- Historic Sites
Robert Ingersoll The Illustrious Infidel
He built a career and a fortune out of shocking his fellow Americans
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
When the Civil War broke out, Ingersoll became a popular speaker at war rallies, and he also turned his energies to raising a cavalry regiment later known as the Eleventh Illinois. As a colonel he commanded that regiment at Shiloh, but in December of 1862. at Lexington, Tennessee, he was captured while attempting to hold off a Confederate advance until Union reinforcements arrived. He was paroled after only a few days, as was customary in the early days of the war, and in 1863 he petitioned the War Department for permission to resign his commission and return home. “I have seen enough of bloodshed and mutilation,” he wrote his brother.
Back in Peoria, Ingersoll began to speak in favor of President Lincoln and against slavery. “I am a free man,” he declared. “I intend to live and die free, nor will I stand between a man and his freedom.” When he was pushed on the point, however, Ingersoll, like many an abolitionist before him, distinguished between what he meant when he talked about freedom for blacks and what he meant when he talked about his own. To a heckler in Pékin, Illinois, who demanded to know if he wanted freed blacks in the North, Ingersoll replied, “No, I would send them to some country by themselves.”
In the decades after the war, however, Ingersoll came to support the blacks’right to equal opportunity. He brought a black law student into his office, he helped the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar get the job he wanted at the Library of Congress, he opened his Home to blacks when hotels refused to admit them, and he spoke out. Although by now Ingersoll seldom passed up a chance to pin all the nation’s ills on the Democrats, on this issue he began to say that both parties bore blame and responsibility. To a black audience in Galesburg, Illinois, he pointed out that both Democrats and Republicans had supported the Fugitive Slave Law. When the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, Ingersoll told a Washington, D.C., audience to ignore party slogans and promises and to vote for individuals willing to protect the rights of black citizens.
As a Republican, Ingersoll managed his brother’s successful campaign for Congress, and in 1868 he himself ran for the governorship. He was defeated, and he said later that his agnosticism had adversely affected his bid. One story had it that a friend visiting Ingersoll’s office saw a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason , a book often denounced by nineteenth-century churchmen. “How much did this cost you?” the friend asked him. “The governorship of Illinois.”
Ingersoll’s feelings about politics were always somewhat ambiguous. It was, he wrote, “a low dirty scramble, through misrepresentation, slander, falsehood, and filth, and success brings nothing but annoyance & fear of defeat next time. …” Still, it was a fascinating game: “I find myself planning & scheming all the time, thinking what I will try for, and calculating the chances.” But his unsuccessful run for the governorship helped resolve his conflict. He would turn to law, lecturing, and, most of all, to his family.
During the war Ingersoll had met and married Eva Parker, a handsome, dark-haired woman who charmed her contemporaries. She came from a family distinguished both for its openhanded hospitality and for its unorthodox religious views. Friends from the East who came to visit Eva’s grandmother sometimes ended up staying for years, and while there they doubtless received strong infusions of liberal religious thinking, for the Parkers were followers of Paine and Voltaire.
The Ingersoll household reflected Eva’s upbringing as well as Robert’s generous impulses. Eva’s mother lived with them, as well as her sister, her brother-in-law, and their child. Eva and Robert had two daughters themselves, and when one of them married, the family was expanded to include the new son-in-law, with the whole entourage living some months at the Ingersolls’ and some months at the son-in-law’s estate.
Over the years scores of journalists visited the Ingersolls to report on the home life of the Great Infidel. Their rapturous accounts would strain belief, were they not so consistent. The two daughters were healthy, pleasant, intelligent girls, seldom reprimanded or refused a request. The adults treated one another with love and respect. A Galveston newsman, whose description is typical, came away talking about “the happiest home I ever saw, and … the most devoted and affectionate family I ever knew.” Not surprisingly, some of Ingersoll’s most sentimental rhetoric over the years was a paean to domestic life. “Let me tell you …,” he said, “it is far more important to build a home than to erect a church. The holiest temple beneath the stars is a home that love has built. And the holiest altar in all the wide world is the fireside around which gather father and mother and the sweet babes.”