(From Council for Secular Humanism)

About_Biography_picRobert Green Ingersoll is too little known today. Yet he was the foremost orator and political speechmaker of late 19th century America – perhaps the best-known American of the post-Civil War era.

Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York in 1833. His father was a Presbyterian minister who changed congregations often. The Ingersolls left Dresden when the baby Robert was less than four months old. Ingersoll would make his name as a resident of Peoria, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and finally New York City. Yet the house of his birth remains the only Ingersoll residence that is open to the public as a memorial to him.

Ingersoll entered public life as a Peoria, Illinois, attorney. Following distinguished service in the Civil War, he served as the first Attorney General of Illinois. Politically, he allied with the Republicans, the party of Lincoln and in those days the voice of progressivism. Ingersoll’s electrifying speaking voice soon made him the most sought-after speechmaker on behalf of Republican candidates and causes. His legal career was also distinguished. He mounted a successful defense of two men falsely charged in the Star Route Scandal, perhaps the most controversial, politically-charged trial of the late 19th century.

But it was his private speaking career that made him famous. Tour after tour, he crisscrossed the country and spoke before packed houses on topics ranging from Shakespeare to Reconstruction, from science to religion. In an age when oratory was the dominant form of public entertainment, Ingersoll was the unchallenged king of American orators. Ingersoll was the friend of Presidents, literary giants like Mark Twain, captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie, and leading figures in the arts. He was also beloved of reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Other Americans considered themselves his enemies. He bitterly opposed the Religious Right of his day. He was an early popularizer of Charles Darwin and a tireless advocate of science and reason. More, he argued for the rights of women and African-Americans.

Ingersoll also praised the virtues of family and fireside. And he practiced what he preached. Contemporary sources say Ingersoll enjoyed almost idyllic contentment in family life. Opponents frequently despaired of finding anything to disparage in his personal life.