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.

Robert Ingersoll

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.

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  1. “the turn of the 19th century” should be “the turn of the 20th century”, unless the rest of the dates in the article are wrong. Also: First!

  2. He also inspired Lew Wallace to write Ben-Hur.

  3. A skeptic does not deny knowledge, he simply demands strong evidence to support it.

    I try to explain this conspiracy nuts. I like Ron Paul for the most part, but his extreme followers tend to be hyperbolic and passionate, which generally means a lack of reason and logic. Especially the “truthers”. It’s one thing to say, “I question the validity of your assertions that 9/11 was an act of terrorism”, and quite another to say, “I have verified evidence to support that 911 was an inside job”.. yet not actually produce that evidence.

    1. For a subjectivist, one whim is as good as another.

    2. That and the whole thing with Russell’s teapot. Just because no one can prove you 100% without a doubt wrong, does not mean you are correct. One of my huge pet peeves. Along with saying “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.” during a debate. No, you are not entitled to your opinion; you are only entitled to what you can argue for/prove.

    3. Look up “Mohammed Atta and the Venice Flying Circus” also “Rudi Dekkers 9/11”.

      It is my opinion that 9/11 was a US drug smuggling operation gone bad. i.e. CIA double crossed by Osama.


      I think “truthers” are on to something. But most of them miss the Drug War aspect. That is the missing link.

  4. from a PBS God in America…..rsoll.html
    Each nation has created a god, and the god has always resembled his creators. He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power. Each god was intensely patriotic, and detested all nations but his own. All these gods demanded praise, flattery, and worship. Most of them were pleased with sacrifice, and the smell of innocent blood has ever been considered a divine perfume.

    1. Thanks very much for that link.

  5. 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).

    Jacoby either ignored or skipped her research. Senator Paul was named Randal and grew up as Randy. His wife shortened his name to Rand.

  6. So who really knows whats going on up there?

  7. Why do I have an instant liking of this guy, but somehow I can’t stand the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens?

    1. Because Dawkins and Hitchens are and were, respectively, elitist ivory tower cunts who are uniquely capable of alienating even the people with whom they agree due to their abrasive personal style.

    2. Well, I tend to view Hitchens as a bit of a contrarian. As such, I don’t have much of a problem with the guy. Dawkins, on the other hand, is just a dick. He always strikes me as getting off on feeling intellectually superior to “the little people”, even though his theories require as much faith (“the selfish gene”) as the religions he’s dismissing.

  8. Ingersoll considered the theory of evolution a desirable replacement…

    It’s an unfortunate oversight on the part of both religionists and secularists that the theory of evolution really doesn’t even concern abiogenesis, and therefore doesn’t need to displace anyone’s origin story of choice. It’s particularly inexcusable in the case of people like Dawkins who should and do know better, but simply thrive off the antagonism.

    1. Also:

      …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

      While she may be violating the spirit of Ingersoll in doing so, she has a point. Dawkins and Hitchens are and were, respectively, to atheism what the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christianity in terms of messaging.

      1. I’m so sick of this conventional wisdom on Dawkins and Hitchens. Against centuries of atheists receiving not just verbal but actual, deadly abuse at the hands of the religious, atheists fire the tiniest pellets of indignation toward that institution (and it deserves every ounce it gets and thousands of times more), and they are labeled wackos. Well they are very well-evidenced wackos.

        I don’t think you believe that religion is above skepticism. I think you just haven’t read Dawkins or Hitchens and instead have relied on the opinions of those in the mushy middle who are actually serving as religious apologists. Hitchens was deliberately provocative but hardly offensive, and Dawkins is a sweet, polite old man. Their only crime is happening to correctly think that religion is bad and we’d all be better off if it were gone. If you’re truly a freethinker then there is no reason to be on the fainting couch over Dawkins and Hitchens, and the religious or mushy middlers have no right to be.

        1. Not that they’re wackos, just abrasive to anyone who doesn’t already agree with them.
          Also, the fact that there is no god doesn’t necessarily imply humanity would be better off with no religion. It’s two different questions.

  9. Blows my mind that we live in a universe that thinks about itself.

  10. “Santorum is hardly a spokesman for the mainstream”

    He doesn’t have to be. If he only speaks for 5% he makes Republicans unelectable on a national stage. See Romney, Mittens vs the med pot user on youtube.

    You going to vote for THAT? Not me. I’m one of the million.

  11. On my opinion, this article is very good. I don’t know why it’s faced so much of criticism. Some of the comments just foolish, it looks like those people who wrote them are just clicking on, without looking at the description below the pic. Maybe I just not aware of facts and dates… anyway, I really enjoyed reading it on Thank you, mr Writer!)

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