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The Great Agnostic

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

Susan Jacoby
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    The Great Agnostic
    Book Description:

    During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of America's enduring culture wars, Robert Green Ingersoll was known as "the Great Agnostic." The nation's most famous orator, he raised his voice on behalf of Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a vigor unmatched since America's revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899, even his religious enemies acknowledged that he might have aspired to the U.S. presidency had he been willing to mask his opposition to religion. To the question that retains its controversial power today-was the United States founded as a Christian nation?-Ingersoll answered an emphatic no.

    In this provocative biography, Susan Jacoby, the author ofFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism, restores Ingersoll to his rightful place in an American intellectual tradition extending from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine to the current generation of "new atheists." Jacoby illuminates the ways in which America's often-denigrated and forgotten secular history encompasses issues, ranging from women's rights to evolution, as potent and divisive today as they were in Ingersoll's time. Ingersoll emerges in this portrait as one of the indispensable public figures who keep an alternative version of history alive. He devoted his life to that greatest secular idea of all-liberty of conscience belonging to the religious and nonreligious alike.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18892-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-27)

    How and why do some public figures who were famous in their own time become part of a nation’s historical memory, while others fade away or are confined to what is known on the Internet as “niche fame”? Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899), known in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as the “Great Agnostic,” once possessed real fame as one of the two most important champions of reason and secular government in American history—the other being Thomas Paine. Indeed, one of Ingersoll’s lasting accomplishments as the preeminent American orator of his era was the revival of Paine...

  5. I The Making of an Iconoclast
    (pp. 28-56)

    In the tiny town of Dresden, near the shore of Lake Seneca in upstate New York, stands the modest frame house in which Robert Ingersoll was born. The Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, operated by the Council for Secular Humanism, houses the memorabilia of a lifetime dedicated to the cause of freethought. The collection contains mementos ranging from a scratchy recording Ingersoll made in his friend Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to a Yiddish translation of his lecture “Some Mistakes of Moses,” indicating that freethinking Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side were as attuned to the Great...

  6. II The Political Insider and the Religious Outsider
    (pp. 57-76)

    The rejection of nominal Christianity as a cover for private agnosticism would shape Robert Ingersoll’s entire public life after his failure to obtain the Republican nomination for the Illinois governorship. From the perspective of twenty-first-century American politics, however, one of the most curious aspects of Ingersoll’s subsequent career was his success at building and maintaining national influence within the Republican Party even as his open disavowal of religion ruled him out both as a viable candidate and, later, as a suitable nominee for high appointive office. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Ingersoll—not yet a national figure—began...

  7. III Champion of Science
    (pp. 77-96)

    The primary secular argument against the validity of religious belief, whether advanced in philosophical or scientific terms, has always been grounded in the premise that knowledge based on observation of the natural world, however faulty or incomplete initial conclusions may prove upon further observation, is inherently superior to faith based on mythic events that contradict the verifiable laws of nature. This was as true in the eighteenth century as in the nineteenth, but Robert Ingersoll’s generation had an inestimable advantage over the religious heretics of the Enlightenment. By the second half of the nineteenth century, freethinkers could point to the...

  8. IV The Humanistic Freethinker
    (pp. 97-128)

    Robert Green Ingersoll’s “happiness creed,” frequently included in his speeches and recorded for posterity in 1894 in Thomas Edison’s original New Jersey laboratory, combines his antireligious views with humanistic, classically liberal social thought in ways that not only made him difficult to pigeonhole among his freethinking contemporaries but would also render him an elusive figure for biographers in the second half of the twentieth century.* As a Gilded Age Republican who considered the alleviation of poverty a social responsibility, an individualist and libertarian who insisted that government protect the rights of minorities, an economic conservative on some issues but an...

  9. V Church and State
    (pp. 129-155)

    The propinquity in time of America’s revolutionary generation to the worst manifestations of theocracy in the Old World is utterly ignored today by the historical revisionists of the religious right, who claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. But the power of religion-based law, as enforced by the state, was very much on the minds of the framers of the world’s first secular constitution. When the Constitution was being written in Philadelphia in 1787, only two decades had passed since the horrifying execution in France of nineteen-year-old Jean-François Lefevre, Chevalier de la Barre, for blasphemy—a...

  10. VI Reason and Passion
    (pp. 156-170)

    Allusions to this famous, once-scandalous Whitman poem occur many times, in many contexts, in Robert Ingersoll’s lectures, essays, and interviews. His attachment to this particular line of American verse explains, on an even deeper level than his advocacy of science, secularism, and the separation of church and state, why the word “great” was appended to the informal title used not only by his admirers but by his more open-minded critics. Then as now, freethinkers, secularists, agnostics, and atheists—whatever they call themselves or others choose to call them—were often portrayed by their religious enemies as cool, uncaring skeptics who...

  11. VII Death and Afterlife
    (pp. 171-191)

    In the summer of 1899, intensifying pain in his chest and shortness of breath, caused by the heart disease he had lived with for many years, forced Robert Ingersoll to end his career as a lawyer and lecturer. His last two public appearances were concerned, in different ways, with the rights of women. In early June, ten weeks before his death, he made his impassioned statement, in a speech in Boston before the American Free Religious Association, about the need for women to possess the means to control their own bodies and decide for themselves whether they wanted to marry...

  12. Afterword A Letter to the “New” Atheists
    (pp. 192-202)

    There is no such thing as a new atheist. You know this, of course, and are usually careful to give ample credit to your predecessors. They made you possible, by waging the battle for reason and freedom of conscience at considerable risk to their own lives and liberty—whether by speaking out against the received opinion of their times or by the scientific investigation that led to a natural rather than a supernatural explanation of how our entire universe, including human beings, came to be. The names of Copernicus, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Voltaire, Paine, Humboldt, and, of course, Darwin...

  13. Appendix A Vivisection
    (pp. 203-205)
    Robert Ingersoll
  14. Appendix B Robert Ingersoll’s Eulogy for Walt Whitman, March 30, 1892
    (pp. 206-212)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 213-220)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 221-224)
  17. Index
    (pp. 225-246)