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