Imagination is a Powerful Tool: Why is Philosophy Afraid of It? – By Amy Kind

Exploding Raphaelesque Head, 1951, Salvador Dali, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland

Philosophers have a love-hate relationship with the imagination. René Descartes, for one, disparaged it as ‘more of a hindrance than a help’ in answering the most profound questions about the nature of existence. Trying to imagine one’s way towards metaphysical truth, he wrote in Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), is as foolish as falling asleep in the hope of obtaining a clearer picture of the world through dreams.

Yet Descartes also relied heavily on imagination in scientific and mathematical essays such as The World (1633), in which he tried to conjure up the details of the basic building blocks for structures such as humans, animals and machines. According to the philosopher Dennis Sepper at the University of Dallas, Descartes relied upon a kind of ‘biplanar’ imagination, pioneered by Plato, in which one level of reality could embody and display relations that existed on a different level, and vice versa.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume was equally conflicted about the imagination – especially when compared with perception and memory. ‘When we remember any past event, the idea of it flows in upon the mind in a forcible manner,’ he wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40). But imagined images and sensations, he continued, are ‘faint and languid, and cannot without difficulty be preserved by the mind steady and uniform for any considerable time’. However, Hume also claimed that humans are most free when they’re engaging in imagination. Perception can show us only the actual, he said, but imagination can go beyond that, to the realm of the maybe, the what-if and if-only. Indeed, ‘nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible,’ Hume said.

What’s behind this apparent tension at the heart of the imagination? Hume put his finger on it when he talked about how our facility for fantasy helps us to move beyond and change our present reality. One need only think of how Leonardo da Vinci’s fantastical flying machines paved the way for the Wright brothers, or how H G Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) inspired the first liquid-fuelled space rocket, to see the truth of this insight. But imagination is also restricted by the extent of our previous perceptions and experiences, Hume said. ‘Let us chase our imagination to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the Universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves,’ he wrote.

One way to resolve such ambivalence would be to divide the imagination into different kinds. Along these lines, towards the end of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant distinguished two forms of imagination: the productive imagination and reproductive imagination. The productive faculty is what helps to synthesise and transform sensory content into a meaningful whole. So the identification of something with pointy ears and fur, which meows and rubs itself against your legs, is brought together via the productive imagination into the form of a cat. This unifying tendency is implanted in every human mind irrespective of experience. For Kant, our productive imagination is what makes perception possible.

By contrast, the reproductive imagination is largely about recollection. When a story comes on the radio about a long-lost cat who has found its way home, you draw from the many cats you’ve seen before to picture the heartwarming scene; this would be the reproductive imagination at work. Because the reproductive faculty works only with materials previously provided to someone’s senses, it is subject to the kind of limits Hume discussed.

Kant’s bifurcation hints at why philosophers treat the imagination with both despair and delight. Perhaps the kind of imagination we despise is totally different from its more useful cousin. But in accepting this subdivision, we give up on the possibility of seeing the imagination as a unified mental faculty – which is perhaps more how we experience it.

When I think of all the wondrous things we can do with the imagination, I’m inclined towards a different way of unravelling its enigmatic duality. Rather than slicing up the imagination into distinct kinds, we might think about its distinct uses. I like to call these the transcendent and the instructive functions of the imagination. On the one hand, when we pretend, or fantasise, or escape into an engrossing work of literary fiction, imagination can take us beyond the here and now. On the other hand, when we imagine in an attempt to make sense of what other people are thinking, or to problem-solve or to make decisions, our speculations are used to help us understand the here and now. Whereas our transcendent uses of the imagination tend towards whimsy and fancy, its instructive functions point towards the practical and the concrete.

