Rational Man

The skeptic who scandalized Victorian America.


The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby, Yale, 256 pages, $25

Robert Ingersoll was fat. The Great Agnostic, as he was known in his day, was so portly that critics sighed over the "spectacular auto da fé" he would have made if set alight for heresy—as he surely would have been in an earlier era.

Speaking to sold-out crowds around the nation at the turn of the 19th century, Ingersoll argued against belief in God, poked fun at religious authority, and gently introduced a skeptical American public to the idea that humans might be related to apes. Along the way, the jurist and Republican party kingmaker revived the reputation of another great doubter, Thomas Paine, restoring him to his rightful place in the Founders' pantheon.

Now largely forgotten himself, Ingersoll once rivaled Mark Twain in popularity on the lecture circuit during the Golden Age of Freethought. A small but surprisingly influential cluster of fans and followers have kept Ingersoll's memory alive, ranging from Clarence Darrow to Eugene Debs to Penn Jillette, the magician. But in her light, readable new biography, Susan Jacoby does her best to preach the Ingersoll gospel to the larger audience he deserves.

At an American centennial oration in Peoria, Ingersoll cheerfully celebrated a nation whose Founders had "retired God from politics." His praise may have been premature, but Ingersoll certainly did his part to chip in for God's gold watch and pension.

The son of an abolitionist Congregationalist pastor raised mainly in Illinois, Ingersoll studied law with his brother, served as a colonel in the Civil War with the 11th Illinois Cavalry, and rose to prominence as a Midwest orator in the 1860s and '70s, equally at home in the courtroom, the revival tent, and the velvet-upholstered auditorium.

In June 1876, Ingersoll burst onto the national Republican scene with his nominating speech for James G. Blaine. Known as the "Plumed Knight" speech, the stirring address became the model for Franklin Roosevelt's 1924 "Happy Warrior" speech nominating Al Smith. Press accounts were swooningly enthusiastic, even by the less-than-objective standards of the day. ("When he finished, his fine, frank face as calm as when he began, the overwrought thousands sank back in an exhaustion of unspeakable wonder and delight.")

While today's GOP is associated with public displays of faith, the Republican party of Ingersoll's day was more likely to be the home of freethinkers, such as the churchless Abraham Lincoln. The American public wasn't ready for overt atheism in elected or appointed office, but Ingersoll's talent on the stump made his endorsement valuable. Jacoby persuasively argues that Ingersoll fits into the classical liberal tradition, a thread that remains visible, if controversial, in the fabric of the modern Republican party.

And he used his influence with powerful Republicans to further his own causes, including support for the gold standard and for women's rights. In 1877, Ingersoll convinced President Rutherford B. Hayes to drop an obscenity prosecution against the publisher of the freethinking Truth Seeker, which had run afoul of the Comstock laws for publishing information on birth control.

We have come some distance since Theodore Roosevelt called Thomas Paine a "filthy little atheist"—thanks, in part, to Ingersoll's aisle-crossing labors—but the public remains wary of godless politicos. A 2011 Pew Research poll found that 61 percent of respondents would be less likely to vote for an atheist candidate. The same year, Gallup found that only 49 percent of voters would vote for an atheist for president, even if he were a "well-qualified" candidate. And a 2003 study found that 48 percent of Americans would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist.

But Ingersoll made atheism palatable, even in a much more devout time. (Though known as an "agnostic," Ingersoll used the term interchangeably with "atheist," citing the impossibility of proving a negative in either case.) He did this, in no small part, by being a nice guy. By all accounts, he was loving and loyal to his wife and two daughters. He threw fun parties at his Manhattan townhouse. His household finances were conducted in an astonishingly openhanded manner for a Victorian patriarch: Cash was kept in an unlocked drawer and family members (women!) were encouraged to make withdrawals as needed.

His speeches were studded with jokes that played to American sensibilities: While explaining Charles Darwin's still-controversial theory of evolution, he speculated how tough it would be for blood-proud European aristocrats to learn they were descended from "the duke Orang Outang, or the princess Chimpanzee." Far from finding the prospect of a godless universe depressing, Ingersoll considered the theory of evolution a desirable replacement for the story of the Fall.

I would rather belong to that race that commenced a skull-less vertebrate and produced Shakespeare, a race that has before it an infinite future, with an angel of progress leaning from the far horizon, beckoning men forward, upward, and onward forever—I had rather belong to such a race .??.??. than to have sprung from a perfect pair upon which the Lord has lost money every moment from that day to this.

Yet in an otherwise pleasant book about an appealing man who lived in interesting times, Susan Jacoby's frequent interjections (usually in footnote form) on current American politics are jarring. In the introduction, she suggests that Ingersoll "could never have imagined" the prevalent role of religion in 21st-century American political life, and that he would be "astonished" by the current political scene. She cites an intemperate remark from Rick Santorum about the separation of church and state: The very concept, as expressed in John F. Kennedy's speech to Baptist ministers in Houston in 1960, makes Santorum want to "throw up."

It would take a great deal more than that to astonish a man as widely read and traveled as the Great Agnostic, and Santorum is hardly a spokesman for the mainstream on this issue. Jacoby even makes snippy remarks about the atheistic origins of the first name of former Texas representative Ron Paul's son, Kentucky senator Rand Paul (who denies, by the way, that he is named for Ayn Rand).

Her afterword is a lecture directed at the New Atheists, in which she takes the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins to task for failing to include Ingersoll among their credited influences. She accuses them of ignor-ance and bias against Ingersoll because he is difficult to fit into our modern political categories—all in the kind of hectoring tone Ingersoll himself eschewed, and to his great benefit.

When Hitchens died in 2011 of esophageal cancer, raging and grumping all the way to his grave, he was compared (favorably and unfavorably) to Thomas Paine, who died impoverished and alone, with rumors of suicide and conversion further besmirching an already damaged reputation. Such deathbed mythology has long plagued prominent atheists.

Perhaps mindful of Paine's example, however, Ingersoll was determined to use his own death to make his point one last time. As the heart disease that had long plagued him began to take its toll, Ingersoll settled in at home. Surrounding himself with family—he got along famously with his in-laws, freethinkers who later curated his papers and tended his legacy—Ingersoll smoked cigars, played billiards, and took one last morning nap before expiring with his wife by his bedside. The Chicago Tribune's obituary headline: "Ingersoll Dies Smiling." 

This article originally appeared in the January 28, 2013 edition of The Weekly Standard.