Robert Green Ingersoll is too little known today. Yet he was the foremost orator and political speechmaker of late 19th century America -- perhaps the best-known American of the post-Civil War era.
Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York in 1833. His father was a Presbyterian minister who changed congregations often. The Ingersolls left Dresden when the baby Robert was less than four months old. Ingersoll would make his name as a resident of Peoria, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and finally New York City. Yet the house of his birth remains the only Ingersoll residence that is open to the public as a memorial to him.
Ingersoll entered public life as a Peoria, Illinois, attorney. Following distinguished service in the Civil War, he served as the first Attorney General of Illinois. Politically, he allied with the Republicans, the party of Lincoln and in those days the voice of progressivism. Ingersoll's electrifying speaking voice soon made him the most sought-after speechmaker on behalf of Republican candidates and causes. His legal career was also distinguished. He mounted a successful defense of two men falsely charged in the Star Route Scandal, perhaps the most controversial, politically-charged trial of the late 19th century.
But it was his private speaking career that made him famous. Tour after tour, he crisscrossed the country and spoke before packed houses on topics ranging from Shakespeare to Reconstruction, from science to religion. In an age when oratory was the dominant form of public entertainment, Ingersoll was the unchallenged king of American orators. Ingersoll was the friend of Presidents, literary giants like Mark Twain, captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie, and leading figures in the arts. He was also beloved of reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Other Americans considered themselves his enemies. He bitterly opposed the Religious Right of his day. He was an early popularizer of Charles Darwin and a tireless advocate of science and reason. More, he argued for the rights of women and African-Americans.
Ingersoll also praised the virtues of family and fireside. And he practiced what he preached. Contemporary sources say Ingersoll enjoyed almost idyllic contentment in family life. Opponents frequently despaired of finding anything to disparage in his personal life.
Robert Ingersoll was born August 11, 1833, the youngest of five children of John and Mary Ingersoll. John Ingersoll was a Presbyterian minister. He was a man who believed, in the words of Elbert Hubbard, that "that which was pleasant was not wholly good." By all accounts a stern, uncompromising parson, John Ingersoll preached abolitionist sermons so fiery that congregations often dismissed him. Dresden's was no exception; the Ingersolls left this area before Robert was four months old. Mary Ingersoll died at thirty-one, when Robert was one and one-half years of age. Reverend Ingersoll and the five children continued to wander. During Robert's childhood, the family lived in various communities in New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Robert Ingersoll received little formal schooling. He last saw the inside of a conventional schoolroom as a youth of fifteen while his family was residing in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Later, he would say that his real education began while he was waiting at a cobbler's shop, when he chanced to pick up a book of the poetry of Robert Burns.
At last the family came to settle in Illinois. In this state Robert Green Ingersoll, now a young man, determined to seek his fortune. He had some of his father's gift for oratory, but had seen enough of the frontier preacher's life. He apprenticed himself to two lawyers, one after another, and in that way qualified himself for the practice of law.
Robert set up a law practice in the growing town of Peoria, Illinois. The law practice prospered. Both brothers became active in local politics.
In 1862 Robert Ingersoll raised the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment and was awarded the rank of Colonel. Ingersoll's regiment fought with distinction in the Battle of Shiloh. Soon after, Ingersoll was captured. As was sometimes done with officers early in the war, Ingersoll was paroled: allowed to go free on condition that he not fight again.
Ingersoll built a reputation for oratory during and after the war. In 1867 he was appointed the first Attorney General of Illinois. It was the first - and last - public office Ingersoll would ever hold. Ingersoll's speechmaking played a vital role in his brother Ebon's successful congressional campaign. In 1868 he was considered for the state's Republican gubernatorial nomination, but passed over when he would not agree to make fewer speeches on controversial subjects, from women's rights to religion.
