Robert Ingersoll, the ‘Great Agnostic’


Robert G. Ingersoll, shown between 1865 and 1880. (COURTESY OF LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
John Kelly
Columnist August 11, 2012

I just finished reading a biography of Robert G. Ingersoll. It included a description of a very large and lavish house on Lafayette Square where he lived while in Washington. Does the house still stand, and what was the address?

— John F. Jones, Washington

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

What was Robert Ingersoll’s address? Answer Man is confident many readers are wondering, “Who the heck was Robert Ingersoll?

Well, he is the most famous American you never heard of.

Col. Ingersoll — he fought for the Union in the Civil War after raising a cavalry regiment from Illinois — was a lawyer who counted the wealthy and powerful among his clients. He was a committed Republican who stumped for GOP candidates. He was a silver-tongued orator whose lectures drew thousands — and earned him thousands of dollars a pop. He was also, by all accounts, a really nice guy.

And Ingersoll accomplished all of this without believing in God.

Ingersoll’s disbelief was the quality that most fascinated the 19th-century audiences that packed theaters to hear him speak. He was known as the Great Agnostic. Some called him blasphemer or infidel.

Ingersoll was born in upstate New York in 1833 to an abolitionist minister and his wife. He knew the Bible backward and forward but preferred the work of Shakespeare. Ingersoll objected to organized religion, especially its obsession with damning non-believers to hell.

He thought religion should be destroyed. “In its place,” he wrote, “I want humanity, I want good fellowship, I want intellectual liberty . . . the religion of art, music and poetry . . . that is to say, the religion of this world.”

He was the Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins of his day, but without those writers’ acid tone. To read Ingersoll is to encounter a man ahead of his time. He supported equality for African Americans, women’s suffrage, even D.C. voting rights.

At a suffrage meeting in Washington in 1880, Ingersoll said: “I do not believe that only the rich should vote, or that only the whites should vote, or that only the blacks should vote. I do not believe that right depends upon wealth, upon education, or upon color. It depends absolutely upon humanity. . . If any woman wants to vote I am too much of a gentleman to say she shall not. . . . This Government was founded upon the idea that the only source of power is the people. Let us show at the Capital that we have confidence in that principle.”

Ingersoll moved to Washington in 1878 to practice law with his brother. He took a house at 25 Lafayette Square, on the northeast corner of the park, across from the White House. He gave numerous lectures, including more than a dozen at National Theatre.

Republican candidates were eager for Ingersoll to speak on their behalf — he was especially close to James Garfield — but aside from a brief stint as Illinois’s attorney general, he was never rewarded with public office. Politicians felt voters would react badly to the presence of a blasphemer in their cabinets.

Ingersoll’s house on Lafayette Square — and a larger house at 1315 K St. NW that he moved to in 1883 — were centerpieces of a lively social life. He lived there with his wife, two daughters and extended family. He entertained often. Occasionally the sidewalk outside would be occupied by people praying for him to convert. None succeeded.

In 1885, Ingersoll moved to New York City. The house on Lafayette Square became apartments, then the Cosmos Club, then was torn down about 1909. Ingersoll’s K Street house became an early location of American University’s Washington College of Law before being razed after the 1950s.

Washington’s Steven Lowe stumbled across Ingersoll’s writings about 12 years ago.

“I was just infatuated with his story and his brazen, no-holds-barred, speak truth to power sort of thing,” Lowe said. He revamped an Ingersoll-centric walking tour that a group called Washington Area Secular Humanists had prepared and put online at www.ingersoll.wash.org.

Ingersoll died in 1899 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The Great Agnostic once described his creed thusly: “Happiness is the only good. The way to be happy is to make others so. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here.”

Hard to argue with that, though many people still do.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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