Ingersoll Sunday: Eight Hours Must Come

I’ve been reading The Great Agnostic, Susan Jacoby’s biography of Robert Ingersoll, which has only increased my admiration for the great 19th-century freethinker. I knew that, in addition to his tireless opposition to religion, he was a staunch defender of women’s equality, of racial justice and of free speech unconstrained by blasphemy laws, despite living in a time when all of these were radical positions. But Jacoby’s book showed that Ingersoll was an even greater man than I’d thought: he was astoundingly progressive even by today’s standards, let alone the standards of his own era.

For example, even though he moved in exalted social circles and was a friend to some of the most powerful politicians and corporate titans of the Gilded Age, Ingersoll’s sympathies were always with the poor and the working class. Here’s an essay he wrote in 1980 1890 about labor rights, “Eight Hours Must Come“, that could have appeared as an editorial in any newspaper today:

The working people should be protected by law; if they are not, the capitalists will require just as many hours as human nature can bear. We have seen here in America street-car drivers working sixteen and seventeen hours a day. It was necessary to have a strike in order to get to fourteen, another strike to get to twelve, and nobody could blame them for keeping on striking till they get to eight hours.

For a man to get up before daylight and work till after dark, life is of no particular importance. He simply earns enough one day to prepare himself to work another. His whole life is spent in want and toil, and such a life is without value.

Of course, I cannot say that the present effort is going to succeed — all I can say is that I hope it will. I cannot see how any man who does nothing — who lives in idleness — can insist that others should work ten or twelve hours a day. Neither can I see how a man who lives on the luxuries of life can find it in his heart, or in his stomach, to say that the poor ought to be satisfied with the crusts and crumbs they get.

…The laboring man, however, ought to remember that all who labor are their brothers, and that all women who labor are their sisters, and whenever one class of workingmen or workingwomen is oppressed all other laborers ought to stand by the oppressed class. Probably the worst paid people in the world are the workingwomen. Think of the sewing women in this city — and yet we call ourselves civilized! I would like to see all working people unite for the purpose of demanding justice, not only for men, but for women.

All my sympathies are on the side of those who toil — of those who produce the real wealth of the world — of those who carry the burdens of mankind.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Rich

    I think that you have a typo. The essay was written in 1890, not 1980.

  • peter

    Bahh, damn socialist. The working man in America serves one purpose only: to increase the wealth of the ruling class.

  • Discoverer

    Can we say this is evidence in favor of the theory that rationalism/skepticism will inevitably lead an honest and caring person to atheism /and/ social justice? That “Atheism+™” is the desired path to navigate toward the /most/ enlightened society possible (and not some kind of divisive offsport as many claim)?

    Thank you for this post, it’s nice to see great thinkers have been using their powers for good for a long time :)

  • randomfactor

    Working my way through an anthology of Ingersoll’s speeches. Very impressive man.

  • L.Long

    Libravox has the writings of Ingersoll as talking books. And I am going thru them now. He was awesome and the very sad part is that all the arguments he has brought forth was almost a waste of breath. Everything that all the main atheist voices are speaking today he has already said years ago and we are still fight this same battle of brainless BS from the religidiots.
    When looking at his work and our present work and the awful resistance of the Sheeple, I can clearly see that ‘never underestimate the power of human stupidity’ is still so very true.

  • kagerato

    Another essay I would recommend is Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”:

  • Bob Carlson

    Here’s an essay he wrote in 1980…


  • ImRike

    Thank you, kagerato. That is a very interesting essay. I had never seen it before.

  • Radi4

    Adam, you have a typo in the year that Ingersoll wrote that essay – it says “1980″, when it should likely be “1890″ or perhaps even “1880″?

  • Adam Lee

    OK, typo fixed! You folk don’t let me get away with anything. :)


    I own a first edition copy of Ingersoll’s autobiography. One thing he would probably not do today is announce his pride in being a Republican. Of course, the Republican party of Ingersoll’s era was a vastly different animal than today’s GOP.