The Ghosts Among Us
By Fred Mittag
“The Great Agnostic”
Robert Green Ingersoll
A young man approached a guest in a hotel lobby. He told him, “I am traveling for a tobacco house and have been in very poor luck. I haven’t made a decent living for my wife and little family. Will you allow my firm to name a brand of cigars for you? I’m sure they would sell like hot cakes.” The reply from the hotel guest was, “No objection, if you make it a good, honest cigar.” Whereupon the young man asked, “Once more, Colonel, will you give me a ‘sentiment’ to accompany the brand?” The colonel replied, “Very well, how will this do: Let us smoke in this world, not in the next?” The young man went on his way rejoicing.
Two years later, he came from New York to Washington to thank the colonel for his goodness. “The cigar has sold all over the country and my commissions have amounted to hundreds and hundreds of dollars; in fact, Colonel, you have put me on my feet and on the way to comfort and success in life.”
Who was this man whose very name could make a successful career for a cigar representative? He was the most famous American you never heard of. He was Robert Ingersoll. He was a prodigy and became a lawyer at age 20. He was a voracious reader and had a photographic memory. He loved poetry and wrote memorable verse. Ingersoll was an abolitionist and fought in the Civil War as a colonel. And he was the greatest orator of the 19th century. His speaking appearances drew packed houses, with standing room only.
Ingersoll was called “The Great Agnostic.” He worshipped only natural law, and completely rejected supernatural beliefs and religions based on them. People paid to hear him say this. Many preachers called him names like “barking dog” and “blasphemer.”
The Republican Party of Illinois asked Ingersoll to run for governor. He would have been a shoo-in, but they required that he promise to refrain from any reference to his atheism. He had long attacked Christian theology and told them he would not cease doing so and thereby compromise his integrity. In those days, the governorship of Illinois was an almost certain step to the presidency of the United States.
Ingersoll said that he didn’t understand how one could live in possession of great wealth when thousands were starving. He had a huge income from his lectures and law practice. He gave the bulk of this to charity.
Ingersoll loved his family and said a husband’s most important duty was the happiness of his wife and children. He was a fierce fighter for women’s right to vote, although he didn’t live to see it happen. He said that children are humans and should be treated as such. He thought the biblical “spare the rod and spoil the child” was barbaric. He said any man who has to whip his children should not have children.
The former slave, Frederick Douglass, was to speak in Peoria, Illinois, and confided to a white friend his fear that he would not be able to find lodging for a black person, and it was freezing cold. The white friend told him, I know a man who will take you in at any hour of the night. He is Robert Ingersoll. Douglass was able to find lodging, but was eager to meet such a man as Ingersoll. Douglass said, “Of all the great men of his personal acquaintance, there had been only two in whose presence he could be without the feeling that he was regarded as inferior to them – Abraham Lincoln and Robert Ingersoll.
Ingersoll was a friend of Walt Whitman and delivered the eulogy for Whitman’s funeral. Mark Twain practically worshipped Ingersoll, as did Thomas Edison. And when Oscar Wilde came to America, he attended some lectures by Ingersoll and declared him “the most intelligent man in America.”
When Ingersoll died, there were eulogies and obituaries all over the world, including Mexico. One of them said, “Ingersoll was doubtless known to more people than any other American. His death probably brought genuine grief to more hearts than has that of any other individual in our history. The eulogy at his funeral was titled “Ingersoll the Magnificent.”
Robert Ingersoll reached more Americans than anybody until radio and television. He was the leading voice for the advancement of atheism, agnosticism, and free thought in 19th century America. It seems odd that he should be so forgotten in today’s history books – maybe a Bible Belt conspiracy hatched in Texas?