September 1991

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"Bob" Ingersoll

A Sketch of the Life of
America's Most Noted Agnostic


Rufus R. Wilson

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
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