In both these modes, the secret to success seems to lie in the application of a kind of imaginative constraint. But what’s right for one use might not be fitting for the other. Perhaps the reason why philosophers have been conflicted about the imagination is that they haven’t grasped how limitations need to be tailored to circumstances. When we are writing fiction, or playing games of pretend, or making art, arguably we do our best imagining by setting the boundaries widely or removing the shackles entirely. In contrast, when we employ imagination in the context of scientific or technological discovery, or any other real-world problem-solving, we must allow our imaginations to be framed by the situation at hand.

Figuring out where to draw these lines isn’t easy. It can be extraordinarily tricky to know which factors should stay in play, and which should be eliminated. But by looking at how such constraints operate, not only can we see our way towards imaginative greatness – perhaps we can also purge philosophy of its anxiety about the idea. After all, as Hume observed, humans ‘are mightily govern’d by the imagination’.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Amy Kind is professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California. She is the author of Persons and Personal Identity (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Lewis & Clark Caverns, Yellowstone National Park, and Our Public Lands

Entrance to Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, Montana. Merriwether Lewis’ and William Clark’s expedition never visited these caves: they were not discovered (by whites, anyway) until the later 1800’s. But the expedition did pass nearby, a little further south along the Jefferson River, so the caverns were later named for these intrepid explorers

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Journal: Billings, Montana, Friday, July 21, 2017

In my idealistic early adulthood, I often lamented how a certain coffee chain, with its weirdly militarist logo of a two-tailed mermaid with a star on her head (the old logo was much better), seemed to crowd out much of the market for charming coffee shops serving Italian style preparations while playing quality music. The more I’ve traveled, however, the more I’ve come to appreciate their ubiquitous clean bathrooms, unlimited wifi, comfortable chairs and tables to write and read at, and dependable coffee.

Especially this morning. I woke up disheveled and a bit cramped: I camped out in the car last night on a pull-out near the road block at the very top of the pass on Beartooth Highway, which runs through the mountains of the Shoshone and Custer-Gallatin National Forests. There’s construction on the road and I made it there too late to get through; they close the top of the pass during the night so that the construction zone can be navigated safely, only in daylight hours. My decision as to where to spend the night, therefore, was made for me: every campground, lodge, and hotel I passed were full. It was too windy to set up my tent in the dark, so I re-made the nice cozy nest in the backseat that I had made the night before to spend the night in Yellowstone. I fell asleep to a spectacularly clear and starry night, and I woke up to this:… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Athens and Springfield, Illinois, Part 1, In Search of Abraham Lincoln

E. Hargrave and Main Streets in Athens, Illinois

Journal: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois, Monday morning, July 31, 2017

Here I am in the handsomely designed, nicely lit, spacious reading room of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. I don’t at this moment require any research materials from the collection, but as I often do, if I find myself with access to a grand space dedicated to the acquisition, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge, such as the Reading Room of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building or the National Library of Scotland, I feel the urge to go inside and do some thinking and writing just because I can. So here I am.

On Saturday evening, a sudden weariness and blueness of mood took me by surprise, and for the first time since I left home two weeks ago, I suddenly felt lonely. I realized I had been traveling at an unrelenting pace and it was time to rest. So over the weekend, I did a lot of strolling and lazing between bouts of purposeful touring and research. I watched Allied, a World War II romantic tragedy starring Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt, and enjoyed it very much. I talked to family and friends on the phone, sometimes while walking through grassy parks under tall green trees whose resident cicadas made quite a racket. I wrote postcards, and drank beer, and feasted on a delicious local specialty called a horseshoe, an artery-clogging concoction made from Texas toast, french fries, a sprinkling of vegetables if you so choose (I chose yes), and ground meat topped with a sort of cheese sauce similar to that on a Welsh rarebit. I ordered mine spicy, so it came with hot sauce to pour over it.

