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Robert G. IngersollMeditation 279
Robert G. Ingersoll

by Douglas Harper

Editor's Note: This article is republished, with the permission of the author. Douglas Harper is responsible for the Online Etymology Dictionary, which I consider to be a valuable resource, at least to those, who like me, have an interest in words. His essays on a number of subjects, in addition to religion, can be found in the site in the Sciolist section of his web site

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"I would rather be right than be president." Henry Clay said it, but if he hadn't, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll would have. It was certainly more true of Ingersoll than of Clay. He had the qualities people sought, then and now, in a leader. He had a keen, powerful mind; he was a matchless orator in an age which understood, and adored, oratory. He had led a regiment bravely in battle in the Civil War. He was honest, moral, dignified and in love with his wife and daughters. But when people encouraged him to run for president, or governor, he told them it was impossible, that he could only win votes if he would renounce his agnosticism, which he would never do. He would renounce high office rather than be false to his conception of truth. Between power and integrity there was, for him, no choice. And this disqualified him for office.

Twain idolized him. Oscar Wilde, when he came to the United States, was curious to see this man Ingersoll whose lectures were so much more in demand than his own. He attended several Ingersoll performances, and pronounced him "the most intelligent man in America." It has been written that Frederick Douglass said that, "of all the great men of his personal acquaintance, there had been only two in whose presence he could be without feeling that he was regarded as inferior to them -- Abraham Lincoln and Robert Ingersoll."

People turned out by the thousands to hear him speak -- 50,000 one night in Chicago, in the days before microphones and sound systems. Ingersoll crisscrossed an America still deeply pious, heaping scorn on the brutality of religion. By the time he died in 1899, he had probably been heard by more human beings than any other person who lived in the 19th century. Although Ingersoll launched a broad-front freethinkers assault on religious credulity, people seemed to focus on his words against the stupider aspects of Christianity, the ones that good, intelligent people had, by the late 1800s, outgrown. His sarcasm shredded the lingering bigotry in the national religion.

He held the odd status of beloved agnostic in a Christian land, in part, because this public man was so clearly living an honest, useful and loving life. His house was filled with spiritual and intellectual light, and he used a wonderful mind and a matchless personal power in the service of the good of all humanity. He frankly advocated equality for women when few men did, and he damned child abuse masquerading as parental authority. "Gentlemen," he said in one circumstance, "it isn't to have you think that I would call Christ 'an illegitimate child' which hurts me: it is that you should think that I would think any the less of Christ if I knew it was so."

His friend Walt Whitman probably captured the common view of Ingersoll when he called him, "a fiery blast for new virtues, which are only old virtues done over for honest use again." The odd thing is, Ingersoll would have been shut out of public discourse in America today. The fundamentalist movement began a few years after Ingersoll died, and the level of public and private spirituality in this country sank steadily and rapidly, unto the current level, where leading "men of faith" include Bob Jones and Jimmy Swaggart, "a cellarage only to be gazed at across the barriers of libel law."

Ingersoll's words and his life give proof to the suspicion many Americans may have, but few dare utter, that people without religion can live full, generous public lives, can have a better sense of right and wrong, than those bound up in creeds. I look forward to the day when I can cast a vote for a man as worthy as Ingersoll to be president of the United States, whether he believes in God or not. I doubt I will live to do it.

His printed works are cherished by those who can find them, and hidden away from view whenever possible by public libraries. I found a "Best of Robert Ingersoll" (from which these snippets are copied) only by sending away to Prometheus Books, 700 E. Amherst St., Buffalo, N.Y. 14215.

Selected Ingersoll Quotations