Ingersoll, Robert Green, 1833–99, American orator and lawyer, b. Dresden, N.Y. The son of a Congregational minister who eventually settled in Illinois, Ingersoll was admitted (1854) to the bar and became a court lawyer. He served in the Union army during the Civil War. Although previously a Democrat, he emerged from the war a Republican, and in 1876 he nominated James G. Blaine for president in his famous "plumed knight" speech. He served (1867–69) as attorney general of Illinois, but his antireligious beliefs prevented any further advance.
Known as "the great agnostic," Ingersoll questioned the tenets of Christian belief in such lectures as "The Gods" (1872), "Some Mistakes of Moses" (1879), "Why I Am an Agnostic" (1896), and "Superstition" (1898), drawing large audiences through his eloquence and irreverent wit and provoking denunciations from the orthodox. He also spoke eloquently in favor of women's rights and against racism and the death penalty. One of the greatest orators of his day, Ingersoll was acclaimed by Henry Ward Beecher as the "most brilliant speaker of the English tongue of all the men on the globe." His lectures were widely read for a generation; the Dresden edition of his works (12 vol., 1900) has been reprinted several times.
See his letters, ed. by E. I. Wakefield (1951, repr. 1974); biographies by C. H. Cramer (1952), O. P. Larson (1962), D. D. Anderson (1972), and S. Jacoby (2013).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.