So here I am this morning, rested, happy, reconnected with my loved ones and my sense of adventure, planning my itinerary for the rest of today and the next. I’m also thinking about the many things I’ve learned and seen here in and around Springfield…

Abraham Lincoln’s Long Nine Museum, also known as the Rogers’ Building, Athens, Illinois. It used to house the post office and general store, both of which Lincoln somewhat frequently visited through much of the 1830’s

Athens, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017

I drive to Springfield from Peoria, about an hour south, and on the way, I notice a highway sign indicating the exit for an Abraham Lincoln historic site. As I did for the last one to Galesburg, I decide to take this Lincoln detour. A series of signs lead me through lovely green farmlands and tidy business establishments and houses to Athens’ old Main Street neighborhood where there are several sites associated with the life and political career of Lincoln. I park at E. Hargrave and Main, near the brick building at the corner with the ‘Old Milwaukee’ sign, and cross the street to a Looking for Lincoln placard with a Lincoln site map.

Historical placards for the Rogers Building – Abraham Lincoln Long Nine Museum, Athens, Illinois

Lincoln never lived here in Athens but he did visit, many times; he lived near here in New Salem, more about that later. Athens was a larger, more bustling community than New Salem, and mail delivery was more consistent, too. Lincoln was New Salem’s postmaster from 1833 to 1836, and he came to Athens to pick up the mail occasionally when the Sangamon River, which runs between here and New Salem, was in flood and prevented its delivery.

The post office in Athens, at this time, was located here in the white clapboard Rogers Building on Main St at Jefferson. This building now houses the Abraham Lincoln Long Nine Museum, which is closed as I peer through its windows.Some years after Lincoln’s stint as the New Salem Postmaster, he and the other eight members of the Illinois State Legislature were honored here with a celebratory dinner in the upstairs banquet room on August 3rd, 1837. The dinner celebrated their success in getting the capital of Illinois moved from Vandalia to the more bustling Springfield. This iteration of the Legislature, nicknamed the ‘Long Nine’ because of their average height of 6 feet, included Ninian W. Edwards, the husband of his future wife Mary Todd’s sister Elizabeth. Ninian and Elizabeth will re-enter my story later on during my Springfield journey.

Detail of Looking for Lincoln placard showing a 1870’s tintype of the Rogers Building. As you can see, the buildings, front and back, look essentially the same today, sans chimneys.

I continue south on Main St, cross Madison, then continue about one-third of the long block between Madison and Little Streets. The fourth house on the left is at 400 Main St, the site of the home of Robert Wilson, one of Lincoln’s fellow Long Nine legislators, according to the Looking for Lincoln map. Lincoln stayed here at Wilson’s place on many occasions when he was in town, even borrowing a horse from Mrs. Wilson in 1836 while on campaign. Perhaps Wilson, as a fellow ‘long’ man, had a bed that Lincoln could fit in!

Robert Wilson used to live at this site where Abraham Lincoln would stay sometimes while in Athens, according to the Looking for Lincoln map. This house doesn’t look original to me, I’m supposing the map marks the site, not the building.

In any case, as well as serving in the legislature together, they were fellow political campaigners and remained friends for a long time. During the Civil War, he joined the Union Army, then Lincoln gave him an appointment as a paymaster. In those days, it was common practice for Presidents and their administrations to grant government appointments to friends and political supporters. Hopefully, these appointees would have appropriate experience, but this was entirely up to the discretion of the one doing the appointing. At times, Lincoln did appoint people he believed had the experience and/or ability for the position; at other times, he traded desirable appointments political favors. As the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln accurately portrays, this was a key tactic that Lincoln used for getting enough votes to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, legally abolishing slavery throughout the U.S.. After the Civil War and the new depths of corruption in the administration of Lincoln’s next elected successor, his General-in-Chief of the Union Army Ulysses S. Grant, the civil service was reformed so that, at least ostensibly, appointees were given the jobs solely based on merit and relevant experience.

One more thing: Wilson, in his 1866 description of Lincoln’s thought processes, made me aware of the word ratiocination. Nice. I like learning new words that are fun to say aloud.

