Robert Green Ingersoll’s ‘Solutions’ to Postbellum Economic Inequality

Mark Kolsen

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) has stumped historians. Biographer David Anderson states that Ingersoll was a “conservative and patriot … [not] versed in the social and economic controversies of the day.” He acknowledges that Ingersoll “taught men to question … the rationale behind the rise of nineteenth-century capitalism.” And he briefly mentions Ingersoll’s comparison of industrialists to a “mean and cruel clan.” However, Anderson devotes his book to Ingersoll’s criticism of religion and literary figures such as Burns and Shakespeare. He says little about Ingersoll’s many thoughts on postbellum nineteenth-century economic inequality.

The same is true of Orvin Larson’s entertainingly detailed biography of Ingersoll. On several occasions, he notes Ingersoll’s fierce opposition to slavery. And in his brief chapter on Ingersoll’s response to the Haymarket Affair, Larson concedes that Ingersoll “knew of the pitiless exploitation of labor.” But he devotes only a few sentences to Ingersoll’s solutions to the problem and then quickly dismisses them. Instead, Larson emphasizes that Ingersoll fiercely opposed socialists and anarchists. Often Ingersoll is said to favor protectionism, but Larson never probes Ingersoll’s humanistic logic for that position.

According to Susan Jacoby, Ingersoll—“the Great Agnostic”—“held opinions that sometimes seemed contradictory even to contemporaries who deeply admired his opposition to religion.” Jacoby herself is puzzled by “the seeming inconsistency between his own place in the tradition of secular humanism pioneered by [Thomas] Paine and his close personal relations with many social Darwinists.” To Jacoby, how could a well-to-do diehard Republican such as Ingersoll express so much sympathy for America’s working class? In an era when friends such as Henry Ward Beecher “made god sound like a social Darwinist,” how could Ingersoll advocate better pay, an eight-hour workday, better working conditions, and limits on land ownership? How is it possible that Eugene Debs—the socialist “whose view on politics and economics could not have been farther [sic] from the allegiances of the wealthy”—was “captivated” by Ingersoll’s ideas?

In my view, while Ingersoll was a well-to-do Republican who mingled with the upper crust, he was, at heart, a secular humanist who was, like many humanists today, deeply frustrated by the economic inequality and dire poverty that plagued late-nineteenth-century America. As he observed the increasing suffering of the working class—especially women and children—Ingersoll occasionally attributed poverty to the idleness of the poor and their failure to elect sympathetic government officials. Mostly, however, he blamed government and capitalists for inequality and offered radical ideas that occasionally prompted newspapermen to ask “Mr. Ingersoll, are you a socialist?” His answer was “No,” but on one occasion, he came tantalizingly close to endorsing working-class strikes and even a revolution. In the end, Ingersoll—a firm believer in peaceful change—concluded that greater equality could be achieved only when both capital and labor became “civilized” and recognized that it was in their best interests to treat each other fairly. In our highly stratified society, his humanistic stance might seem naive, but at least Scandinavian nations have, through the “Nordic Model,” employed many of Ingersoll’s ideas.

Ingersoll always denied he favored socialism, which in an 1887 essay he defined as not merely government ownership and control of the means of production but ownership of all aspects of citizens’ lives, even of citizens’ children! A socialist government, Ingersoll posited, would destroy all individuality; it would dictate people’s food, clothing, housing, and leisure. To Ingersoll, under socialism every person would sacrifice all liberty and “simply be a citizen of a large penitentiary”; “all would be slaves.” Although he never explained the source of this rather extreme definition, it clearly reflects Ingersoll’s conservative fear of government’s excessive role in people’s lives, as well as his recollection of government’s inability to free slaves. In his works, he occasionally criticized those who believe government can solve social problems. For example, in his same 1887 essay, he pointed to the ineffectiveness of federal antitrust legislation and declared that the best laws are those “that are repealed.” During interviews with the New York press, he said he wanted government to do little more than protect life and property, enforce contracts, and punish criminals. And in response to questions about Henry George’s “socialist” campaign, he posited that if working people gained power, they would then see “how little … can be done by law.” At best, he said, government can regulate mine conditions, regulate child labor, and shorten the workweek.

