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Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

by Susan Jacoby

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-300-13725-5
Publisher: Yale Univ.

Veteran journalist Jacoby (Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, 2011, etc.) pens less a biography than a series of sympathetic essays on the ideas of Robert Ingersoll (1833–1899), a Gilded-Age media superstar whose speeches entertained vast audiences even of those who disagreed with his agnosticism.

Enthusiastic followers included Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, Eugene Debs, Thomas Edison, Clarence Darrow and W.C. Fields, yet he has largely vanished from history. At the same time, religion—in America uniquely among developed nations—remains almost universally respected and politically influential if sometimes distressingly anti-intellectual. Largely self-educated, Ingersoll passed the Illinois bar at age 21, rising in Republican state politics to become attorney general in 1867. Despite the atheism that put elective office out of reach, his brilliant oratory kept him influential in the party, whose deference to conservative Christian beliefs did not appear for another century. While Ingersoll’s atheism filled auditoriums and provoked outraged sermons and editorials, many public stances were far ahead of his time. He denounced racism, discrimination against blacks and anti-immigration laws. He spoke out for the equality of women—not merely for the vote which preoccupied activists at the time—but for birth control and equality in marriage, education and jobs: positions no man and few women of his generation advocated. Nineteenth-century unbelievers tended toward pseudo-scientific social Darwinism, but not Ingersoll, who supported social reforms, free public education and workers' rights.

More earnest than truculent, Jacoby writes for a readership of freethinkers, but believers who stumble upon the book will find it hard to deny that, irreligion aside, Ingersoll was a thoroughly admirable figure.