Banks Hall’s Tavern site on the northwest corner of Mill and Jefferson Sts in Athens, Illinois. The house which stands here today retains parts of the original tavern, which was a remodeled frame house built by Abner Banks Hall’s father.

I double back on Main St and turn left on Jefferson St to my next destination at Jefferson and Mill. On the northwest corner, there’s a blue clapboard two-story house with white trim. This house incorporates the old Banks Hall’s Tavern, where Lincoln stayed and ate sometimes. The proprietors were Abner Banks Hall and Helen Jennett Francis Hall. Helen was Simeon Francis’ niece, and Simeon Francis came to have many close connections with Lincoln. I’ll return to that story when I’m in Springfield.

Banks Hall’s Tavern was the best place to get a bite to eat on that part of the stage route between Beardstown, New Salem, and Springfield. Perhaps he stayed here when he was a local surveyor as well; he surveyed the new Sangamon Town Road, which angled to meet Main St from the south and west, in 1834. He had become a surveyor as a likely way to supplement his meager living as a postmaster. His first two runs for political office had failed, his militia service had been brief and relatively uneventful, and his first foray into business as a shop owner had failed and left him in debt. Surveying was a skilled trade but one that could be self-taught for free, so thus Lincoln did. But he didn’t remain a surveyor for long. The pay was still not that great and his debts were substantial, so he began to teach himself law and again ran for state legislator. This time, he won a seat.

Lincoln Tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois

I know that if I continue in the direction I was going, I would get to New Salem before long. However, the day’s getting on and I want to make some good progress exploring Springfield and gathering more information there first, so I pick up the car and continue south.

Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017

After about a 20 minute drive, I reach my first Springfield destination: the Lincoln Tomb. I wind through the hilly cemetery with its granite monuments and headstones almost white in the summer sun, and park the car. I round the showy, castellated old caretaker’s building and cross the lawn.

I find that the Lincoln Tomb is absolutely lovely. It’s just about the most elegant, grand while neither overblown or fussy monument one could wish for. There are monumental sculptures surrounding the central towering obelisk which include fighting men, a rearing horse, and Lincoln himself, charged with drama and historical moment. The statues are well spaced and there’s not too many so the ones that are here stand out and invite study. Taste and restraint rule here as much as the desire to do great honor to the man buried below.

Gutzon Borglum’s portrait bust of Lincoln at the Lincoln Tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery

There’s a bronze version of the same Gutzon Borglum portrait bust of Lincoln that I saw in Peoria Heights. This one’s larger, and its nose is shiny. I guess people rub it for luck; a giggling family was doing this very thing as I arrive. There’s a statue of David Hume with a shiny big toe on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, and it shines for the same reason. For some reason, I feel very differently about the Lincoln nose-rubbing than I do of the Hume toe-rubbing. The statue of Hume is on a public street, while Lincoln’s bust is at his tomb in a cemetery. The moment I see those kids jumping up, egged on by their mom with the dad taking pictures, I feel disturbed, even a little offended. My father’s strict injunctions against unruly and disrespectful behavior in the presence of the dead and other solemn places remain deeply instilled in me, I suppose. I feel like scolding them. It also feels disrespectful to mess around with the image of someone’s face, rather than a toe or a sleeve, especially when it serves to disfigure it in some way. It gives Lincoln’s bronze portrait the clownish look of a cartoon image of a drunk with a shiny red nose. Apparently, however, many thousands of my fellow citizens feel differently than I do about this.

Floor plaque showing layout of the Lincoln Tomb and the sculptures with their names and artists, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois

I open the front door, which is a single one the size of an ordinary interior door, presumably because such a relatively small entrance is easy to guard against grave robbers, and enter. Yes, grave robbers. At least one attempt has been made to steal Lincoln’s body before, and history is rife with grave-robbing of the tombs of the rich, powerful, and honored dead. When Lincoln’s remains were moved to their final resting place in 1901, ten feet below the Tomb’s central chamber in a concrete-and-steel reinforced vault, the portion of the coffin lid that would cover the head and shoulders was cut open. After a brief view of the face to confirm identity, which was still recognizable after all those decades, the coffin was resealed.

