In an age before radio or television, Robert G. Ingersoll was considered by many, including those he debated, to be the world's greatest orator. Mostly forgotten today, Ingersoll was a lawyer, a soldier , a politician and a family man. He is remembered today by historians for giving the Plumed Knight speech  nominating James G. Blaine as the Republican candidate for President of the United States, but freethinkers remember him as the Great Agnostic.
Ingersoll was born in Dresden, a small village along Seneca Lake in New York State. His birthplace still stands; it has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public as a museum. Ingersoll fought in the Civil War as a colonel in the Eleventh Illinois Volunteer Cavalry ; hence his nickname Colonel Ingersoll. He also went to law school and had law practices in Peoria, Washington, D.C., and New York at various times. Ingersoll was renowned for several well-publicized trials, including United States v. Munn, the Star Route Trials , and most importantly for freethinkers, the Reynolds Blasphemy Trial , which he lost. However, Ingersoll was mostly known for his speeches and lectures that he gave throughout the country.
Ingersoll would sell out venues that could hold 20,000 people and charge them a dollar each, and people would leave satisfied that they got their moneys worth. He spoke extemporaneously for hours. He was known to keep people enthralled for over four hours at a time. Ingersoll spoke on a range of topics , but was mostly known for his attacks on religion. His outspoken views on birth control, on the corruption of religion and debates with theologians definitely caused him to lose out on appointments to the Garfield administration , but he continued to speak his mind and lecture and debate until his death in 1899.
Some of his better known lectures are as follows:
Some Mistakes of Moses
Liberty of Man, Woman and Child
Heretics and Heresies
It is interesting to note that people opposing him continued to attack him after he died. There are stories that have been absolutely proven false that he recanted his beliefs on his deathbed. Also, there is a spiritualist who has indicated that she has contacted Ingersoll on the other side and that he tells her how wonderful it is in the afterlife. To me, this indicates that they fear his arguments.
My next idea is, that the only possible good in the universe is happiness. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to try and make somebody else so.
Robert G. Ingersoll. The Limitations of Toleration." The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll. Dresden edition. Clinton P. Farrell, ed. New York, Dresden Publishing Company, 1903. Volume VII, page 258
 He gave this speech at the Republican Convention in Cincinnati in 1876. Though the speech was electrifying and made Ingersolls national reputation overnight, Blaine did not become the conventions nominee. Rutherford B. Hayes got the nomination and won the election. [back]
 The Watergate scandal of its day, the Star Route affair concerned alleged corruption in the assignment of far-rural postal routes for which the Post Office would pay contractors a hefty premium. It was part and parcel of the sorry legacy of the Grant Administration, but the two men ultimately charged were small-timers, perhaps even innocents, whod been set up to take the rap. Ingersolls friend James G. Blaine served as Garfields secretary of state and was one of the most rabid advocates of the prosecution. Outraged, Ingersoll broke his friendship with Blaine and launched a powerful defense in what became the longest trial in U.S. legal history. Ingersoll won; his clients were acquitted. [back]
 C.B. Reynolds was a Rochester-based religious liberal. When he was charged with blasphemy in New Jersey, In-gersoll defended him for free. When Reynolds was convicted, Ingersoll paid the $50 fine himself. The Reynolds trial was to blasphemy as Scopes was to evolution; though Reynolds was convicted, Ingersolls defense made New Jersey look so bad that no American city or state ever brought a blasphemy prosecution again. [back]
 Among his best-loved topics were the Civil War, Shakespeare, family life, science, the emancipation of women, and of course religion. His critique of religion was broad-ranging but he reserved his harshest condemnation for doctrines of eternal punishment. [back]
 Ingersoll never held any elective office and held only one appointive office, attorney general of Illinois. During his residence in Washington, a reporter surveyed his personal library and asked Ingersoll what it had cost. The presidency of the United States, Ingersoll replied. [back]
(With thanks to Tom Flynn for the footnotes.)
Director, Center for Inquiry Libraries
Please also visit the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum web page.