A Sketch of the Life of
America's Most Noted Agnostic
The Elmira Telegram, Sunday, March 16, 1890
How He Lost the Nominaton for Governor of His Adopted State in 1868.
Ingersoll's Success as a Lawyer and Lecturer.
Since this initial experience Colonel Ingersoll has never been a candidate
for an elective office. The following summer came the war, and 1862 the
young lawyer went to the front as colonel of the Eleventh Illinois cavalry.
His services as a soldier were gallant and meritorious, and he was idolized
by his men. In 1866 the war ended and, having in the meantime become a
member of the Republican party, he was appointed attorney-general of the
state. In two years he became one of the best known men in Illinois and
one of the leaders of his party. His splendid gifts as an orator, his
superb record as a soldier and his large and generous nature appealed
successfully to all classes, and when the Republican state convention
met at Peoria in 1868 to nominate a candidate for governor it was found,
although nothing had been done to organize a boom or promote his interests,
that Ingersoll was the first choice of three-fourths of the delegates.
But the colonel's heterodoxy had already become well-known, and his assaults
upon religion had made him the dearest enemy of half the preachers in
Illinois. This was the one objection to his candidacy; how to overcome
it the one question which troubled his supporters.
The convention met and organized. Ingersoll's name was presented to the
delegates. Then one of his friends arose and moved that a committee should
be appointed to wait on Colonel Ingersoll. All knew the purpose of this
committee, that before making Ingersoll the candidate it would be necessary
to secure a pledge from him that he would keep religious discussions out
of the campaign. The committee was appointed and the convention adjourned
to await its report. The committee called upon Ingersoll at his law office
and its chairman informed him that the delegates were almost unanimous
in the desire to nominate him for governor. His religious convictions
were the only obstacle in the way. These they did not ask him to renounce.
All they asked was an assurance from him that he would not discuss religious
issues during the ensuing campaign. When the chairman had finished Ingersoll
knew that the governorship of Illinois was his for the asking. Still he
did not hesitate. "Gentlemen," he said, "I am not asking to be governor
of Illinois, and it is a grave question with me whether I would accept
this nomination if offered. I have in my composition that which I have
declared to the world as my views upon religion. My position I would not,
under any circumstances, not even for my life, seem to renounce. I would
rather refuse to be president of the United States than to do so. My religious
belief is my own. It belongs to me, not to the state of Illinois. While
I believe in the right of every man to think as he pleases, yet I have
the moral honesty to declare from the housetops my convictions. I feel
deeply the interests of the Republican party, yet, gentlemen, I must say
to you again my belief is my own. I renounce nothing. I promise nothing.
I ask nothing of the convention. But rest assured that no matter whom
the Republican party nominates, you can depend upon Bob Ingersoll to take
off his coat and work for him." The committee went back to the waiting
convention and reported that, after consultation, it had been found advisable
that Ingersoll's name should be dropped from the list of candidates. The
convention accepted the report and two hours later adjourned after naming
General John M. Palmer as its candidate for governor. Colonel Ingersoll
was the most enthusiastic of all the speakers who addressed the ratification
meeting held in Peoria that evening. Some days after the convention which
witnessed the burial of Ingersolls' political hopes, a caller at his house
picked up a beautifully bound volume of Voltaire and asked what it had
cost its owner. "The governorship of Illinois." was the prompt answer.
This reply was admirable in two respects. It was terse and it was truthful.
Despite his firmly established position in Illinois it was not until
1876 that Colonel Ingersoll became a man of national prominence. The Republican
national convention of that year gave him an opportunity of the greatest
value to a brainy man, the importance of which he was quick to recognize
and profit by. He was a member of the delegation which Illinois sent to
the Cincinnati convention. The Illinois delegates were all enthusiastic
supporters of Blaine, and after the Blaine clans had begun to gather at
Cincinnati it was decided that as Illinois's turn would come early in
the call of states, an Illinois man should place Blaine in nomination.
This much settled, and the choice of an orator being left to the Illinois
delegates, it was decided, as a matter of course, that Ingersoll should
be the man. This arrangement was agreed upon several days before the opening
of the convention. Ingersoll confident of his own ability, promptly accepted
the task allotted to him, but when he told his brother Eben, who had accompanied
him to Cincinnati, of his selection, the brother urged him to decline.
Eben argued that the colonel was a comparatively unknown man, and that
if he failed in the undertaking his future would be ruined. When Eben
saw, however, that the colonel was determined to go ahead, he concluded
to make the best of what he considered a hazardous undertaking and earnestly
urged his brother to at once commence the preparation of his speech. But
there was much beside burning the midnight oil to attract one's time and
attention in those June days and nights in Cincinnati, and between earnest
urging on the part of the brother and repeated excuses on the part of
the orator, time passed and the evening preceding the convention came.
It was nearly midnight when Colonel Ingersoll, who had spent the evening
with the "boys," returned to the apartments which he and his brother occupied.
As yet not a line of the speech which he was to deliver in a few hours
under the most trying conditions had been put on paper. Once more Eben
Ingersoll begged and plead with him to at once fall to work upon it, but
the colonel still procrastinated. He was tired and sleepy; after a good
night's rest he would feel more like work. The brothers went to bed and
both were soon asleep. Suddenly the colonel awoke. It was still dark,
but he felt thoroughly rested and all his faculties were clear and alert.