Statue of Lincoln in the center of the antechamber at the Lincoln Tomb, a copy of the statue at his Washington, D.C. memorial

I step into a marble-lined, oval room with a bronze sculpture of Lincoln on a pedestal in the center, a smaller version of the Lincoln Memorial statue in Washington, D.C.. There are many such bronze statues throughout the tomb, smaller versions of larger statues in various places. They are placed in alcoves in corridors that surround the central square room. The burial chamber is in the interrupted-oval room at the north end of the structure, which is above Lincoln’s actual burial vault. A red granite symbolic empty tomb for Lincoln, called a cenotaph, stands in the center. Crypts behind the south wall of this chamber holds the remains of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and three of his sons, Edward, William, and Thomas (called Tad). Lincoln’s oldest son Robert wanted to be buried here as well, but his wife decided otherwise. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, as he served briefly in the Union Army and then as the 35th Secretary of War under Presidents James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. Lincoln’s only grandson, Abraham Lincoln II (called Jack), was originally buried here, but he was re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery after his father’s death.

Four sculptures from the Lincoln Tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois

Four more sculptures from the Lincoln Tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois

The Tomb is as beautiful inside as it is outside, with a very different feel. Outside, the pale granite gleams, and the monument’s structures and sculptures tower and rise. Inside, the marble and granite and bronze glow gently in the lowly-lit rooms, the golden honey atmosphere at least as much a result of the lights as it is of the materials. I suspect the warm tone of these electric lights was chosen to reflect the quality of light of the gas lamps and candles that lit interiors in Lincoln’s time. The mood is warm despite the cold stones and metal, and the place feels close and solemn: it wraps around you just as it does around itself, just as a shroud does the departed. No one rubs any of the facsimiles of Lincoln’s nose in here, though as you can see from the photos, they do rub the toes of his boots.

Abraham Lincoln’s red granite cenotaph in the burial chamber of the Lincoln Tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery

Receiving vault at the north foot of the Lincoln Tomb, the first resting place of Lincoln at Oak Ridge Cemetery, from May to December 1865

I pay my respects and look long at the sculptures and the architecture details, then re-emerge to the hot summer day. Down the hill to the north of the Tomb, there are two more structures of interest. At the north foot of the Tomb’s hill, there’s a pedimented marble vault with an iron gate. This was the initial resting place of Lincoln at Oak Ridge Cemetary in May of 1865, along with the remains of his son William, who had died in 1862, during Lincoln’s first term in office. The caskets remained here, under guard, until December of that year, until they were interred in a temporary vault partway up the ridge towards the Tomb here today. Lincoln, William, and his two other deceased sons were reburied within the unfinished Tomb in 1871.

Tower holding the large white stone slab upon which Abraham Lincoln’s casket first rested at Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois

The other is a castellated tower across the path from the receiving vault. It holds the original large flat stone, mounted upright and engraved, upon which Lincoln and his son William’s caskets were placed for the many months they awaited their temporary resting place on the ridge. The tower was built in 1900, the year before Lincoln’s casket was opened to confirm the presence of his remains, then re-interred in its permanent, secure resting place deep beneath the floor of the Tomb’s burial chamber.

As I leave Oak Ridge Cemetery, I wind among the lots before I find the way out. It’s a pretty and peaceful place and I would linger if I were a less restless traveler.

I continue south towards downtown Springfield and head for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. I see so many interesting things here that I want to tell you about. Since this tale has already grown somewhat lengthy, I’ll continue the tale of my day’s explorations in my next installment of my explorations following the life and ideas of Lincoln in Springfield. Stay tuned!

