Ingersoll Day celebrates Robert G. Ingersoll, a nineteenth-century orator who advocated for free thought—the conviction that reason and science, not religion, should shape beliefs. Besides being one of the most notable freethinkers in US history and lecturers of the nineteenth century, he was also a supporter of abolition and women's rights. Known as the "Great Agnostic," Ingersoll was born on today's date in 1833, in Dresden, New York.
His father was a preacher and abolitionist, and after his mother passed away, the family often moved around. He was admitted to the bar in 1854 and soon moved to Peoria, Illinois, where he opened a law office with his brother. In 1862, he married Eva Parker, and they went on to have two daughters. He became commander of the 11th Illinois Cavalry that same year, and fought in the Civil War, including in the Battle of Shiloh.
Ingersoll was a Democrat early in his life but switched to the Republican Party because of his opposition to slavery, and then became involved in its radical wing. He only once held office himself, as the attorney general of Illinois in the late 1860s. His further ascent in political office was in part stunted by these freethought beliefs, which would not have been acceptable to many voters. He did give the nominating speech for Republican candidate James G. Blaine in 1876, although the nomination ended up going to Rutherford B. Hayes.
Afterward, he moved to Washington D.C., and while he still did legal work, he began working on a lecture circuit, which he continued doing for almost a quarter century. He repeated lectures as he crossed the country, and then compiled them into writings. Focusing on freethought, reason, and liberty, some of his most famous lectures were titled, "Why I am an Agnostic," "Some Mistakes of Moses," and "Individuality." He also often spoke about Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Paine.
He was denounced by many religious adherents and preachers, although he was friends with some, such as Henry Ward Beecher. Although he was a Republican, he was also friends with other progressives who weren't necessarily from that party, such as Eugene Debs and Robert La Follette. He also was friends with Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
How to Observe Ingersoll Day
Celebrate the day by reading some of Ingersoll's work. His writings and lectures can be found online, and in books as well. You could also read a biography about him. To get the most complete view of his life and ideas, visit the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden, New York.