Government should have a limited role in society, yet Ingersoll often blamed the United States government for the abject poverty that so haunted him. In his 1886 address to the Secular Union of New York, he began by stating, “There is something wrong in a government when they who do the most have the least.” In his 1878 essay on “Hard Times and the Way Out,” Ingersoll said: “That is a wretched government where the honest and industrious beg, unsuccessfully, for the right to toil. … If everything is to be left to the blind and heartless working of the laws of supply and demand, why have governments?” And in an 1895 Reunion Address, he declared that “Something must be done for labor … I believe in a strong government protecting the poorest and the richest.”

To Ingersoll, what government could do about inequality depended on the issue. As unemployment rose after the Panic of 1873, Ingersoll argued that instead of government tossing the “idle” urban poor into prison, “thousands must be taken from the crowded streets, away from the influences of filth and want, to the fields and forests of the West and South.” Government should facilitate this “distribution of products and distribution of men” by improving harbors and ports and dredging the Mississippi so that it could “bear the commerce of millions.” All ships should be put to sail. Railroads such as the Northern Pacific and Texas Pacific should be pushed to completion, and all territories should be open to immigration. To open markets for the new immigrants, Ingersoll advocated government trade deals with Japan and China.

But he thought government should do even more. As Susan Jacoby has observed, “no dedicated plutocrat” would have proposed, as Ingersoll also did in 1878, that government use its power of eminent domain to acquire private property not being used personally by its owners. According to Ingersoll, too much wealth was a “curse,” especially given America’s intolerable inequality: “The granaries bursting, and famine looking into the doors of the poor! Millions of everything, and yet millions wanting everything, and having substantially nothing.” Land expropriation (with compensation to previous owners) would create jobs for the poor and provide new opportunities to many urban artisans—such as shoemakers—who were losing their jobs to “machines.” To discourage ownership of unused land, Ingersoll proposed a progressive tax on land ownership, as well as a progressive estate tax: 20 percent for inheritors of $5 million, 30 percent on $10 million, and 40 percent on $20 million.

Ingersoll may have thought that “land reform” would also offer an incentive for young people to farm. In his 1877 essay “About Farming in Illinois,” he lamented that younger people were moving from farms to cities, often seeking “not real” but “menial” office jobs. To Ingersoll, “It is a thousand times better to be a whole farmer than part of a mechanic. It is better to till the ground and work for yourself than to be hired by corporations. Every man should endeavor to belong to himself.” He thought farming even preferable to becoming the U.S. president, who, subject to public whims and pressure from special interests, had little “independence” and “self-respect.” In 1895, Ingersoll also stated that America’s wealth of arable land could support more immigration and, in the end, a national population of 500 million.

Although Ingersoll favored land redistribution, he never suggested that capitalists be mandated to pay a minimum or living wage, which in 1878 he defined as a wage enabling a worker to have “the comforts of life” as well as “a little something for his declining years,” such as his own home and “his own fireside.” In fact, in 1887 he made clear that government could not enact laws to ensure that comfort: “It appears to be impossible to fix wages—just as impossible to fix the values of all manufactured things, including works of art … law is not a creative force. … to fix the price of labor would require wisdom of god. Law can regulate working conditions but not wages.” Higher wages cut profits, and Ingersoll often stressed how capital’s profits benefited labor: “… the prodigality of the rich is the providence of the poor” or “the best form of charity is extravagance”; to wit, his own “trickle-down theory” by which consumption by the wealthy creates jobs for the poor.

On the other hand, Ingersoll said, government should enact tariffs to protect American manufacturers—and especially workers—from foreign competition. To Ingersoll, “If we prefer that Americans should make what Americans want … there ought to be an obstruction. … Millions and millions of people are this day earning their bread by reason of protection, and they are better housed and better fed and better clothed than any other workmen on the globe.” Ingersoll feared that free trade would only benefit capitalists in nations such as England, where employers pay “as little as they can” and where workers work “like beasts and with beasts.” Under free trade, American manufacturing would disappear, and the nation would revert to being a supplier of raw materials to Europe, requiring only low-wage unskilled labor. In his 1896 “Gold Speech,” Ingersoll put it this way: “A nation that sells only raw material will grow ignorant and poor; a nation that manufactures will grow intelligent and rich. … The steamship is worth $500,000 but the raw material is not worth 10,000.”