Dressing quietly and closing the door softly behind him he went into the
adjoining room and lit the gas. A glance at his watch showed that it was
3 o'clock. He sat down and with closed eyes drew a mind picture of the
great assemblage which he was soon to address. Then he turned over and
over in his mind the sentiments which would the most easily sway and influence
such an audience. This done, the hardest part of his task was behind him.
He drew up to the table and rapidly wrote down the thoughts he had been
turning over in his mind. When he had finished he read the manuscript
over slowly and carefully several times, and laid it aside. Then he again
looked at his watch. It was 6 o'clock. In three hours he had commenced
and finished his speech and committed it to memory. He again retired and
in five minutes was sleeping soundly. His brother's rest had not been
broken by his movements. About 9 o'clock he was aroused by Eben's shaking.
"Get up Bob," said the latter. "What are you thinking of? The convention
meets in two hours and you haven't done any thing toward your speech yet.
Do you want to make a show of yourself?"
"Let's have some breakfast first," said the colonel calmly as he arose
and pulled on his clothes.
"No sir," replied Eben firmly: you shan't go out of this room until you
have prepared your speech."
"All right then: as you're bound to have your own way see how this will
suit you." And with his brother for an audience the colonel proceeded
to deliver the speech he had written out a few hours before, and whose
force, timeliness and passionate eloquence were to make him famous in
a day. Eben was amazed and delighted. "When did you write it?" He finally
asked. "Oh, last night, while you were asleep," was the careless reply.
That evening before the convention Ingersoll was superb. His oration was
a revelation to the great majority of his auditors. All which preceded
and followed it was tame in comparison. Save for the sudden turning out
of the lights in the convention hall and the fierce attacks upon Blaine
in the Republican journals of Cincinnati next morning, it would have led
to the Maine statesman's nomination.
Hayes was nominated instead of Blaine, but in the ensuing campaign, Ingersoll's
services as a speaker were in constant demand, as they have been in every
national campaign since. Hayes offered him the Berlin mission in 1877,
but he refused it having resolved never again to be an officeholder. Between
1876 and 1880, he traveled and lectured almost constantly. His lecturing
tours cemented the reputation as an orator his Cincinnati speech had given
him and also made him the best known of American agnostics. On Memorial
Day 1877, he delivered an oration at Indianapolis, which again showed
him to be an orator of the first order, and which has since become a household
favorite. It was upon this oration, the colonel says, that he was paid
the compliment to him the most pleasing he ever received. "It was up in
Wisconsin during a presidential campaign," said he in referring to the
incident not long ago. "The Republican committee had printed that
part of my Indianapolis address which begins 'The past rises before me
like a dream,' on three sheet posters and pasted the posters up all over
the town. Strolling about the town, I came upon an old farmer who was
reading one of the posters. I went up to him, and asked him what he thought
of it, at the same time inferring that I regarded it as pretty poor stuff.
He whirled around as quick as a flash and asked if I had read it. I told
him I had. 'Well then,' said he, 'all I have got to say is that the man
who has read it and doesn't think it is the best thing he ever saw is
an infernal scoundrel.' And this honest old farmer's remark," concluded
the colonel with a hearty laugh, "I consider the highest compliment that
was ever paid me." Some ten years ago, Colonel Ingersoll removed to Washington
and again entered actively upon the practice of his profession. While
a resident of the capital he was the leading counsel in the Star Route
and other important cases. His more recent successes in New York are well
known. During the last few years he has come to be recognized as one of
the foremost corporation lawyers in the country. His means are ample and
he is one of the most generous and charitable of men. In his giving he
is one of those who never permit the left hand to know what the right
is doing, but, his benefactions are countless. His duties as a lawyer
now completely absorb his attention, but he finds time to keep fully abreast
with current thought and says that it is the ambition of his life to devote
himself wholly to writing and lecturing. He is always thinking and always
at work, and as a result as a writer and speaker he is never uneven or
uncertain. He had highly developed the faculty of thinking upon his feet
and is one of the best of extempore speakers. The amount of work
which he can accomplish in a given time is wonderful. He employs a stenographer
in the preparation of his briefs, argument, lectures and articles for
the press and turns them off with amazing rapidity. His celebrated reply
to Judge Jere Black, published in the North American Review a
few years ago, was dictated to a stenographer in three hours and printed
word for word as it was first dictated. His powerful lecture on "What
is Blasphemy," written and delivered in reply to the attacks made upon
him by T. Dewitt Talmage, was prepared in an equally brief time. Colonel
Ingersoll takes his stenographer with him wherever he goes, and works
oblivious of his surroundings whether on a train, at a hotel, at a dinner
table or in his own office. As I said before, despite the rapidity with
which he works, a uniform excellence characterizes all that he does. This
is because his mind is never at rest. As an orator he has gained dignity
and scope with years without losing any of his old-time force and power.
Some of his recent orations, notably that upon Roscoe Conkling, delivered
a couple of years ago, with the elimination of a word here and there,
resolve themselves into sonorous and stately blank verse.