Susan Jacoby Resurrects the Legacy of Robert Ingersoll

In the cover story for the latest American Scholar, Susan Jacoby pens a truly enlightening look back at the impact of “the Great Agnostic” Robert Green Ingersoll, leading light of what she calls “the golden age of freethought.”

Jacoby wrestles with the fact that Ingersoll — who was about as a big a celebrity as one could find in his day, with folks traveling hundreds of miles on horseback to hear him lecture — has had an eraser taken to his name in so much of our modern discussion of American history. She posits one theory about his waning notoriety:

The lasting absence of public consensus on the proper balance between religion and secularism in American life could easily be used to support the argument that Ingersoll’s current obscurity is richly deserved. He certainly did not put to rest the issue of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, with all of the attendant controversies about the proper role of religion in public institutions and rituals.

In other words, we don’t hear much about Ingersoll anymore (unless you’re an active skepto-atheist) because he ultimately failed to put this issue to rest, and our culture today has rendered him moot. But Jacoby goes on:

Yet the persistent tension and inflamed emotion surrounding these issues ought to enhance rather than diminish the Great Agnostic’s stature. Intellectual history is a relay race, not a 100-yard dash. Ingersoll was one of those indispensable people who keep an alternative version of history alive.

I like that very much. Just as Ingersoll was himself very much responsible for the raising up of Thomas Paine‘s legacy, which has stuck with us, perhaps the onus is now on us to rekindle interest in Ingersoll. In doing so, perhaps it gives us a new tool in our long-term project of extracting religion and superstition from government, a project that can look more daunting with each passing day (or each passing election).

The entire #longform piece is worth a read, and full of great stuff (as is Jacoby’s book on the wider subject of the early secularist movement, Freethinkers). But I’ll leave you with a bit of Ingersoll that makes me smile:

It is a great pleasure to drive the fiend of fear out of the hearts of men women and children. It is a positive joy to put out the fires of hell.


About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.

  • Anna

    I loved Freethinkers and look forward to reading Susan Jacoby’s new book!

  • bostongraf

    “But the church is as unforgiving as ever, and still wonders
    why any Infidel should be wicked enough to endeavor to
    destroy her power. I will tell the church why. You have
    imprisoned the human mind; you have been the enemy of
    liberty; you have burned us at the stake — wasted us
    upon slow fires — torn our flesh with iron; you have
    covered us with chains — treated us as outcasts; you
    have filled the world with fear; you have taken our wives
    and children from our arms; you have confiscated our
    property; you have denied us the right to testify in courts
    of justice; you have branded us with infamy; you have torn
    out our tongues; you have refused us burial. In the name of
    your religion, you have robbed us of every right; and after
    having inflicted upon us every evil that can be inflicted in
    this world, you have fallen upon your knees, and with clasped
    hands implored your God to torment us forever.”

    - Robert Green Ingersoll, Orator and Freethinker, from
    On Thomas Paine, by Robert Green Ingersoll, 1870

  • LesterBallard

    Ingersoll was a hero.

  • JohnJay

    “Nearly all people stand in horror of annihilation, and yet to give up your individuality is to annihilate yourself.  Mental slavery is mental death, and every man who has given up his individual freedom is the living coffin of his dead soul.  In this sense, every church is a cemetery and every creed an epitath.”

    - Robert G. Ingersoll, Individuality, 1873

  • newavocation

    So much of what we say today is just paraphrasing Ingersoll. A great and courageous orator of his time!  “Love was the first to dream of immortality, — not Religion, not Revelation. We love, therefore we wish to live. The hope of immortality is the great oak ’round which have climbed the poisonous vines of superstition. The vines have not supported the oak, the oak has supported the vines. As long as men live and love and die, this hope will blossom in the human heart.”

  • Jck Jsbrgr

    I like to think of him as the old New Atheist.

  • Chris

    I’m sorry to say I’d never heard of the man until I read Jacoby’s piece. I look forward to reading his speeches. Thanks for posting this, Paul.

  • Maleekwa

    Do yourself a huge favor and download Ingersoll’s works read by Ted Delorme. They are part of the Librivox recordings and completely free.

  • Ted Delorme

     I was just going to suggest that.  ^_^

    I recorded the first two volumes (of 12) of Ingersoll’s lectures, and they are not the highest downloads of my LibriVox recordings, but they are the best reviewed and most commented on.  I still get an email once a month or so from someone who enjoyed the Ingersoll recordings.

  • Bevidence
  • JohnJay

    You can also read many of his speeches at this link:

  • Maleekwa

    They are very well done! I thank you for doing them. You convey the passion of the source material with exceptional care. Many thanks to you sir!