Robert Green Ingersoll — The Forgotten Giant

By Ernest Kearney  —  The service held at the Washington National Cathedral this past December 10, for the late Senator Bob Dole, wielded a near hypnotic sway over me.  Watching President Biden eulogize his long time senate colleague, the dignity of the ceremony emanated tranquility.

It was like I was suddenly back in the company of adults again, after being stuck babysitting a sniveling, petulant ADHD brat.

For four years.

However, as the President moved to conclude his tribute, I was startled from my serenity when, suddenly, his heartfelt words, were incredibly familiar.

And I believe,” the President somberly intoned, “the words of the poet R. G. Ingersoll when he described heroism better fit [Bob Dole] than anyone I know.  And Ingersoll wrote the following; ‘When the will defies fear, when duty throws the gauntlet down to fate, when honor scorns a compromise with death, that is heroism.’”

It’s a canon of political speechwriting: “Open with a joke or close with a quote.”  Apparently, President Biden wanted a suitable closer for his elegy.  A quote with gravitas, but not of the highfaluting sort. 

A staffer was probably assigned the task of finding this perfect quotation and went scurrying for the Bartlett’s, but Bartlett’s proved a bust.  I know the source where he found this quote, A New Dictionary of Quotations, edited by H.L. Mencken, 1942.  Mencken was a great admirer of Ingersoll and the quote chosen for the president is the first entry under “heroism.”

The staffer probably had no clue who Ingersoll was.  There’s probably few who do, in all of the Biden administration, or Washington for that matter.   

First of all, no one ever called him “R. G. Ingersoll.”  His name was Robert Green Ingersoll.  His friend and admirers, of which there were many, called him Bob.  His adversaries and detractors, of which there were more, had other names for him; Robert Injuresoul, a barking dog, buffoon, Robber of Hope, The Patron of Suicide, and worst. 

To his foes who refrained from viciousness, he was simply The Great Satan.

That Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) is seldom quoted anymore and barely remembered is, as far as I’m concerned, symptomatic of nearly everything that’s wrong with America today.

When he was assembling his quotations, Mencken said, “What this grand, gaudy, unapproachable country needs and lacks is an Ingersoll.”  That was right in the ’40s, it still is.

Also, Ingersoll was a writer.  He loved poetry and even wrote the occasional poem.  But his boundless respect for Robert Burn, Walt Whitman and Shakespeare would never have allowed him to claim he was a “poet.” 

Explaining who Ingersoll was, and the influence he had on this country, is difficult.  He was a force of nature on the American scene for which there is no comparison today.   

Civil War veteran, lawyer, both “kingmaker” and conscience of the party of Lincoln; Ingersoll would never hold elected office.  He couldn’t.  Still he was the most prominent politician of his day who was exuberant in his pride of being a member of “the party that saved America,” a Republican. 

He would not be proud of that party today.  And that party would be horrified by him.

Ingersoll was a social visionary.  He defiantly praised Charles Darwin as one of the greatest men who ever touched this globe;” recognized the need for an “international court” to resolve global conflicts, and issued a challenge to science to find a means of “birth control” because he understood that until women had the power to decide when they would or would not become pregnant, complete equality would be denied them.

Ingersoll’s views are startling in their modernity.

In 1867, Ingersoll was asked to deliver an address to the “colored people” of Galesburg, Illinois. 

He began with: 

Fellow-Citizens: Slavery has in a thousand forms existed in all ages, and among all people. It is as old as theft and robbery.”

From here he gave a brief history of the struggle to end slavery in Europe, then America concluding with John Brown and the Civil War. Then continued:

You do not, in my opinion, owe a great debt of gratitude to many of the white people.”

He went on to close with:

I feel like asking your forgiveness for the wrongs that my race has inflicted upon yours. If, in the future, the wheel of fortune should take a turn, and you should in any country have white men in your power, I pray you not to execute the villainy we have taught you.

One word in conclusion. You have your liberty — use it to benefit your race. Educate yourselves, educate your children, send teachers to the South. Let your brethren there be educated. Let them know something of art and science. Improve yourselves, stand by each other, and above all be in favor of liberty the world over

The time is coming when you will be allowed to be good and useful citizens of the Great Republic. This is your country as much as it is mine.”

Robert Green Inngersoll

Ingersoll would remind his audiences:

The triumph of justice is the only peace.”

This very thought echoes off the streets of our nations still, “No justice, no peace.” 

Ingersoll had condemned the Chinese exclusionary Act which prohibited immigration of all Chinese into the country.  What he wrote in opposing it, sadly, still has relevance today:  

The average American, like the average man of any country, has but little imagination. People who speak a different language, or worship some other god, or wear clothing unlike his own, are beyond the horizon of his sympathy. He cares but little or nothing for the sufferings or misfortunes of those who are of a different complexion or of another race. His imagination is not powerful enough to recognize the human being…. If these ‘inferior people’ claim equal rights he feels insulted, and for the purpose of establishing his own superiority tramples on the rights of the so-called, inferior.”

Ingersoll’s impact on the nation extended beyond his presence in its political arena; the second half of the 19th century was America’s Golden Age of Oratory and Ingersoll was the country’s greatest orator. 

Ingersoll crisscrossed the nation, often travelling two hundred days or more yearly, speaking and lecturing in cities and towns across the continent. 

From Pawtucket, Rhode Island to Oakland, California. 