Throughout much of his life, Ingersoll thought his policy recommendations could be enacted if working people would only vote for progressive legislators. In many newspaper interviews, speeches, and writings, he stated that despite their economic inequality, “Poverty and wealth have the same power at the ballot-box … the laboring people are largely in the majority … if there are laws oppressing them, they should have them repealed.” To those who argued that capital and legislators conspired to keep wages low, Ingersoll replied, “There should be no complaint in a country where the poor are a majority and therefore have the right to make the laws … in our country the people have the power … .” There can therefore be “no widespread conspiracy.”

Ingersoll’s championing of the ballot as a solution to inequality can seem naive, given that women and Native Americans could not yet vote, and state-imposed barriers discouraged blacks and immigrants from voting. And as Larson observed, on one level Ingersoll’s “ballot solution” seems “very good, but what if the poor while using the ballot starved to death?” Even more curious is that Ingersoll was a lawyer and onetime Illinois attorney general who—in David Anderson’s words—thought the law an “instrument for the perpetuation of injustice, a means for enslaving the weak for the benefit of the strong.” Yet he never acknowledged that although white working males greatly increased their role in local and state legislatures during the latter half of the nineteenth century, their attempts to rein in capital’s power usually were nullified in the courts. According to David Montgomery, “In the North the most effective agency for circumventing the power of working people was the judiciary … elected legislators played a very minor role in determining the legal meaning of the labor contract. The courts played a decisive role.” Of course, the same was true of the federal courts, which, before 1937, consistently blocked any federal efforts to regulate the labor contract.

But after the 1886 Haymarket Riots, Ingersoll took a harder line against capitalists and politicians. In 1887, he admitted that it was a “mistake” to believe that legislatures and the judiciary could mitigate inequality: “In our country, legislators are for the most part controlled by those who, by their wealth and influence, elect them … .” He argued that “chiefs, priests and kings” had been replaced not by “the consent of the governed” but by “corporations, monopolists and politicians. … We are forced to admit that even universal suffrage cannot clothe and feed the world.” The following year, in an 1888 interview with the New York World, he said, “Nothing is more terrible than to see the rich living on the work of the poor” and compared textile factory owners to “hyenas and jackals” exploiting seamstresses. He criticized capitalists who donated money for missionary work in India and China, given that “the question of [better] wages for women is much more important.” He rued that the poor were “unorganized, without the means to act in concert, and for that reason become the prey of combinations and trusts … .”

In 1887, Ingersoll offered his most radical thoughts on inequality. He stated that when all the forces of capitalism and government combine against working people, they have the right to “consult and combine,” and he said that “When the poor combine, it is a ‘conspiracy.’ If they act in concert, if they really do something, it is a ‘mob.’ … Why should not the laborers combine for the purpose of controlling the executive, legislative and judicial departments?” With this implicit recognition of unions’ rights, Ingersoll warned capital of even worse consequences as working class people responded to their “agony”: “There are times when mendicants become revolutionists, when a rag becomes a banner, under which the noblest and bravest battle for their rights.” Three years later, in “Eight Hours Must Come!,” Ingersoll warned that if government did not protect workers from capitalists demanding “as many hours as human nature can bear,” then “nobody can blame them for keeping on striking till they get to eight hours.” He added that public education was enlightening workers: “Working people may take their hats off their heads to the priests, but they keep their brains in their head for themselves. … Under these circumstances there must be a revolution.”

Working people might justifiably revolt, but Ingersoll always insisted that “The great questions between capital and labor must be settled peaceably. There is no excuse for violence and no excuse for contempt and scorn.” In 1890, he declared that “Neither labor nor capital should resort to force.” And in 1895, he argued that when strikes created a “mob spirit,” then presidents have the right to intervene: “… we want a government of law. We do not want labor questions settled by violence and blood.” How, then, would the conflict ever be solved, given Ingersoll’s recognition that government usually sided with capital against labor? In 1895, shortly after Grover Cleveland and federal troops smashed the nationwide Pullman Strike and arrested Eugene V. Debs, it seemed facile for Ingersoll to preach, “The interest of the employer and employee should be one.”

