Ingersoll, Independence Day & Freedom!
The bronze statue at the foot of Glen Oak Park is one of the few local landmarks linking Peoria and Robert Ingersoll. July is perhaps one of the best times to remember Ingersoll, who not only died in July (1899), but delivered a memorable address in Peoria 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 19th century’s most famous orators; thousands of people would gather to hear him speak, often for hours. An avowed agnostic (someone who believes that God’s existence cannot be proven or disproved and is unknown and unknowable), Ingersoll also spoke about Shakespeare, the special nature of the family, voting rights for women, and slavery and the racism behind it, before and after Emancipation.
Ingersoll was raised in a Christian household. His father was a Congregationalist pastor, but a man who was an ardent abolitionist in the years 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, first, of Calvinism, and later of Christianity in its other forms,” according to the 1887 “History of Gallatin, Saline, Hamilton, Franklin, and Williamson Counties, Illinois.”
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 here and led it. They fought at the Battle of Shiloh, and Ingersoll was captured by Confederate forces, then 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 Congressman James Blaine of Maine 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’s reform Gov. Rutherford Hayes, but Ingersoll’s speech became legendary. He said, in part:
“The Republicans of the United States 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 Democrat Samuel Tilden, governor of New York, 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 weren’t counted. The 20 votes were in dispute in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, and in Oregon one elector was declared illegal and replaced. Those 20 votes were awarded to Hayes after a long legal battle, which gave him the election.
That July 4th, Ingersoll spoke 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 the people, by the people and for the people.
“One hundred years ago, our fathers retired the gods from politics,” Ingersoll reportedly said. “Our fathers founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world; the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights, and no more; every religion has 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, including Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, now attack government and depict the church as victims of an imagined attack on religious freedom (despite U.S. Catholics numbering more than 68 million and 76 percent of the country saying they’re Christians.) Bishop Jenky even resorted to invoking Hitler 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 attitude on birth control. Like Right-wing evangelicals, some Bishops want to influence, if not control, policy.
* Today’s GOP. The Right has taken over the Republican Party, and it’s clear that Ingersoll wouldn’t recognize it. Republican Mike Lofgren, who left the GOP after 28 years as a Congressional staffer, said, “The Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult.”
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. Republican Sens. Mark Hatfield and Charles Goodell plus Michigan Gov. George Romney opposed the Vietnam War. Republicans ranging from Gerald Ford and Edmund Brooke (an African American) to Bob Dole and Illinois’ Everett Dirksen supported Civil Rights.
If the statue could speak, one wonders whether the freethinker would scold or pity us.
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com