Ingersoll would speak on political issues of the day demanding the vote for women, calling on legislation for the rights of animals, denouncing capital punishment, advocating a more humane treatment of criminals serving their sentence, calling for the implementation of the eight-hour work day.  But he would also lecture on a wide range of topics such as history and Shakespeare.

Speaking without notes, Ingersoll could regale his listeners for two to three hours at a time.  As time went on and his reputation grew so did his audiences; 3,000, 5,000, 12,000.

A scheduled speech in Chicago had to be delayed as a circus tent needed to be acquired and transported to the shore of Lake Michigan to accommodate the audience that had come to hear Ingersoll; estimated at over 20,000.

Until the advent of radio and motion picture no American in our history had been seen and heard by so many.  Not only was Ingersoll the most famous man in America, through his writings he was soon the most famous American in the world.   

Mark Twain idolized him and was not above usurping his ideas as his own; Oscar Wilde pronounced him “the most intelligent man in America;” Frederick Douglass acknowledged having met only two truly great men in his life: Abraham Lincoln and Robert Ingersoll, and George Bernard Shaw confessed that Ingersoll’s influence upon him was “greater than that of any other man.”

But now the question arises, how has this man been lost to our history?  The answer is through the persistent effort of powerful enemies.  And Ingersoll earned himself the most intransigent foe of all: religion.

Born into a loving and devotedly Christian household, Ingersoll spent his youth studying the Bible and, as he wrote, “reading books about religion – the disobedience of man, the wickedness of pleasure, and the impossibility of obtaining heaven.”

The turning point for Ingersoll came when he witnessed his deeply religious and beloved father, a staunch abolitionist, be stripped of his ministry for the “unpopular” opinion of opposing slavery.  Removed by his own parishioners who, Ingersoll would explain, “felt the vilest sin for a Christian was to behave like one.”

Soon after this humiliation, his father, who had taught Ingersoll “Virtue is of no color; kindness, justice and love of no complexion,” died.  For the rest of his life, Ingersoll would exemplify the Christian values of his father, but he would never forgive churches that profited on human fear and misery, or the pious frauds who would mindlessly send “the worst to heaven, the best to hell.

Using his encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and those skills he acquired as a lawyer, Ingersoll would emerge as the most formidable adversary organized religion in America has ever known.

He challenged and overthrew the “blasphemy laws” which banned anyone “who denied the beings of God” from holding public office, testifying in court or sitting on a jury.

If Jehovah,” he argued, “cannot support his religion without going into partnership with a State Legislature, I think he ought to give it up.”

He opposed attempts to make it mandatory that the Bible be taught in America’s schools –

Beliefs and superstitions should not be treated like demonstrated facts.  Children should be taught to reason, not to believe.  And why does this same God tell me how to raise my children when he had to drown his?” 

He demanded the taxation of church property –

I object to paying for the support of any other man’s belief….  If that property belongs to God, he is able to pay the tax.” 

Ingersoll’s stance was firm on the pernicious encroachment of religion into the American political system, —a threat looming large today— and he called for vigilance in maintaining the separation of church and state –

Although we live in what is called a free government, —and politically we are free—there is but little religious liberty in America. Society demands, either that you belong to some church, or that you suppress your opinions. It is contended by many that ours is a Christian government, founded upon the Bible, and that all who look upon that book as false or foolish are destroying the foundation of our country. The truth is our government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men…. If the people of the great Republic become superstitious enough and ignorant enough to put God in the Constitution of the United States, the experiment of self-government will have failed….  If God is allowed in the Constitution, man must abdicate. There is no room for both.”

For his efforts, Ingersoll was slandered by a hostile press, cursed from pulpits and vilified in sermons as “the Great Atheist,” but this was never the case –  

Is there a God?  I do not know.  The only difference between me and the theologian is that I am honest.

Take from the church,” Ingersoll wrote, “the miraculous, the supernatural, the incomprehensible, the unreasonable, the impossible, the unknowable, the absurd, and nothing but a vacuum remains.”

If Ingersoll had kept his opinions on religion to himself, the Republican Party would have guaranteed him the governorship of Illinois, perhaps even higher office.  He refused:

The man who does not do his own thinking is a slave, and is a traitor to himself and to his fellow-men.”

Ingersoll called on each individual to see the brotherhood of men, and to treat each other with respect and compassion.  Not because some priest tells says to, but because it is the right thing to do for ourselves and all humankind:

            “We rise by lifting others.”

I think Ingersoll would be pleased to know that Christian websites, more than a century after his passing, are still vilifying his name and that his influence has been felt by such diverse souls as Andrew Carnegie, Clarence Darrow, Eugene V. Debs, W. C. Fields, Lynne Cheney and Bruce Springsteen.

Ingersoll ushered in this nation’s “Golden Age of Free Thought,” an extended epoch of secular modernity which witnessed history’s most unparalleled achievements, a period appropriately known as “the American Century.”

Ingersoll told the world what his “religion” was…

This is my creed: Happiness is the only good; reason the only torch; justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest.”

So, let me correct President Biden if I may.  “R.G. Ingersoll,” is not a poet.  He is the greatest American that America has ever forgotten.

And we are a poorer country because of it.

(Featured Image: Only known image of Robert Green Ingersoll delivering a speech at a public event)


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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at and Follow him on Facebook.

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  • “Hmp!” – Louis Armstong

    La vida es humorosa…


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