But if Ingersoll believed anything, he believed that people can become “civilized” and that a civilized man will understand “he cannot be perfectly happy while anybody else is miserable.” In 1896, three years before his death, he proclaimed his great faith in employers “gradually becoming civilized, gradually becoming kinder” and pointed to the millions they gave to charity, as well as workers’ increase in wages from $285 per year in 1860 to $500 in 1896 (though only 45 percent of American workers earned above $500, which was the poverty line then). He also thought that because it reduced crime as well as the need for hospitals, asylums, and other public institutions, “The time will come when the whole community will see that [economic] justice is economical.” In short, Ingersoll’s “final solution” to inequality was the “intellectual light” that will make employers realize they should pay the “full value of labor,” because the law of supply and demand “does not work.” And working people will come to understand that, like them, the rich “are caught in a net of circumstance” and “are as generous as the poor would be if they should change places.”

In the 1890s and perhaps even today, Ingersoll’s solution to inequality sounded idealistic, if not utopian. But after long periods of labor unrest in the 1970s and 1980s, Scandinavian countries adopted a “Nordic Model” that embodies Ingersoll’s prescription for how labor and capital can mitigate inequality. As the Huffington Post has reported, when the Nordic Model was conceived, “business owners and union heads determined to work together on mutually beneficial agreements that avoided strikes and work disruption.”1 In Sweden, for example, “the right to unite” is a given for workers: 70 percent belong to unions. Government, however, sets no minimum wage and plays little role in negotiations between labor and capital, other than through the “Co-Determination at Work Act” of 1976, which established “a number of more general requirements” that guide negotiations between capital and labor.

The Swedish model emphasizes mutual respect and understanding. If an employer plans to make any “significant changes” to working conditions, it has a duty to negotiate and bargain “before any decisions are taken.” This does not mean unions can veto management decisions; management still holds the “ultimate right to manage.” It simply means that—consistent with Ingersoll’s prescription—labor and capital must respect each other’s role and use reason to settle disputes in a “civilized manner.” They must openly share information. Unions must understand that employers need to stay competitive; to facilitate that understanding, an employer must give its union members access to corporate documents, including those detailing its “general economic situation, production levels and personnel policy” as well as those addressing “purchasing policies, investment, marketing and research.”

Although it’s not perfect, the Swedish model works: “Typically problems will be settled between local union representatives and local management on a day-to-day basis.” Huffington Post reports that even retail workers are “highly satisfied with their tasks, managers and colleagues, as well as highly committed to the success of the stores and relatively satisfied with pay, training efforts and opportunities for advancement.” And employers “are just as interested in having collective agreements as employees, because they like the certainty of negotiations and systems that are stable and universal.” According to Sweden’s National Mediation Office, from 2010 to 2017, Sweden experienced an average of one strike per year. And—perhaps most importantly—compared to other European Union nations, “Nordic countries … are characterized by a rather low degree of income inequality and relatively high degree of social mobility.” Sweden itself, Huffington Post reports, has “one of the lowest levels of income inequality in the Western world.”

Of course, the Nordic Model operates in a complex world economy that Robert Green Ingersoll could never have imagined. And the road from 1899 to the Nordic Model involved (in the words of Sidney Lens) “labor wars,” which cost many lives—and which flare up in the United States and other nations even today. But Ingersoll’s observations about, and solutions for, economic inequality demonstrate that he passionately criticized economic exploitation, as well as religion, and that thoughtful men/women offer us worthwhile ideas today, regardless of their economic class or time in history.


Further Reading

  • Anderson, David D. Robert Ingersoll. Michigan: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
  • Jacoby, Susan. The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. New Haven: Yale, 2013.
  • Larson, Orvin P. American Infidel, Robert G. Ingersoll. New York: Citadel Press, 1962.


  1. All Huffington Post quotes come from Sunny Freeman, “What Canada Can Learn From Sweden’s Unionized Retail Workers,” Huffpost, March 18, 2015.

Mark Kolsen

Mark Kolsen lives in Chicago and has been a regular contributor to American Atheist Magazine.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) has stumped historians. Biographer David Anderson states that Ingersoll was a “conservative and patriot … [not] versed in the social and economic controversies of the day.” He acknowledges that Ingersoll “taught men to question … the rationale behind the rise of nineteenth-century capitalism.” And he briefly mentions Ingersoll’s comparison of industrialists …

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