Robert Green Ingersoll

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Robert Ingersoll

Born:  August 11, 1833
Died:  July 21, 1899
Occupation:  Political leader, public speaker
Religion:  Agnostic

Robert Green Ingersoll (August 11, 1833 – July 21, 1899) was a nineteenth century orator, lawyer, and agnostic or weak atheist. In a time before pay per view television and motion pictures, Ingersoll commanded premium fees for speaking engagements. Although Ingersoll spoke on the subjects important to his age, he earned the sobriquet "The Great Agnostic" with lectures titled “Superstition”, “Some Mistakes of Moses”, “The Gods”, and the famous “Why I Am an Agnostic”.

As he grew richer and more famous he became a friend and inspiration to the celebrities of his day. Among those people touched by Ingersoll's oratory were Walt Whitman, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison and many others. Mark Twain once remarked of Ingersoll, "What an organ human speech is when employed by a master".

Ingersoll's unwavering defense of science, humanism, and agnosticism make him one of the great heroes of the free thought movement. His speeches and essays are a "must read" for any serious student of anti-apologetics.

He stripped off the armor of institutional friendships
To dedicate his soul
To the terrible deities of Truth and Beauty.
— Edgar Lee Masters, "Poem for R. G. Ingersoll"


Robert Green Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York on August 11, 1833. His father, John, was an itinerant minister who gave fiery abolitionist sermons. His mother, Mary, died when Robert was one and a half years old. He had four siblings, Ruth, John, Mary Jane, Ebon and Clark.

Early life[edit]

Because of his family's constant traveling Ingersoll was poorly educated until he was enrolled in school at the age of 15. He would later say that his real education began when, idling at a cobblers shop, he happened to pick up and read a book of poetry by Robert Burns. Having learned to love education he spent a short time as an itinerant teacher in Illinois and Tennessee.

Eventually he settled in Peoria, Illinois where, with his brother Ebon, he apprenticed in law and stood the bar. It was at this point that Ingersoll became active in politics and began to forge his reputation as one of the greatest orators of his day.

Robert met his wife, Eva Amelia Parker, while trying a case in Groveland, IL. Amelia was the daughter of a well-to-do family and some credit her with Roberts introduction to agnosticism. Amelia and Robert would have two daughters, Eva Robert in 1863 and Maud Robert in 1864.

The Civil War and after[edit]

Although he originally opposed Lincoln's candidacy, when the civil war broke out Ingersoll mustered a regiment to fight with the union army. A Colonel of the regiment, Robert served under General Prentiss. He saw devastating action at the battle of Shiloh. He was appointed Chief of Cavalry after several other engagements, but was eventually captured by the south. He was offered release if he resigned his commission, not an uncommon practice at the time, which he did.

At home he began to secure his fortune and his reputation as a lawyer and an orator. He acted as an attorney for the rail roads and as the defense attorney in many criminal cases. Among his most famous successes was as the defense attorney in the "Star Route Scandal", a federal case in which the defendants were charged with defrauding the government in the handling, or mishandling, of postal routes. Among his most important failures was the defense of C.B. Reynolds on charges of Blasphemy. Reynolds was found guilty but, because of Ingersoll's spirited defense, Reynolds was levied a 'wrist slap' fine and blasphemy laws were rarely prosecuted again.

Ingersoll served as Illinois' first Attorney General and was active in politics for most of his life. He campaigned for many republican candidates; at that time the Republicans were more liberal than the democrats and the Republicans opposed slavery. Ingersoll helped James Garfield win his presidential bid, and managed the successful congressional campaign for his brother Ebon. His presidential nominating speech for James G. Blaine, "The Plumed Knight Speech", set the standard for political oratory in his day. Robert was offered the chance to run for Governor of Illinois, but knowing he would have to ameliorate his agnostic and humanistic opinions, he refused to run, writing,

"I have in my composition that which I have declared to the world as my views upon religion. My position I would not, under any circumstances, not even for my life, seem to renounce. I would rather refuse to be President of the United States than to do so. My religious belief is my own. It belongs to me, not to the State of Illinois. I would not smother one sentiment of my heart to be the Emperor of the round world."


After a long career as a lawyer and orator, Ingersoll died at the age of 65 of heart deceases while staying with his daughter's family at Dobbs Ferry-on-Hudson, New York. According the Ingersoll biographer, Herman E. Kittredge, after a day of feeling ill "Mrs Ingersoll said: "Why, Papa, your tongue is coated -- I must give you some medicine." He looked up at her with a smile and said, "I am better now," and, as he did so, closed his eyes...Ingersoll was dead."

Today Robert Ingersoll's birthplace in Dresden, New York is maintained as a historic monument.

A man of his times[edit]

It must be remembered that Robert Green Ingersoll was a man of his times. Although his positions were enlightened for his day, many of his ideas would strike modern readers as deeply offensive. He was a staunch abolitionist but did not believe in racial equality. Even as he argued that the law must apply equally to all men regardless of race or religion, he maintained that former slaves should be moved to a separate homeland.

