- 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
After his marriage to Eva, whom Ingersoll called “a woman without superstition,” he began to explore in depth the writings of men like John Draper, Auguste Comte, and Voltaire. But it was not until the 1868 gubernatorial race extinguished l his desire for elective office that he began to deliver the outspoken lectures that would later make him famous across the nation. In “The Gods,” for example, he told his audiences that men had always created a divinity in their own image: “He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power. Each god was intensely patriotic, and detested all nations but his own.” Generally these gods were “revengeful, savage, lustful, and ignorant,” Ingersoll declared, and Jehovah was no exception to this pattern. But because man was no longer so brutal and ignorant as he had once been, the days of Jehovah and his ilk were numbered: “The people are beginning to think, to reason and to investigate. Slowly, painfully, but surely, the gods are being driven from the earth. Only upon rare occasions are they, even by the most religious, supposed to interfere in the affairs of men. … As a general thing, the gods have stopped drowning children, except as a punishment for violating the Sabbath. … In wars between great nations, the gods still interfere; but in prize fights, the best man with an honest referee, is almost sure to win.”
Ingersoll also began to speak out about women’s rights. In 1870, appearing on a platform with Susan B. Anthony, he resolved that the gathering should pledge itself, “irrespective of party, to use all honorable means to make the women of America the equals of men before the law.” And his beliefs about women’s rights began to appear in his lectures on religion: “Nearly every religion has accounted for all the devilment in the world by the crime of woman,” he noted. “As long as woman regards the Bible as the charter of her rights, she will be the slave of man. The Bible was not written by a woman. Within its lids there is nothing but humiliation and shame for her.”
Ingersoll did not, however, always speak about the rights of women in ways likely to elicit feminist approval. He sometimes tended to be of the put-her-on-a-pedestal school, regarding woman as the “sanctuary of all the virtues” and asserting, “She has all the rights I have and one more, and that is the right to be protected.” But he was educable on the issue. Although “short-haired women who denounce the institution of marriage” were always too much for him, he finally accepted the idea that a woman might not want to be protected. “The new woman is looking out for herself,” he said. “I am on her side.” Once when Dr. Mary Walker, the Civil War surgeon, appeared at his house in bloomers, Ingersoll, who was famous for never turning anyone away, asked her to leave. But eventually he came around. Woman should wear whatever makes them comfortable, he said later, adding that it was absurd to think bloomers were immodest.
“The holiest temple,” lngersoll said, “is a home love has built.”
It was the centennial election that catapulted Ingersoll to national prominence. The Republican senator James G. Blaine of Maine had noted Ingersoll’s forensic talents, and 1876 found Blaine much in need of them, for his name had been touched with scandal. In 1869, as Speaker of the House, Blaine had saved the land grant of the Fort Smith and Little Rock Railroad, and then he had sold bonds on commission for the railway. The Democratic House of Representatives decided to launch an investigation. Much of the evidence as to the propriety of Blaine’s connection with the railroad was in a group of letters Blaine had written, but Blaine chose not to make full transcripts of those letters available. Instead he appeared before the House and read selectively from them, and so effectively did he read that he was given an enthusiastic ovation.
Still, his name was tainted, and at a time when the nation was rocking from disclosures of official corruption in the Grant administration, Blaine needed a nominating speech that could turn his difficulties to advantage, and he asked lngersoll to deliver it for him.