Happy Thanksgiving to all!
I have something special to share today!
After a busy and stressful year, this Thanksgiving–more than any other– I am thankful for the love and support of dear family and friends!
Whitman of course had many dear friends during his life, and Robert G. Ingersoll was no exception, he was a grand and important friend in Whitman’s life.
So to celebrate the love of friendships, I would like to share this piece a dear friend of mine wrote about Ingersoll. (Thanks Gerrie for this beautiful tribute to Ingersoll!).
(11 August, 1833 ~ 21 July, 1899)
A Tribute to Robert G. Ingersoll
by Gerrie Paino – 8 February, 2015
“The man who does not do his own thinking is a slave
and is a traitor to himself and to his fellow men.”
~ Robert G. Ingersoll
Long before the so-called “new atheists” raised their voices in a call for the end of superstition, religious orthodoxy and intellectual suppression, Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll took his place on history’s stage as America’s voicepiece for reason and liberty. A modern day Prometheus, he fought to bring enlightenment to minds enslaved by dogma and to spirits encumbered by fear. So large was this man’s presence, so immense his influence that, among supporters and detractors alike, his name, philosophy and views became commonplace subjects for discussion in households across the United States.
Ingersoll gained respect for his service in the Civil War and for his brilliance as an attorney; however, it was his unequaled gift as an orator that propelled him to fame, and, some might say, infamy. In a time before television, radio, or motion pictures, more people heard Ingersoll speak than anyone before in history. Crisscrossing the country on more than a dozen lecture tours between 1865 and his death at age 65 in 1899, he drew crowds that numbered in the thousands, speaking in every state in America with the exception of Oklahoma, Mississippi and North Carolina.
Bathed in the glow of the footlights, Ingersoll addressed his audiences for up to three hours, delivering his lectures from memory as his enthralled listeners savoured every word. When he’d finished speaking, they clamoured for still more. No wonder, when Mark Twain proclaimed after hearing Ingersoll speak: “I doubt if America has ever seen anything quite equal to it; I am well satisfied I shall not live to see its equal again… Bob Ingersoll’s music will sing through my memory always as the divinest that ever enchanted my ears. What an organ is human speech when it is employed by a master!”
The undisputed Prince of Orators, this giant of the Gilded Age numbered among his ardent admirers such luminaries as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas Edison, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass and Andrew Carnegie. Yet Ingersoll was not merely the friend of the wealthy, powerful and influential. Indeed, he considered his self-imposed mission of working to liberate the oppressed and downtrodden a sacred trust. An outspoken champion of the rights and equality of Blacks, women, and children, he was also an anti-vivisectionist and proponent of birth control, science and evolution.
Well aware that many who agreed with his thoughts would suffer persecution, loss of livelihood and other hardships for daring to speak the truths they held in their hearts, Ingersoll stated: “I will do your talking for you. The church cannot touch, cannot crush, cannot starve, cannot stop or stay me; I will express your thoughts for you.” This dedication won him the love and respect of the common people as well as the social reformers of his day. Needless to say, his lambasting of orthodox religion also gained him no small number of detractors and adversaries. Undaunted, Ingersoll proclaimed: “I have made up my mind to say my say.” And so he did, fearlessly yet with kindness towards even his enemies who he often reflected were merely products of their conditions.
In light of his renown in the 19th century, it seems a curiosity that the name of Robert Green Ingersoll is so little-known today. This owes, in part, to the squelching of his voice by his religious opponents who, in defense of their beliefs, campaigned mightily against the man deemed, among other often-amusing epithets, “The Great Agnostic,” “Robert Injuresoul,” “The American Infidel,” “The Champion Blasphemer of America,” and even “The Plenipotentiary of his Satanic Majesty to the United States.”
