Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 5, 6 or 7
A bronze statue at the foot of Peoria’s Glen Oak Park is one of the few area landmarks linking Illinois and Robert Ingersoll, the great 19th century thinker. July is perhaps one of the best times to remember Ingersoll, who not only died in July (1899), but delivered a memorable address then for the centennial of the Declaration of Independence.
Now, 136 years after that speech, links to his thoughts on freedom for and from religion, a New South, and Republicanism all are breaking.
Ingersoll was one of the 1800s’ top orators; thousands came to hear him speak, often for hours. An agnostic (someone who believes that God’s existence is unknown and unknowable), Ingersoll also spoke about Shakespeare, the special nature of the family, voting rights for women, and slavery and racism, before and after Emancipation.
Ingersoll was raised in a Christian household. His father was a Congregationalist pastor, but an ardent abolitionist before the Civil War, causing him to be frequently fired by churches who wanted no controversy.
“It was the unjust and bigoted treatment his father received which made [Robert] the enemy … of Christianity,” according to one 1887 southern Illinois history.
As a young man, Ingersoll taught school and became a lawyer in southern Illinois before moving to Peoria. When the Civil War broke out, he raised the 11th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry there and led it. They fought at Shiloh, and Ingersoll was captured by Confederate forces, but released on the condition he lay down his arms and return to Peoria.
He became Illinois Attorney General after the war, an advocate of Reconstruction in the South, and a prominent Republican. In June of 1876, he nominated Maine Congressman James Blaine to be the Republicans’ presidential candidate.
“Ingersoll had half won his audience before he spoke a word,” the Chicago Times wrote. “So brilliant a master stroke was never uttered before a political convention. Words can do but meager justice to the wizard power of this extraordinary man.”
Blaine lost the nomination to Ohio Gov. Rutherford Hayes, but Ingersoll’s speech became legendary. It embraced labor, saying in part, “The Republicans … demand a man who knows that prosperity and resumption, when they come, must come together; that when they come, they will come hand in hand through the golden harvest fields; hand in hand by the whirling spindles and the turning wheels; hand in hand past the open furnace doors; hand in hand by the flaming forges; hand in hand by the chimneys filled with eager fire, greeted and grasped by the countless sons of toil.”
Hayes eventually won the White House in a race against New York Gov. Samuel Tilden, but it was the first U.S. election where a candidate received a majority of the popular vote and was not elected president by the Electoral College. Tilden outpolled Hayes 4.2 million to 4 million, and had 184 electoral votes to Hayes’s 165, but 20 electoral votes were in dispute in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, and in Oregon one elector was replaced. Those 20 votes were awarded to Hayes after a long legal battle, which gave him the election.
That July 4th, Ingersoll had spoken about the Declaration of Independence to a Peoria crowd, reminding them that the Founders denied the “divine right of kings” by creating a government of, by, and for the people.
“One hundred years ago, our fathers retired the gods from politics,” Ingersoll reportedly said. “Our fathers founded the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights, and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, who had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword; that it should be allowed only to exert its moral influence.”
Ingersoll undoubtedly would marvel at old and new affronts to his perspectives:
* The Great Copout. The aforementioned 1876 presidential contest was resolved in a deal known as the Compromise of 1877. In exchange for the Democrats’ agreeing to Hayes’ “election,” Republicans withdrew federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction.
* Church & State. Some Catholic Bishops depict the church as victims of an attack on religious freedom in criticizing the federal mandate to provide insurance to cover employees who work at its non-religious companies – even non-Catholics or Catholics who disagree with the hierarchy’s edicts on birth control. Some seem to want to control policy affecting everyone.
* Today’s GOP. The Right has taken over the Republican Party; Ingersoll wouldn’t recognize it. Historically, from Abraham Lincoln and Ingersoll through Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republicans were against militarism and imperialism, monopolies and the concentration of wealth, and for small farmers and labor rights
If Ingersoll’s statue could speak, one wonders what the freethinker would think.