Robert Ingersoll and “A New Birth of Reason”

IngersollHere is a brief excerpt from an article in The American Scholar written by Susan Jacoby. She points out that Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, inspired late-19th-century Americans to uphold the founders’ belief in separation of church and state.

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Why do some public figures who were famous in their own time become part of a nation’s historical memory, while others fade away or are confined to what is called “niche fame” on the Internet? Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), known in the last quarter of the 19th century as the Great Agnostic, once possessed real fame as one of the two most important champions of reason and secular government in American history—the other being Thomas Paine. Indeed, one of Ingersoll’s lasting accomplishments as the preeminent American orator of his era was the revival of Paine, the preeminent publicist of the American Revolution, in the historical memory and imagination of the nation.

Ingersoll emerged as the leading figure in what historians of American secularism consider the golden age of free thought—an era when immigration, industrialization, and science, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection, were challenging both religious orthodoxy and the supposedly simpler values of the nation’s rural Anglo-Saxon past. That things were never really so simple was the message Ingersoll repeatedly conveyed as he spoke before more of his countrymen than even elected public leaders, including presidents, did at a time when lectures were both a form of mass entertainment and a vital source of information.

Traveling across the continent when most Americans did not, he spread his message not only to urban audiences but also to those who had ridden miles on horseback to hear him speak in towns set down on the prairies of the Midwest and the rangelands of the Southwest. Between 1875 and his death in 1899, Ingersoll spoke in every state except Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

Known as “Robert Injuresoul” to his clerical enemies, he raised the issue of what role religion ought to play in the public life of the American nation for the first time since the writing of the Constitution, when the Founders deliberately left out any acknowledgment of a deity as the source of governmental power. In one of his most popular lectures, titled “Individuality,” Ingersoll said of Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin:

“They knew that to put God in the Constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship, or not to worship; that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man, and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality and liberty of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few”

To the question that retains its politically divisive power to this day—whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation—Ingersoll answered an emphatic no. The marvel of the Framers, he argued in an oration delivered on July 4, 1876, in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois, was that they established “the first secular government that was ever founded in this world” at a time when every government in Europe was still based on union between church and state. “Recollect that,” Ingersoll admonished his audience. “The first secular government; the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights and no more; every religion has the same rights, and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword.” A government that had “retired the gods from politics,” Ingersoll declared with decidedly premature optimism on America’s 100th birthday, was a necessary condition of progress.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

JacobySusan Jacoby is the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, published by Yale University Press (December 2012) from which this essay is adapted, as well as Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and 10 other books.

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