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Robert Green Ingersoll


Robert Green Ingersoll is too little known today. Yet he was the foremost, orator, political speechmaker, and secularist of late 19th century America. His golden voice and his criticism of traditional religion made Ingersoll one of the best-known Americans of the post-Civil War era.

Ingersoll was born in this house on August 11, 1833. His father was a Presbyterian minister; the Ingersolls left Dresden when baby Robert was less than four months old.

Ingersoll would make his name as a resident of Peoria, Illinois; Washington D.C., and finally New York City. Yet this house remains the only residence associated with Ingersoll that is open to the public as a memoria to Ingersoll and his message.

Birth and Youth of Robert Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll was born on August 11, 1833 in a room on the second floor of this house. He was the youngest of John and Mary Ingersoll's five children.

Robert's father was the Presbyterian minister John Ingersoll. By all accounts a stern, uncompromising parson, John Ingersoll preached Abolitionist sermons so fiery that in the 1830's, even Northern congregations found his preaching excessive.

Dresden's Presbyterians were no exception; they handed John Ingersoll his walking papers when Robert was four months old. Robert Green Ingersoll would return to the Finger Lakes region only once.

Mary Ingersoll died at thirty-one, when Robert was one and one-half years of age.

Rev. John Ingersoll chose his son Robert's middle name in tribute to a fellow abolitionist minister, the Rev. Beriah Green (1795 - 1874). In 1830, Green assumed what was only the fourth faculty position at Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio, south of Cleveland. (One of his colleagues, Elizur Wright, would later gain fame as an abolitionist, actuary, and an outspoken atheist.) In November and December 1832, Green delivered the first three openly abolitionist sermons ever preached in the North. Reprinted nationwide, these sermons electrified reformers including Rev. Ingersoll, a fellow abolitionist. In mid-1833, Green traveled east to Whitesboro, New York (now a Utica suburb) to assume the presidency of the Oneida Institute, which he molded into a radical abolitionist college where white and black students would live, work, and learn together. Iin August, 1833, one month after Green moved back East, Robert Green Ingersoll was born in this house.

His Public Life

Ingersoll entered public life as a Peoria attorney. After the Civil War, he became the first Attorney General of Illinois.

Politically, he allied with the Republicans, the party of Lincoln and in those days the voice of progressivism. One of the greatest ironies of the 19th century is that because of Ingersoll's electrifying speaking voice, this controversial agnostic was also the most sought-after speechmaker on behalf of Republican candidates and causes.

His legal career was also distinguished. He mounted a successful defense of two men falsely charged in the Star Route Scandal. This led to two of the most controversial, politically-charged -- and lengthiest -- criminal trials of the 19th century.

But it was Ingersoll's private speaking career that made him famous. Tour after tour, he criss-crossed the country and spoke before packed houses on topics ranging from Shakespeare to Reconstruction, from science to secularism. He was best known as "The Great Agnostic" in his role as a crusader for women's rights, racial equality and freedom of conscience.

His Oratory

In an age when oratory was the most dominant form of public entertainment, Ingersoll was the most popular, and the most controversial, of American orators.

Ingersoll was a friend to presidents, literary giants like Mark Twain, industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, leading figures in the arts, and reformers like Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Religious conservatives considered Ingersoll an enemy. He was an early popularizer of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory and a tireless advocate of science and reason. Most outrageous to traditionalists, he rejected doctrines of eternal damnation and advocated secularism, skepticism and humanism. Critics called him "Injure-Soul."

Yet Ingersoll also praised the virtues of family and the fireside. And he practiced what he preached. His personal and family life were idyllic, and opponents despaired of finding anything to disparage.

This museum salutes the memory-- and the ongoing legacy-- of Robert Green Ingersoll.

Ingersoll in Washington, D.C.

For a fascinating walking tour of Ingersoll-related sites in our nation's capital, visit ingersoll.wash.org.

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