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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Roscoe Conkling Ensign Brown (1867–1946)
 
INTO the Republican National Convention of 1876 went an Illinois lawyer practically unknown beyond the borders of his State. Out of it came an accepted master of oratory. In the enthusiasm of the moment, men who heard Robert G. Ingersoll’s speech placing James G. Blaine in nomination declared that “for the first time they understood the possible compass of human eloquence.” The later critic confronted only by the printed page may find it lacking in some of the highest forensic qualities. The speech dealt with no great issues greatly; its glowing eulogy had much of tinsel in it; its appeal was to emotion, not to thought; yet that appeal was so exquisitely suited to its time and place, invested with such charm of phrase and rhythm, and delivered with such attractiveness of voice and manner, that it is still remembered by those who heard it as unsurpassed among efforts of its kind. It set a new standard for nominating speeches and added the “Plumed Knight” to the political vocabulary. From that day Ingersoll was a national figure. Wherever he spoke, at the bar, on the lecture platform, in the banquet hall, beside the open grave, he held men enthralled by his striking phrases and poetic cadences. His opinions shocked thousands and his methods in expressing them shocked other thousands, but none questioned his mastery of words, or failed to confess that he “held the keys of laughter and of tears.”  1
  Few men show, in their strength and weakness, the effect of environment on the habit of the mind more clearly than he. His father was a Congregational clergyman settled in the little village of Dresden on the western bluffs of Seneca Lake, in New York, where on August 11, 1833, Robert Green Ingersoll was born. The father was an independent thinker who in the several churches to which he ministered encountered much criticism and opposition from his conservative and sometimes intolerantly ignorant parishioners. The son heard a great deal of religious controversy at a time when doctrinal disputes were the peculiar bane of American religious life, and early imbibed a hostility to the narrowness of backwoods theology. When Robert was ten years old, the family removed to Wisconsin and two years later to Illinois. There the boy received the common school education available in a country just emerging from frontier conditions. He was never a close and steady student, but a browser in every intellectual pasture that he found, an avid reader of poetry, especially a lover of Burns. His imagination kindled to the sensuous charm of words. He acquired a vast vocabulary which he used with an artist’s instinct for verbal felicity.  2
  At eighteen he began to study law and at twenty-one was admitted to the bar. He opened an office at Shawneetown, Illinois. Three years later, in 1857, he established himself at Peoria. The young lawyer turned naturally to politics in a State whose every corner had heard Lincoln and Douglas debate. He plunged into local contests as an ardent Democrat and acquired such standing while still a newcomer in the district that in 1860 he was his party’s unsuccessful candidate for Congress. Late in 1861 he organized a volunteer regiment of cavalry and went to the front as its colonel. Before he had seen much fighting General Forrest, in a raid on Corinth, captured him and part of his command. Forrest took a liking to the young Colonel and paroled him. Slowness of exchanges seemed to cut off any prospect of early service, so Ingersoll resigned his commission in 1863 and went back to the law. He had a firm grasp on legal principles, which compensated in large measure for his constitutional impatience of technicalities and close reasoning. He trusted to the power of oratory and the appeal of general principles to a jury for his success, which was considerable both in point of reputation and financial returns, though he never attained the first rank among lawyers. Under appointment from Governor Oglesby, he served as Attorney-General of Illinois from 1867 to 1869. His most conspicuous legal triumph came with his successful conduct of the defense in the Star Route Frauds trial.  3
  Long before he became known in the East, Ingersoll’s early resentment against the village theologians had developed its natural fruit in a born debater in a community of debaters. He became the militant opponent of Christianity as he understood it. The theology which he attacked was in essence the theology of the eighteenth century, which indeed was what he saw in his youth on the frontier, and he attacked it with eighteenth-century weapons—ridicule and the flippant discussion of biblical inconsistencies. He knew little of modern biblical criticism, and often misunderstood and therefore did not fairly present the other side of the case. He added nothing to the literature on the subject, but put the old conceptions of Paine and his contemporaries in form that was popular because of its wit and cleverness of expression. He had no conception of the philosophic sense which led such another questioner of creeds as Matthew Arnold to see in religious organizations, despite their faults and failures, the expression of “the most widespread effort which the human race has yet made toward perfection.” He approached discussion of the deepest things in life with the lack of reverence that belonged to the Western giant on the rough edges of society:
  “Whose blundering heel instinctively finds out
The goutier foot of speechless dignities,
Who, meeting Cæsar’s self, would slap his back,
Call him ‘Old Horse,’ and challenge to a drink.”