Despite these sensational sobriquets aimed at painting Ingersoll in the blackest of lights, he led such an exemplary life that his opponents, despite prodigious efforts, became exasperated at finding him blameless and so stooped to fabricating lies. Among these, one religious paper reported: “We are told, on good authority, that Colonel Ingersoll’s only son was so addicted to cheap novel reading that his mind became affected thereby; that he was quietly removed to a private asylum, where he shortly afterward died.” Ingersoll, who rarely dignified these slanders with a reply, sent the following rejoinder to an inquirer who sent him the article in the mail:
1. My only son was not a great novel reader;
2. He did not go insane;
3. He was not sent to an asylum;
4. He did not die;
5. I never had a son!
Despite efforts by his detractors to defame Ingersoll and silence his voice, today’s freethinkers are rediscovering the Colonel and finding that his message is as potent and pertinent now as it was over a century ago. The twelve-volume Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, along with a wealth of other information, is easily accessed on the Internet. Discovering the man beneath the public persona requires a bit more effort; however, when unearthed, these peeks into Ingersoll’s private life bring our view of the man down from Mount Olympus and seat him even more firmly within our hearts.
Above all else, Ingersoll relished the comforts of hearth and home. His beloved wife, Eva, along with his daughters, Maude and Eva, were the cause of his being. “They are my Holy Trinity, comprising the only Deity I worship,” he wrote in a letter dated 1870.
Ingersoll’s home was a joyful place, bustling with activity and visitors from morning till late at night. The rooms were filled with paintings, photographs, engravings, sculptures and books, the principle of which was an enormous volume of Shakespeare that Ingersoll referred to as his Bible and within whose pages were inscribed the dates of family marriages, births and deaths as other families would commonly record the same in their family Bibles. The second floor contained his study from which it was said Ingersoll never excluded anyone, saying he worked more easily with his family and visitors around him. An article of the Colonel’s day described the family home in Washington D.C. as follows:
“This prince of pagans occupies a handsome residence on Lafayette Square. On Sunday evenings the Ingersoll home is open to their friends, and these Sabbath symposiums are the most enjoyable of all the weekly round of social affairs that any season can offer. Ease and hospitality liven the air from the square tiled hall into which the vestibule opens to the remotest sanctum. Before the church bells have ceased tolling the faithful to the evening service people begin dropping into this charming home and the smooth face and round head of the host appears to the visitor in the hall with unhackneyed and cordial greetings. Adding to his own social attractiveness Colonel Ingersoll has a delightful family to make it more inviting to his guests…. For wit, eloquence and repartee Colonel Ingersoll finds no superior, and with a room full of friends about him his bon mots and epigrams are incessant.” (Washington Gossip column)
In addition to his pleasure in hosting guests, Ingersoll enjoyed literature, art, music, theatre, swimming, billiards, cigars, fine wine and good food, the later being amply demonstrated by his portly profile. Despite the urgings of his family to care for his health and lose weight, Ingersoll and exercise were barely on speaking terms, a fact the Colonel himself was not beyond turning into a matter of good humour.
Notwithstanding the abundance of happiness and mirth that often surrounded him, Ingersoll also possessed a depth of compassion that caused him to share the sadness and pain of others deeply. Mr. Isaac Newton Baker, Ingersoll’s secretary for nearly fourteen years, wrote of his esteemed employer: “He bore the burdens of others. His sympathies were so deep and wide and strong that while he ‘laughed with those who laughed’ he ‘wept with those who wept,’ and often have I seen him touched to tears at the tales of woe freely poured into his listening ears.”
Ingersoll’s compassion was equaled by his extraordinary generosity. “So large is his charity, so rich his tenderness, that intimately to know him means an incessant stimulus. One can almost literally warm one’s hands at him,” said the writer Edgar Fawcett.
Mr. Baker, the Colonel’s long-time secretary, wrote:
A hundred dollar bill was a frequent gift from his open hand, to say not a word of the thousands scattered in larger and smaller sums. He gave his advice freely to hundreds, — especially to the widow, the poor and defenseless, and tried many a case to a happy conclusion, not only without a fee, but himself paying all costs and disbursements… His office books were filled with accounts never collected, with charges never paid, and yet this did not check the flow of his extravagant generosity. He loved to give. He was princely in giving.
