By 1870, the Dream Team of Skepticism was nearly filled out. The pantheon offered up Voltaire, the dangerous one; Thomas Paine, the popular one; Thomas Hobbes, the broody one; and Baruch Spinoza, the dreamy one. Brilliant all, assuredly, but as a group they tended to contribute to the perception that to be a religious skeptic, you had to be a bit sinister. Preachers made pew-filling hash of Voltaire’s weakness for questionable business ventures and clumsy spy work, of Paine’s last years of grubby poverty and alcoholism, of Hobbes’s dreary political philosophy, and the fact that Spinoza was, horror of horrors, Jewish. All the good they did, all the light they brought to humanity, was a mere feather against the pound of suspicion placed by the priests on the scales of public opinion.
Freethought needed an unambiguous nice guy, a normal “fellah,” somebody who lived a harmonious family life in full public view while unequivocally denying the utility of religion for upright living. A person you could point to as an ultimate living argument that goodness, and greatness too, without God was possible. The need was not long in producing the man: Robert Green Ingersoll, America’s most beloved infidel.
He was born in 1833, the first of a secular trinity of talent that invented the category of the megastar: Artemus Ward, who more or less created the modern comic lecture, was born the next year; a troublesome redhead named Samuel Clemens, who would take the world by storm as Mark Twain, the year after that. Among them, they broke the spell of early nineteenth-century revivalism, directing America’s attention to the delights of cutting satire and the acid roasting of the nation’s spiritual commonplaces. Ward created the game, Twain gave it substance, and Ingersoll perfected it, crafting a stage style that allowed him to unveil the barbarities of organized religion with so much charm and humor that, for thirty years, he was the lecture circuit’s most successful attraction.
Ingersoll brought a frontier sensibility to his talks, a love of unmasking frauds and catching out tall tales that his audiences could recognize and cheer on. His gatherings were packed, loud, unrestrained affairs—five thousand people laughing to tears while Honest Bob skewered the vanities of the preachers, the absurdities of revealed religion, and the hypocrisies of its practice. The more the churches reviled his growing influence, the more popular he became. Presidents begged him to canvass on their behalf, and to attend one of his legendary “Evenings” was to have arrived socially.
Twenty-four years before Ingersoll’s birth, Thomas Paine died insolvent and alone, forgotten by the country he had helped forge, broken for no other reason than that he questioned the moral authority and literal truth of the Bible. How was it that, half a century later, America’s greatest star was a proud and public heathen? Ingersoll’s father was an abolitionist preacher whose refusal to compromise with slavery pushed him out of congregation after congregation, with the result that Ingersoll didn’t have anything approaching a permanent home for the first three decades of his life. Never staying in one place long enough to make friends or feel secure, he naturally turned to his father’s library and the wider world of books in general. Those writings stirred his first religious doubts, but he would have gone the rest of his days believing in a wise and good God had he not married into one of the remarkable families of the nineteenth century: the Parkers.
The women of this family had a tradition of fearless atheism, and between his exposure to the Parkers’ intellectual rigor and the horrors he experienced as a colonel in the Civil War, Ingersoll worked up the courage to reject at last both God and immortality. Personally converted to nonbelief, it was yet four years after the war before he acknowledged that fact in his public speeches. In the interim, there was politics—that classic, hopelessly corrupt nineteenth-century American politics that gave us Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall. Ingersoll used his magnetic oratory to further his brother’s political career and to very nearly capture his party’s nomination for the governorship of Illinois.
The backroom dealing that cost him that nomination simultaneously turned Ingersoll permanently off a career as a politician and freed him from the need to pander to traditional religious sentiment any further. Casting off his chains, he began addressing groups of freethinkers, speaking on the Sabbath about the dangers of organized religion. He publicly celebrated Voltaire, Humboldt, Paine, and Shakespeare while jousting merrily with Moses, Jesus, and his favorite target for unanswerable scorn, Calvin. Speeches with titles such as “Some Mistakes of Moses”; “Superstition”; “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child”; “Myth and Miracle”; “The Gods”; and “Hell” packed houses throughout the North. Ingersoll argued the merits of nonbelief face-to-face rather than through the printed page, giving freethought a personal immediacy it had never known before. Imagine it: here, standing before you, was a man discounting God and Jesus as a couple of third-rate back-alley despots, someone you could shout to and who would shoot a perfectly timed zinger back—a man healthy, happy, and unafraid who somehow leaned on none of the things that you counted central to life and the afterlife.
People liked Ingersoll, even when they disagreed with him. The Western humor of his insights, his ability to trace the foibles of men through their mythical creations—the gods—couldn’t be discounted by anyone within the range of his voice. All around, the static agricultural despair that nurtured the great revivals of the early nineteenth century was giving way to the heady scientific momentum of the unfolding Gilded Age. The public knew that the near future would hold unfathomable wonders—that time was linear, not cyclic—and they needed, more than anything, a trustworthy guide for how humanity might function in this new age.
Ingersoll was, for three decades, the conductor of America’s emerging self-imagineering. He gave us the blueprint of our future selves, incorporating the feminism of Mill, the individual freedom of Paine, the sense of justice of Voltaire, and the scientific optimism of the Victorians into one bewitching concoction: the modern, secular American.
Not a profound originator of ideas, he was nonetheless a magnificent instantiation of them. Twain, Whitman, Darrow, Debs, Stanton—people as different as could be—all looked to him as the great example of how one might live and think without constantly scraping before religious scruples known to be false. The newspaper-reading public was regularly treated to accounts of his grand parties, where he and his wife and daughters happily entertained all the best people. For everyone who thought the godless couldn’t be happy, honest, or faithful, he was the towering counterexample, impossible to ignore and deeply troubling to contemplate. How necessary was religion if Ingersoll could manage such a life without it?
That’s not to say he was a slice of the twenty-first century wrapped in the woolens of the nineteenth. One of his great splits with the emerging institutions of American freethought came over the issue of pornography. When the National Liberty League, of which Ingersoll was vice president, voted to support the fight against the Comstock Laws, which prevented postal distribution of materials that mentioned human sexuality in any way (even scientific documents), Ingersoll resigned in a huff. And in his otherwise soaring tribute to his friend Walt Whitman, he took time to regret the erotic bits in Leaves of Grass. A consistent pioneer for women’s equality, Ingersoll was every bit the Victorian in matters of sexual mystification.
He was also a wretched businessman whose massive income as a lecturer was majestically pissed away in a series of disastrous investments, a flaw he shared with Mark Twain. For both men, enthusiasm for invention and progress overrode any suspicion of charlatanry at their doorstep. Still, Ingersoll evaded Twain’s humbling bankruptcy through a breakneck work schedule, touring the West and South, packing himself into late-night trains to keep to his speech-a-day pace.
That pace, coupled with Ingersoll’s love of food and cigars, eventually caught up with him in the form of a sudden angina attack in the middle of an idyllic family day, the sort of end any human might envy. The priests who had hoped for a deathbed conversion, or at least some details of tortuous pain visited upon the sinner by a wrathful god, were cheated of their last chance to make of Ingersoll a cautionary tale. From that day, he would always be America’s case study of native secular living done right, true to family, always ready to laugh at preening authority, and fearless in the face of personal obliteration. That mixture of flippancy and profundity, morality and fun, is very us, and it’s not too much to say that, on the level of day-to-day godless life, we are us because he was him.
Author’s note: American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll (1962) by Orvin Larson is still the best book to get, with equal time given to Ingersoll’s career as a political speaker, lawyer, humanist lecturer, and Civil War colonel.