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Sources and inspiration:

Abraham Lincoln Long Nine Museum website: Walking Tour Map and Lincoln’s Connection

Abraham Lincoln OnlineLincoln Timelines and Highlights and Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site

Brink, McCormick & Co. ‘Springfield Township, Springfield City.‘ from Atlas of Sangamon County, 1874.

Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995

Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889

History of Sangamon County, Illinois; Together with Sketches of its Cities, Villages and Townships … Portraits of Prominent Persons, and Biographies of Representative Citizens. Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co.,  1881

Illinois Ancestors.orgAbner Banks Hall and The Grandfathers Vol.I, The Hall and Overstreet Families

Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.

Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois. National Park Service website

Looking for Lincoln: various historical/informational placards throughout the Springfield, Illinois and surrounding areas about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln at their associated sites

MacLean, Maggie. ‘Elizabeth Todd Edwards: Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.’ Civil War Women blog, Jul 28, 2013

Robert L. Wilson (1805-1880)‘ from Mr. Lincoln & Friends: The Politicians by The Lehrman Institute

Robertson, Peggy. ‘The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Body.’ American Heritage, April/May 1982

Robert Todd Lincoln‘ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Rogers, Colonel Matthew Building/Abraham Lincoln Long Nine Museum.‘ National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. Prepared by John R. Ede, Oct 1, 2004

Strange History Brought to Light‘ and ‘…And His Face Was Chalky White’ by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt, Life Magazine, Feb 15, 1963

New Podcast Episode: Bitterroot Mountains and the Lewis and Clark Wendover Ridge Hike

A view through the windshield of Petty Creek Rd / Rte 489 between I-90 and Hwy 12, Lolo National Forest, Montana

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Journal: Powell Campground & Lochsa Lodge, Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest, Monday, July 17th, 2017

After lingering over breakfast this morning with my sister Bonnie, cousin Beth, nephew Cory, and cousin Mo, I realized there was no way I was making it from Spokane to Yellowstone National Park today. So I thought: why not camp near Lochsa Lodge and do the Lewis and Clark Wendover Ridge hike, which friends of mine will be doing later this week, on the way? I’ve left plenty of time in my itinerary to go spur-of-the-moment adventuring. My friends have told so many tales of joy and hardship on this hike that my curiosity and spirit of competition just can’t resist the challenge. So, I make my decision. I stop at Superior Ranger Station off I-90, discuss my plans with the two oh-so-kind and helpful women there, and get directions. The ranger here who knows the trails, as well as the ranger she conferred with by phone at Powell Ranger Station, both warn me that the trail is extremely rough and in parts nearly impassible, not having been maintained in any way for at least two years. Sounds to me right now more like a dare than a warning.

I head south on Petty Creek Road, a beautiful drive through a pastoral valley, and over the ridge to Highway 12 and a short drive back west. I was here last in snowy, frigid January. It’s very different today… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Friendship of Robert G. Ingersoll and Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman in 1891. He had long suffered frail health following a severe stroke in 1873, finally dying in March of 1892 of pneumonia. Nevertheless, he continued to write and enjoy the company of many friends and admirers throughout most of those years. This portrait was taken sometime during the year after Robert Ingersoll paid him tribute with his address ‘Liberty in Literature.’ Photo public domain via the Library of Congress

In the first part of my Peoria account, I promised to write more about the friendship between Robert G. Ingersoll and Walt Whitman in the next installment. But the more I read, the more I wanted to know about the relationship between these two people I admire very much. So, I decided to explore this topic a little further in its own piece. Please excuse my tardiness!

‘Let us put wreaths on the brows of the living.’ – preface line to Robert Ingersoll’s tribute to Walt Whitman Liberty in Literature, 1890

In 1890, Ingersoll read his moving, eloquent and sometimes florid Liberty in Literature testimonial to Whitman as he shared the stage with that aging, frail poet, who listened tranquilly and said little except at the end in thanks. On this day, Ingersoll described in detail the myriad reasons for admiring Whitman which he’d later outline in the more succinct and very beautiful eulogy he wrote for the poet two years later.