In one case where a thirty-thousand dollar fee came to him he instantly gave half of it to a young assistant to whom two or three thousand dollars would have been an ample and satisfactory return for the service rendered. In another case, on receiving a fee of fifteen thousand dollars, he immediately wrote a check for one third of the amount to the friend who had simply urged his selection as the best lawyer for the case. The unexpected gift enabled this friend to lift a mortgage that had long encumbered her home. (Robert G. Ingersoll: An Intimate View – Isaac Newton Baker)
Among his other gifts, Ingersoll possessed a quick wit and intelligent sense of humour with which he often delighted others. Whether arguing a case before the courts, entertaining guests in his home, or speaking from the stage to standing room only crowds, he easily provoked laughter from his listeners. He took particular pleasure in pointing out the absurdities of religion, but did so in a manner that made it nearly impossible for even the believers present to stifle their amusement.
Some, however, were not so charmed. Scores of ministers tried to dissuade their congregants from going to hear Ingersoll speak and Bibles and religious tracts were often on offer outside the auditoriums when the Colonel lectured. Ingersoll further provoked his religious adversaries by frequently scheduling his talks decrying religion on Sundays. It was not uncommon for theatres to bar “the blasphemer” from speaking, thus necessitating alternate venues be secured. Nonetheless, the theatres and halls were always filled to capacity, some attendees having travelled great distances to hear the great orator speak.
Ingersoll saw religion as the enemy of freedom, reason and science and relished his role in liberating minds from the slavery of orthodoxy. No religious teaching, however, incensed him more than the doctrine of Hell. “While I have life, as long as I have breath, I shall deny with all my strength, and hate with every drop of my blood, this infinite lie,” he proclaimed. “If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant. I make my choice now. I despise that doctrine.”
Ingersoll’s views on religion were so strong and his commitment to upholding his beliefs so unbending that he sacrificed what could have been an astonishing political career rather than stifle or deny what he held to be true. Although his speeches and campaigning helped secure office for many notable political figures, and despite his being the confidante of Presidents Garfield and Hayes, Ingersoll was repeatedly denied political appointments for fear any connection to “the infidel” and his anti-religious rhetoric would alienate those in office from their constituents.
A reporter for the Chicago Tribune, referring to the Colonel in the week following his death, wrote: “Splendidly endowed as he was, he could have won great distinction in the field of politics had he so chosen, but he was determined to enlighten the world concerning the Mistakes of Moses. That threw him out of the race.”
When faced with the choice of silencing his voice in order to win the Republican nomination for Governor of Illinois, Ingersoll refused, boldly stating:
“Goodbye, gentlemen! I am not asking to be Governor of Illinois … 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.” (Ingersoll the Magnificent – Joseph Lewis)
Ingersoll died peacefully in the presence of his beloved wife, Eva, at Walston, the beautiful home of his daughter and son-in-law in Dobbs Ferry, New York. News of his death filled the Ingersoll home with literally thousands of messages of sorrow, consolation and praise for the man who had captured the hearts and minds of so many, from the common people to the rich and powerful.
“No other loss, outside of my own family, could have filled me with such sorrow. The future historian will rank him as one of the heroes of the nineteenth century,” exclaimed women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her sentiments were echoed by Mark Twain who wrote: “Except for my daughters, I have not grieved for any death as I have grieved for his. His was a great and beautiful spirit.”
A Washington correspondent said of Ingersoll “It is hard to write about the Colonel and not indulge in what would seem to strangers to be extravagant praise.” Indeed, it seems impossible to make the acquaintance of this giant of freethought even now and not come to love, respect and admire the indomitable spirit of a man so brilliant yet also so warm and approachable.
Walt Whitman stated, “America doesn’t know today how proud she ought to be of her Ingersoll.” Those words ring as true now as they did when Whitman first expressed them over a century ago.
No doubt, Ingersoll would be pleased to know his voice has not been silenced and that the torch he carried has been taken up by new hands, anxious to spread the light of liberty and reason to an America perhaps in more need of that message today than it was in Ingersoll’s lifetime.
“Nothing is greater than to break the chains from the bodies of men –
nothing nobler than to destroy the phantoms of the soul.”
~ Robert G. Ingersoll