  4
  His speech nominating Blaine in 1876 and his campaigning for the Republican party would have made Ingersoll’s political reward natural, and his appointment as Minister to Germany was suggested. But his national reputation as an orator drew attention to him also as not merely the sharp critic, but likewise the truculent derider of religious belief. It was found impolitic to place him in high office. His views are often said to have stood in the way of his recognition. They doubtless did in this particular direction. But on the other hand they focused attention upon him so that thenceforth his slightest utterance had publicity. He went upon the lecture platform, where he earned large sums of money which he spent with the utmost generosity for men and causes that appealed to his warm sympathies. Neither disapproval of his views nor prejudice against the man prevented appreciation of his oratorical powers. As long as he lived he was able by his charm of voice, his purity of diction, his facility in phrase-making, and his easy unconventionality to hold large audiences in electrical connection with him while he played upon their hearts. If he did not win them altogether, it was because of a certain levity of thought and lack of high seriousness of judgment. Besides lecturing on his favorite religious topics, he made frequent addresses on the subjects of his greatest literary and artistic enthusiasm, Shakespeare, Burns, Whitman, and Wagner. He was in demand as an after-dinner speaker and on several occasions paid eloquent funeral tributes to his friends. Some of his most beautiful and poetic utterances were on death, which seemed ever in his mind, and his work abounds in passages, full of sentiment and sympathy,—often a single sentence or phrase,—that are strangely thrilling even in cold type.  5
  Perhaps the strongest feature of Ingersoll’s character was his optimism. It lay deeper even than his spirit of denial, which was indeed a self-confident manifestation of it. Therein he was the true product of the Western soil. Man had only to free himself from superstition and tyranny, imposed upon him to the marring of his natural virtues, in order to make a Utopia of peace and happiness and plenty. Kindly, sympathetic, full of energy, eager to be liberal, feeling quite at home in the world, Ingersoll trampled on traditional ideals without scruple in the sheer joy of iconoclasm. It was not given to him to develop any profound or original message. His was the journalistic power of making superficial knowledge interesting and impressive. His oratory was essentially rhetorical and his rhetoric has been described as the rhetoric of Corwin, not the rhetoric of Everett. It could hardly have been otherwise; for Ingersoll, like Corwin, lived in the atmosphere of the stump speech and he made stump speaking—whether on politics, religion, or literature—his own peculiar art. He loved sententious aphorisms and cast many generalizations on life and letters into epigrammatic form. His fondness for the music of words, the balanced sentence and the sensuous phrase, carried him to great lengths, and in moments of exaltation he played with assonance and often so emphasized his rhythm as to make his prose almost metrical. His literary style, like his oratory, was the art of the exuberant player on emotions who loved luxuriant phrases and cultivated the hypnotic power of words.  6
  Soon after his activities in the campaign of 1876 had given Ingersoll a national reputation, he removed from Illinois to Washington, and in 1882 settled in New York City, where he was admitted to the bar. There he made his home, practising law to some extent, but devoting most of his attention to writing and lecturing, until his death at Dobbs Ferry, New York, on July 21st, 1899. Many of his addresses, as well as a collection of fragments and “prose poems” were published during his lifetime. The best known of these are: ‘The Gods and Other Lectures’ (1876), ‘Some Mistakes of Moses’ (1879), ‘Great Speeches’ (1887), ‘Prose Poems and Selections’ (1884). A complete edition of his works including his leading political and legal addresses, his controversial articles and occasional speeches was published in twelve volumes in 1900.  7
 
 
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