Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll (August 11, 1833 - July 21, 1899) was an American political leader and orator, noted for his broad range of culture and his defense of atheism.
His father, John Ingersoll was an abolitionist preacher. Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York, but his family moved frequently because of his father's radical views before finally settling in in Peoria, Illinois. Ingersoll apprenticed himself to lawyers there and hung out his shingle.
With the advent of the American Civil War, he raised the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment and took command. The regiment fought in the Battle of Shiloh. Ingersoll was later captured, then paroled on his promise that he would not fight again. (This was common practice early in the war.)
After the war, he served as Attorney General of Illinois. He was a prominent member of the Republican Party, at that time the more progressive party. Although he never held any office, he was an active participant. His nominating speech for James G. Blaine in 1876 did not result in Blaine's candidacy, but the speech itself, known as the "Plumed Knight" speech, was considered the gold standard for political oratory.
Ingersoll was involved in several prominent trials as an attorney, notably, the Star Route trials, a major political scandal in which his clients were acquitted. He also defended a New Jersey man for blasphemy. Although he did not win acquittal, his vigorous defense is considered to have discredited blasphemy laws and few other prosecutions followed.
Ingersoll was most noted as an orator, the most popular of the age, when oratory was public entertainment. He spoke on every subject, from Shakespeare to Reconstruction, but his most popular subjects were atheism and the sanctity and refuge of the family. He committed his speeches to memory although they were sometimes more than three hours long. His audiences were said never to be restless.
His radical views on religion, slavery, woman’s suffrage, and other issues of the day effectively prevented him from ever pursuing or holding political offices higher than that of Attorney General.
Many of Ingersoll’s speeches advocated freethought and humanism, and often poked fun at religious belief. For this the press often attacked him, but neither his views nor the negative press could stop his rising popularity. At the height of Ingersoll’s fame, audiences would pay $1 or more to hear him speak—a giant sum for his day.
Ingersoll died of heart failure at age 65. Soon after his death, Clinton P. Farrell, a brother-in-law, collected copies of Ingersoll’s speeches for publication. The 12-volume “Dresden Editions” kept interest in Ingersoll’s ideas alive and preserved his speeches for future generations.
"What an organ human speech is when employed by a master." Mark Twain on Ingersoll.