The great egoist who Ingersoll extolled on this day was also a great humanitarian, a friend and intimate of everyone from the most humble to the most famous, whose friends and admirers included Mark Twain, Paulina Wright Davis, Oscar Wilde, Ralph Waldo Emerson (the first to write him a letter in praise of his poetry), and Ingersoll. Yet Whitman who regularly lived in poverty throughout his life, often with friends of as little means as he himself had. He also volunteered to do the filthy, bloody, backbreaking, sorrowful labor of a nurse during the Civil War. In his maturity, especially, the egoist and humanitarian sides of himself appeared to have reached a well-developed and harmonious balance, reflecting his philosophy that all human beings are equally valuable, equally fragile, and equally godlike, including one’s self.

Whitman’s life was centered around what Ingersoll admiringly referred to as the ‘religion of the body’, which, as I understand it from Whitman’s own work as well as from Ingersoll’s description of it, includes the belief that the human body is a sacred thing rather than a source of corruption as most religious orthodoxies held; that human physical love is likewise sacred and beautiful, akin to a sacrament; that the humble and the great, the sinner and the saint, all share in the same humanity and are all deserving of the same compassion and respect. Ingersoll’s favorite line of Whitman’s, ‘Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,’ from his poem To a Common Prostitute, perfectly sums up the ethics of Whitman’s religion of the body.

 

Liberty in Literature, Robert Ingersoll’s testament to Walt Whitman. Truth Seeker Company 1890 pamphlet publication, 1st pages. In the collection of the National Library of Scotland.

Whitman was religious in an earthily mystical, entirely non-denominational sense. Ingersoll describedWhitman’s religiosity in the eulogy he wrote for him in 1892: ‘…He accepted and absorbed all theories, all creeds, all religions, and believed in none. His philosophy was a sky that embraced all clouds and accounted for all clouds. He had a philosophy and a religion of his own, broader, as he believed—and as I believe—than others. He accepted all, he understood all, and he was above all.’ Ingersoll and Whitman disagreed about religion, but this did not impact their friendship and respect for one another in any negative way. Ingersoll, famed for his agnosticism, thought that Whitman was mistaken to believe in any sort of god. Yet, it seems, Ingersoll respected Whitman’s impulse to believe because it originated from and was of a kind that reflected ‘his elemental quality–his sun-burnt philosophy–his appalling candor–his nude naturalness–his kinship with nature in all her charms–his perfect courage and above all, his sympathy!’ Whitman’s peculiar religion was also free of doctrine or of any ethical imperatives other than those which would accord with Ingersoll’s own creed ‘Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.’

 

Ingersoll’ eulogy to Whitman ends with the words ‘I loved him living, and I love him still.’ Whitman wholeheartedly reciprocated this feeling. He described his reasons for admiring Ingersoll in terms as least as fulsome as Ingersoll used to describe his own admiration for Whitman: ‘Damn if I don’t think the Colonel is always magnificent! There was always something ample, sufficient, about Bob’s ways and means: he always seemed big enough to go as high and as deep and as far around as anybody… inevitably, tremendously, yet almost lethargically forceful, like a law of nature.’ To Whitman, the inner qualities of his friend found expression in his large frame as well as in his well-chosen and compellingly delivered words, which Whitman compared to those of ‘a master of fence: his strokes are not only infallible but virile.’ He continues: ‘He contains no malice, no poison, but is vehement, aggressive, even overwhelming; not impetuous… but searching, calm; he batters down the opposition like some irresistible wind-blow–like the sea when it comes piling in flooding everything.’

 

Liberty in Literature testament to Walt Whitman, Truth Seeker Co.’s pamphlet cover, 1890, in the collection of the National Library of Scotland.

