Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Great Dissenter: Happy 175th, Robert Ingersoll

Nothing is greater than to break the chains from the bodies of men -- nothing nobler than to destroy the phantom of the soul.

-- Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899)
American politician and lecturer known for his adamant support of scientific and humanistic rationalism.

Between the Civil War and end of the 19th century, the biggest celebrity in America was someone virtually unknown today. The most in-demand speaker of the day, who consistently drew audiences of thousands everywhere he spoke, throughout the nation, was not Mark Twain, but Robert G. Ingersoll.

Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll (August 11, 1833 – July 21, 1899) was a Civil War veteran, American political leader, and orator during the Golden Age of Freethought, noted for his broad range of culture and his defense of agnosticism.


Ingersoll was most noted as an orator, the most popular of the age, when oratory was public entertainment. He spoke on every subject, from Shakespeare to Reconstruction, but his most popular subjects were agnosticism and the sanctity and refuge of the family. He committed his speeches to memory although they were sometimes more than three hours long. His audiences were said never to be restless.

His radical views on religion, slavery, woman's suffrage, and other issues of the day effectively prevented him from ever pursuing or holding political offices higher than that of state attorney general. Illinois Republicans tried to pressure him into running for governor on the condition that Ingersoll conceal his agnosticism during the campaign, which he refused on the basis that concealing information from the public was immoral.

Many of Ingersoll's speeches advocated freethought and humanism, and often poked fun at religious belief. For this the press often attacked him, but neither his views nor the negative press could stop his rising popularity. At the height of Ingersoll's fame, audiences would pay $1 or more to hear him speak, a giant sum for his day.

Take a few moments Monday to celebrate Ingersoll's birthday by committing to memory Ingersoll's Creed:

Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to make others so.

Read the best collection of Ingersoll's philosophy in "What's God Got to Do With It: Robert Ingersoll on Free Speech, Honest Talk and the Separation of Church and State."

Read about the enormous positive role of Freethought in American History in Susan Jacoby's essential book.

Read Ingersoll's complete works online.

Read the most complete collection of Ingersoll's quotes.

Find out more, and support the dedicated but underfunded Council on Secular Humanism here.

Get cool Freethinker and Secular Humanism swag here. How can you resist a website named "Evolvefish?"

Cross-posted at Blue in the Bluegrass.