Robert Green Ingersoll, The Shakespeare of Or

Commentator: 
Tom Shipka
Transcript: 

Eugene Debs called him the "Shakespeare of oratory." After hearing him speak, Mark Twain said "What an organ is human speech when it is employed by a master." He was a hero to James Garfield, Walt Whitman, Ulysses Grant, Margaret Sanger, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Henry Ward Beecher, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Who was this remarkable man? Robert Green Ingersoll.

Born in 1833 in Dresden, New York, Ingersoll moved as a child with his family to Illinois where eventually he became a lawyer and state Attorney General. Originally a Democrat, he bolted to the Republican party to join in the crusade to end slavery. He was the speaker of choice among prominent Republicans who sought his aid during their campaigns. One of his greatest speeches was the "Plumed Knight" speech in Cincinnati at the Republican convention in 1876 in which he nominated James G. Blaine for president. Although Blaine lost, Ingersoll set the standard for nominating speeches.

Ingersoll's work as a lawyer included representing two clients accused of bribery in the so-called Star Route scandal which involved bidders who were accused of using bribes to get U.S. Post Office contracts. His clients were acquitted. He also worked pro bono for Charles B. Reynolds, a prominent freethinker who had been arrested in New Jersey and charged under an archaic blasphemy law. Although Reynolds was convicted and fined $50, which Ingersoll paid, Ingersolls arguments in court mocking blasphemy laws effectively put an end to blasphemy prosecutions in the nation.

In 1862, during the Civil War, Ingersoll raised the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment and was given the rank of Colonel. Forever after he would be called Colonel Bob. He and many of his troops were captured by Confederate soldiers in a battle in which they were vastly outnumbered but they were released in exchange for a promise that they would not return to combat.

Ingersolls career as an orator is unique. During an era when there was no public address system and no films, TV, or radio, Ingersoll drew spectacular crowds from every walk of life and every class who paid the then hefty sum of $1 to hear him. Although it is hard to believe, a Chicago newspaper reported in 1876 that no fewer than 50,000 people packed into an enormous tent there to hear him. Ingersoll had a photographic memory and committed thirty speeches to memory, some of which lasted as long as three to four hours. He sold out every auditorium, theater, and tent in the north, midwest, and west, where he spoke, and despite his anti-slavery mission, he even drew large crowds in the south. The only states in which he did not speak were Oklahoma, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that Ingersoll was an abolitionist, an advocate of equal rights and equal pay for women, and an agnostic. Many of his talks openly poked fun at religion and were severely critical of the Bible as a moral guide. Can you imagine tens of thousands of Americans gathering today to hear a religious skeptic?

Ingersoll was a font of wise sayings. One of his most famous is this:
My creed is that happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so

If you'd like to know more about this extraordinary man, read Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life, by Frank Smith.