His eloquent defense of women's suffrage did not change his opinion that women were the backbone of home life. It is unlikely that Ingersoll could have imagined the working women of today.

Ingersoll believed in the capitalism of his day and felt that work was among the highest of human values. A large portion of his wealth came from his enormously successful defense of the railroad "robber barons". This included loophole legal wrangling that deprived many farmers of their land for the good of the railroad's rights-of-way.

Although Ingersoll was connected to some humanist and atheist organizations, it is unclear how much of his wealth was spent to support these groups.

Robert Ingersoll's eloquent defense of humanism, science, and agnosticism make him deserving of great respect in the non-religious community. But he was a human being, with all the flaws and foibles of our species, and very definitely a man of his times.


"The doctrine of eternal punishment is in perfect harmony with the savagery of the men who made the orthodox creeds. It is in harmony with torture, with flaying alive, and with burnings. The men who burned their fellow-men for a moment, believed that God would burn his enemies forever."

— Crumbling Creeds

"We have heard talk enough. We have listened to all the drowsy, idealess, vapid sermons that we wish to hear. We have read your Bible and the works of your best minds. We have heard your prayers, your solemn groans and your reverential amens. All these amount to less than nothing. We want one fact. We beg at the doors of your churches for just one little fact. We pass our hats along your pews and under your pulpits and implore you for just one fact. We know all about your mouldy wonders and your stale miracles. We want a this year's fact. We ask only one. Give us one fact for charity. Your miracles are too ancient. The witnesses have been dead for nearly two thousand years."

— The Gods (1872)

"Who can over estimate the progress of the world if all the money wasted in superstition could be used to enlighten, elevate and civilize mankind?"

— Some Mistakes of Moses

"An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures. Certainly he ought not so to act that laws become necessary to keep him from being laughed at. No one thinks of protecting Shakespeare from ridicule, by the threat of fine and imprisonment."

— Some Mistakes of Moses

"The old lady who said there must be a devil, else how could they make pictures that looked exactly like him, reasoned like a trained theologian -- like a doctor of divinity."

— Superstition (1898)

"I admit that reason is a small and feeble flame, a flickering torch by stumblers carried in the star-less night, -- blown and flared by passion's storm, -- and yet, it is the only light. Extinguish that, and nought remains."

— A Reply To The Rev. Henry M. Field, D.D.

"But honest men do not pretend to know; they are candid and sincere; they love the truth; they admit their ignorance, and they say, "We do not know." "

— Superstition (1898)

"The agnostic does not simply say, "l do not know." He goes another step, and he says, with great emphasis, that you do not know. He insists that you are trading on the ignorance of others, and on the fear of others. He is not satisfied with saying that you do not know, -- he demonstrates that you do not know, and he drives you from the field of fact -- he drives you from the realm of reason -- he drives you from the light, into the darkness of conjecture -- into the world of dreams and shadows, and he compels you to say, at last, that your faith has no foundation in fact."

— Reply To Dr. Lyman Abbott
"In all ages hypocrites, called priests, have put crowns on the heads of thieves, called kings.[1]"
"The churches have no confidence in each other. Why? Because they are acquainted with each other."

"It may be that ministers really think that their prayers do good and it may be that frogs imagine that their croaking brings spring."

— Which Way? (1884)
"In most of the States of this Union I could not give testimony. Should a man be murdered before my eyes I could not tell a jury who did it. [...] Christianity has such a contemptible opinion of human nature that it does not believe a man can tell the truth unless frightened by a belief in God. No lower opinion of the human race has ever been expressed.[2]"

"The clergy know that I know that they know that they do not know."

— Orthodoxy (1884)
"Why should I allow that same God to tell me how to raise my kids, who had to drown His own?"


  1. quoted from Herman E. Kittredge, A Biographical Appreciation of Robert Green Ingersoll, Chapter XII
  2. The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Volume VIII.: Interviews

External links[edit]

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Terminology   Etymology of the word atheist · Weak atheism · Strong atheism · Agnosticism · Atheist vs. agnostic · Tenets and dogma
Contemporary literature   The End of Faith · The God Delusion · God: The Failed Hypothesis · Letter to a Christian Nation · God Is Not Great · Irreligion · 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God
Classic literature   Why I Am Not a Christian
Atheist and secular groups   Atheist groups · Secular charities · How American Non-Atheists view Atheists
Contemporary authors   Richard Dawkins · Daniel Dennett · A. C. Grayling · Sam Harris · Guy P. Harrison · John Allen Paulos · James Randi · Victor Stenger
Internet non-believers   Reginald Vaughn Finley · PZ Myers
Writers and philosophers   David Hume · Robert Ingersoll · Friedrich Nietzsche · Bertrand Russell · Carl Sagan · Voltaire · Jean-Paul Sartre · John Stuart Mill · Karl Marx · Heraclitus