconsistent with his Christian character," he was "inconsistent with his ministerial character," and forbade him to preach in the future. Elder John went before the higher church authorities and was permitted to continue his clerical labors. Howerer, he soon removed to Wisconsin, going from there to Illinois, where he died. The Madison trial occurred when young Robert was nine years old, and it was the unjust and bigoted treatment his father received which made him the enemy, first of Calvinism, and later of Christianity in its other forms. His growing disbelief came in time to be shared with nearly all of the members of his family. His mother, the elder's first wife and a woman of beautiful and saintly character, died while his father was stationed at Cazenovia, N. Y., and is buried there. "I was but two years old when she died," he wrote a few years ago, "but I remember her distinctly as she looked in death. That sweet, cold face has kept my heart warm through all the years."

Colonel Ingersoll's boyhood was spent amid the poverty and hard adversity which are the usual lot of the wandering country preacher. His education he picked up as best he might in the intervals of his father's frequent migrations from one town to another. At Shawneetown, Ill., where the elder Ingersoll for the last time set up his household goods, Robert studied law and began its practice with his older brother, Eben C. Ingersoll. This older brother was a man of extraordinary talent. The two soon became the leaders of the county bar, and finding the field too small for them, they removed to Peoria, where Eben Ingersoll was in due time elected to congress as successor of the stout-hearted champion of the slave, Owen Lovejoy. Eben Ingersoll, besides being a brilliant lawyer, was one of the manliest of men, and the ties which existed between him and his youngest brother were of the closest and most affectionate nature. When his death some years ago cut short a career of constantly increasing scope and usefulness, the oration which Robert Ingersoll, in accordance with a promise made to the dead, delivered at the funeral was masterly for its pathos, its imagery and its touching eloquence.

In 1860, three years after his removal to Peoria, Robert Ingersoll, then twenty-seven years old and a Democrat, was made the congressional nominee of the party. His Republican opponent was Judge William Kellogg, recognized as one of the foremost orators in Illinois at a time when Douglas, Lincoln, Yates and Trumbull were in their glory. The odds against him were ten to one, but the young lawyer made a glorious fight, and the congressional campaign of 1860 is still vividly remembered by the older voters of the Peoria district. He made his opening speech at Galesburg, the Democratic voters of which numbered but a corporal's guard. No reception committee met him at the depot, and no hall had been secured for the meeting. But Ingersoll was not dismayed. He went to a hotel, ate his supper, and then, mounting a wagon on the opposite side of the street, calmly began his speech. It was a warm, sultry summer evening, and the street was deserted. At the outset the speaker's audience consisted of a boy, whom he had hailed as he was passing and pressed into service as an auditor, but tidings of what was transpiring spread rapidly, and before he finished a majority of the voters of the town had gathered about him. A candidate who refused to be dismayed by the want of a hall and the absence of an audience was of the sort that pleased the fancy of the rough and ready voters of Illinois, and Ingersoll's tour through his district speedily became an ovation.

Towards the close of the campaign he challenged his opponent to a joint debate. The challenge was accepted, and the two men met at Galesburg. A gentleman, who then resided there, furnishes some interesting recollections of this intellectual combat. "Ingersoll," says this gentleman, "wore a pair of pants and a short-tailed coat several sizes too small for him, and which, with his round head, light hair, fat, smooth-shaven face and portly form, made him look like an over-grown school boy. But he was more than a match for Judge Kellogg, who was many years his senior, one of the ablest men ever sent to congress from Illinois, and an old and experienced campaigner. The debate which began early in the evening and lasted until nearly morning, was a go-as-your-please affair from start to finish. No chairman was chosen. One man would speak awhile and then the other would interrupt and keep talking until the first one, too angry to longer keep silence, would try his hand again. Slavery was then the burning issue, and at one point Kellogg asked Ingersoll what he would do if a poor black man, escaping from slavery, should come to his home and ask for food and shelter. Would he give them, or would he, as the fugitive slave law then in force demanded, arrest the poor runaway and have him sent back into slavery? Quick as a flash Ingersoll blurted out that he would do as he had done within a week when a black man came to his door—give him the last dollar he had and bid him God speed on his way to Canada. Retorts and exchanges of this kind held an audience which packed the hall in which the meeting was held until both speakers were completely exhausted." When election day came Ingersoll was, of course, defeated, but his brilliant and aggressive campaign had made him far and away the most popular Democrat in his district.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
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