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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
That summer’s Republican convention was in Cincinnati. It was a hot June, and the convention delegates were stupefied by the heat in the sweltering convention hall. Water was being carried around in horse buckets and doled out in tin cups. People were fanning themselves or trying to find solace in tobacco plugs and well-chewed cigar ends as lngersoll mounted the platform. But when he began to speak, the stupor of the convention hall cleared away, for he used the one set of images sure to start a Republican’s adrenaline flowing. He equated Blaine’s performance in Congress with the Union’s (i.e., the Republicans’) victory in the Civil War; he equated Blaine’s enemies with the South’s (i.e., the Democrats’) infamy. “This is a grand year,” lngersoll intoned, “a year filled with recollections of the Revolution; filled with proud and tender memories of the past … a year in which the people call for the man who has preserved in Congress what our soldiers won upon the field; a year in which they call for the man who has torn from the throat of treason the tongue of slander—for the man who has snatched the mask of Democracy from the hideous face of rebellion; for the man who, like an intellectual athlete, has stood in the arena of debate and challenged all comers, and who is still a total stranger to defeat.
“Like an armed warrior, like a plumed knight, James G. Blaine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen foreheads of the defamers of his country and the maligners of his honor. For the Republican party to desert this gallant leader now, is as though an army should desert their general upon the field of battle …
“Gentlemen of the convention, in the name of the great Republic, the only republic that ever existed upon this earth; in the name of all her defenders and of all her supporters; in the name of all her soldiers living; in the name of all her soldiers dead upon the field of battle, and in the name of those who perished in the skeleton clutch of famine at Andersonville and Libby, whose sufferings he so vividly remembers, Illinois—Illinois nominates for the next President of this country, that prince of parliamentarians—that leader of leaders—James G. Blaine.”
The hall went wild. There was a tumult of applause, a mad waving of fans, hats, and handkerchiefs. The effect, declared the Chicago Times , “was indescribable. The coolest-headed in the hall were stirred to the wildest expression.”
With his “plumed knight” speech, Ingersoll gave Blaine a nickname that would stick with him throughout his career, and he almost gave him the nomination as well. But when Blaine’s supporters, trying to ride on the momentum Insersoll had created, reauested that the convention go into night session, they were told that the hall’s gaslights were unsafe. The convention was adjourned, and the spell weis broken. The next day the Republican party nominated the dark horse Rutherford B. Hayes.
At the request of both Hayes and Blaine, lngersoll went on the stump for the Republicans. He spoke to twenty thousand in Elkhart, Indiana, twenty-five thousand in Cleveland, thirty thousand in Chicago, and now he pulled out all the stops. The “plumed knight” speech seemed subtle by comparison as lngersoll declared: “I claim that the Democratic party embraces within its filthy arms the worst elements in American society. I claim that every enemy that this Government has had for twenty years has been and is a Democrat … every State that seceded from this Union was a Democratic State. … The man that shot Lincoln was a Democrat. And every man that was glad of it was a Democrat.”
Ingersoll’s rabid partisan speeches have been a source of embarrassment to his advocates over the years, and there have been various attempts to explain them away. It has been argued, for example, that such speeches reflected his bitter and deep-seated hatred of slavery, but that argument loses force in the light of Ingersoll’s own admissions that the black issue, like the female issue, transcended party.
A certain historical perspective does need to be brought to bear, however. When lngersoll spoke, he was not addressing the nation, as politicians do now. He was addressing partisan gatherings, and audiences wanted and encouraged the most outrageous overstatements. They also delighted in the rhetorical games lngersoll played. An lngersoll speech reported in the Cincinnati Commercial in 1880 is a case in point. Probably with the sly wink that cartoonists were beginning to use to identify “Pope Bob,” lngersoll said: “I admit that the Republican party is not altogether good. [Laughter.] I admit, and you will wonder at my candor, that the Democratic party is not altogether bad. [Renewed laughter.] I admit that the Democratic party in its great and splendid effort to do wrong has sometimes by mistake done right. [Laughter and applause.]”