Ingersoll was the best-known political speechmaker in 19th century America. In 1876 he gave a speech before the Republican National Convention in Cincinnati, nominating James G. Blaine for the presidency. The party nominated Rutherford B. Hayes instead, but Ingersoll's nominating speech - known ever after as the "Plumed Knight" speech - was considered for decades afterward the classic political speech of the age. Candidates sought Ingersoll's oratorical services eagerly. He campaigned for every Republican Presidential candidate but one, from Grant to McKinley. Yet because of his outspoken and controversial views, Ingersoll was never appointed to public office by any of the politicians whose election he helped to secure.
Ingersoll's law practice added to his fame. Starting in 1880, he defended Thomas J. Brady and Stephen W. Dorsey in the famous Star Route Trial. The Star Route affair, which concerned the misassignment of rural postal routes, was the Watergate scandal of its day. The nation watched Ingersoll deftly weave what would become the longest trial defense in American history. After months of testimony, Ingersoll secured acquittals for his clients. Cartoons of the time suggested that Star Route made Ingersoll rich. In fact, he was paid only with a New Mexico ranch of dubious utility.
In 1886, Ingersoll offered himself pro bono to defend Charles B. Reynolds, a prominent freethinker who had been arrested in Boonton, New Jersey under an archaic blasphemy law. Reynolds was convicted and Ingersoll paid the $50 fine himself. But so effectively had Ingersoll mocked the idea of blasphemy laws in a free society that few states have attempted a blasphemy prosecution since.
Between 1865 and 1899 Ingersoll crisscrossed the country on more than a dozen speaking tours. He would pack the largest theaters of the day at the then-substantial admission of $1 apiece. Ingersoll had numerous three- to four-hour lectures committed to memory. No human being had been seen and heard by more Americans - or would be until the advent of motion pictures, radio, and television. His subjects ranged from Shakespeare and Burns to religion, from political and moral issues to the lives of famous patriots and scientists. Among his best-known speeches were "The Gods," "Ghosts," "Humboldt," "Shakespeare," and "What Must We Do To Be Saved?"
Ingersoll was beloved by contemporary leaders in all walks of life. Among his admirers were president James Garfield, poet Walt Whitman, General Ulysses S. Grant, industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, inventor Thomas Edison, and preacher Henry Ward Beecher. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was especially impressed by Ingersoll. After hearing Ingersoll speak, he wrote his wife Olivia Langdon Clemens: "What an organ is human speech when it is employed by a master!"
Ingersoll lived in Washington, D.C. and New York City. Neither residence stands today. His New York brownstone was razed in the 1920s to make room for the Gramercy Park Hotel. Ingersoll's admirers placed a tablet honoring Ingersoll on the hotel when it opened. In later years, this tablet was vandalized and had to be removed. The Robert Green Ingersoll Memorial Committee placed a new plaque on the exterior of New York's Gramercy Park Hotel in 1988.
Ingersoll died of heart failure on July 21, 1899 at Walston, his son-in-law's palatial home in Dobbs Ferry-on-Hudson, New York. He was 65 years old. The house where Ingersoll died still stands, but it has been converted to condominiums. It is not open to the public and bears no memorial to Ingersoll. Ingersoll was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, where his large grave marker can still be seen.
Shortly after Ingersoll's death, his complete works were collected and published by his brother-in-law Clinton P. Farrell. The lavish 12-volume set was known as the "Dresden Edition," named for the town of Ingersoll's birth. The Dresden Edition went through numerous printings. Later versions include Herman Kittredge's biography of Ingersoll as the thirteenth volume.
Robert Green Ingersoll is frequently confused with two other famous Ingersolls of the nineteenth century. The Ingersoll Watch Company sold huge numbers of reliable pocket watches, typically priced at $1.00. Though Robert Ingersoll and the founder of the Ingersoll Watch Company share a common ancestor, there is no other connection between them. Robert Green Ingersoll also has no connection to the Ingersoll-Rand Company, a manufacturer of compressors and construction equipment still in operation to this day.