Ingersoll, Robert (1833–1899)

Robert Green Ingersoll, the late-nineteenth-century Populist and activist in the Freethought movement, has in recent times become a darling of atheists and secular humanists. Yet Ingersoll, a Republican politician as well as a Populist orator and writer who was both admired and reviled in his time, was actually a far more complex figure than popularly portrayed. Ingersoll was born in 1833 in Dresden, New York, and was the son of a Presbyterian minister who was himself controversial for his support of the abolitionist movement. Early in his own career, Ingersoll was fired from a teaching job for making a joke about baptism, an event that demonstrated the differences between his beliefs and those of more mainstream, conservative Americans. It also showed the risks of making light of Christian beliefs during this period in American history. Ingersoll practiced law and eventually rose to become attorney general of Illinois. A talented orator in a time when public speaking was a major form of entertainment, Ingersoll also became a prominent figure in the post–Civil War Republican Party. Although Ingersoll was not initially known for supporting Progressive causes, he eventually became a champion of African American civil rights and women's rights. Notably, although Ingersoll took these radical stances, he also praised the virtues of home family and had a happy marriage and stable family life.

Susan Roth Breitzer

See also: Abolitionism ; Freethinkers ; Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1815–1902) ; Twain, Mark (1835–1910) ; Whitman, Walt (1819–1892)


Ingersoll, Robert Green. Sixty-Five Press Interviews with Robert G. Ingersoll: What the Great Agnostic Told Reporters during a Quarter-Century as a Freethinker and Enemy of Superstition. Austin, TX; American Atheist Press, 1983.

Ingersoll, Robert Green. Some Mistakes of Moses. New York: Prometheus Books, 1986.

“People & Ideas: Robert Ingersoll.” God in America. . Accessed January 7, 2013.

“Who Was Robert Ingersoll?” Humanist Society of Santa Barbara. . Accessed January 7, 2013.