I might have mentioned that Walt Whitman was an enormous fan and a friend of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll in fact eulogized Whitman in 1892. I recommend reading the eulogy. These are lovely words.
Understand, Ingersoll was a great reader and a lover of words. Hear what he says about discovering Shakespeare, with the same passion, the same amazement that I might elicit talking about the first time I heard Van Halen perform “Little Guitars” or Led Zeppelin do “Battle of Evermore.”
I was filled with wonder. I had never heard anything like it. I was ashamed to ask him what he was reading; I supposed that an intelligent boy ought to know. So I waited, and when the little bell rang for supper I hung back…I picked up the book; it was Sam Johnston’s edition of Shakespeare. The next day I bought a copy for four dollars. My God! More than the national debt…
That book has been a perpetual joy to me from that day to this; and whenever I read Shakespeare—if it ever happens that I fail to find some new beauty, some new presentation of some wonderful truth, or another word that bursts into blossom, I shall
make up my mind that my mental facilities are failing, that it is not the fault of the book.
Walt Whitman, not his only fan. Mark Twain worshipped Robert Ingersoll. Considered him a vital influence, in fact. More on that here, if you’re interested.
This is a man who left a tremendous, indelible crater on the American cultural landscape. He profoundly influenced the author of Connecticut Yankee and Tom Sawyer for gravity’s sake. So. Why is he not more celebrated?
Because. Even at a time that is considered a boon for enlightened and/or securlarist thinking, the going in America was pretty rocky for a nonbeliever.
Ingersoll was active in politics, but he only held office once, appointed state attorney general of Illinois in 1867. In 1876, he placed into nomination James G. Blaine for the Presidency, though another chap named Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated. Ingersoll had the qualities of a leader, but even in his own life, he knew that his position as a nonbeliever meant that his public life would be limited.
This is why, for example, he was hush-hush about his role in the Haymaker riot affair.
Here’s what happened in a nutshell: Chicago. There’s a demonstration as a protest cops shooting and killing workers in a work strike the previous day. Someone threw a bomb and killed seven policemen. Eight known as “anarchists” were rounded up and tried, though there was little proof they were even there. The attorney wanted Ingersoll on the case. After Ingersoll died, the attorney, William Black, explained in a letter to Ingersoll’s wife Eva:
“…the tocsin has already been sounded by the press and the pulpit that Anarchims is the logical fruit of Ingersollism, and that the doctrine of no God, no accounatbility to a Supreme Power, must ineitably lead to no government, no authority on earth.” Ingersoll was involved in the case, but quietly, and after sentencing, he wrote and urged Gov. Richard Oglesby for clemency, but begged the governor to keep the letter quiet.
Robert Ingersoll lived in his time knowing that his outspoken stance regarding religion was a detriment to what would have likely been a stellar career in public service. The Constitution specifically rules out a religious test for public office. But then, as now, when the current President has to constantly fend off charges that he worships Allah rather than God, we haz them. We do not, I’m afraid, separate church and state very well.
Ingersoll had it straight though, when it came to the “against theocracy” stuff. I leave you on this Easter Sunday with his words about the Founders.
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 of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.