Whitman’s praise of Ingersoll, not surprisingly, incorporates suggestions of a physical appreciation as well as an intellectual and spiritual one. To Whitman, this was not mere prurience: the body, as sacred thing, was a proper object of appreciation and admiration. It appears that, to Whitman, it could also serve as much of a window to the soul as a person’s eyes, and smile, and deeds, and words. We are now well acquainted with the importance of body language in communication; Whitman goes further and finds that important elements of the human character are expressed in the very lines of the body. (I’ve recognized a similar theme in W.E.B. DuBois’s praise of black female beauty and the superior virtues expressed in that array of physical characteristics over what he perceived as the comparatively angular and pallid characteristics of white beauty.) Whitman’s admiration for (perhaps even crush on, based on his language) Ingersoll is well-rounded (pun intended) because for him, the spiritual and the physical are all equally important manifestations of the whole human person, and all must be included in order to really understand and appreciate anyone. This goes back, again, to Whitman’s religion of the body.

 

At the time Ingersoll delivered his tribute to Whitman two years before his death, it was the Gilded Age which, no doubt, made another particular selection from one of Whitman’s poems, Song for Occupations, stand out for Ingersoll as it does for me. The poem is another celebration of humanity; in this case, of workers particularly, and points out that it’s humanity and not the produce of their labor of which the true treasure of the earth consists. Ingersoll prefaced his reading of that selection in his Liberty in Literature address:

‘In this age of greed when houses and lands, and stocks and bonds, outrank human life; when gold is of more value than blood, these words should be read by all,’

and then offered Whitman’s lines:

‘When the psalm sings instead of the singer,

When the script preaches instead of the preacher,

When the pulpit descends and goes instead of the carver that carved the supporting desk,

When I can touch the body of books by night or day, and when they touch my body back again,

When a university course convinces like a slumbering woman and child convince,

When the minted gold in the vault smiles like the night watchman’s daughter,

When warranty deeds loafe in chairs opposite and are my friendly companions,

I intend to reach them my hand, and make as much of them as I do of men and women like you.’

As are so many of Whitman’s, these are timely words for us, too.

Ingersoll and Whitman had been friends for many years at the time of the latter’s death though they had been admirers of one another for quite some time before they met. Though they only had the opportunity to visit each other occasionally, they wrote to one another regularly. Ingersoll and Whitman also praised one another publicly quite often, and shared a kind of sympathy that only two very public-spirited, unorthodox, liberal-minded, often maligned but also well-loved people can. In short, they were natural friends. These two men, with their humanist convictions, their generous natures, their compelling ways with words, their courage in proclaiming their own unorthodox visions of a truer and better way of perceiving the world and of living in it, and their ability to love and admire one another undiminished by their occasional disagreements over religion, propriety, and other particulars, provide a most beautiful example of how a true and rich friendship can give rise to great ideas and help develop and perfect them over time. May we all enjoy such friendships in our own lives.

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Sources and Inspiration

Folsom, Ed and Kenneth M. Price. ‘About Walt Whitman.’ Biography for The Walt Whitman Archive via the Modern American Poetry website

Ingersoll, Robert G. Liberty in Literature: A Testimonial to Walt WhitmanNew York: Truth Seeker Co, 1890

Ingersoll, Robert G. The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Vol. 12 (of 12) -Miscellany: A Tribute to Walt Whitman [eulogy]. New York: The Dresden Publishing Co, 1900

Pike, Royston and Eva Ingersoll Wakefield. The Life and Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll. London: Watts & Co, 1952.

Traubel, Horace, Sculley Bradley, and Gertrude Traubel. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1906

Walt Whitman‘. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2017. Web. 02 Sep. 2017

Walt Whitman.’ Poets.org, website of the Academy of American Poets

New Podcast Episode: To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories

Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Photo: January 2017 by Amy Cools

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my seventh philosophical-historical adventure: an almost three-week road trip through the Great Plains and on to Illinois. I’ll fly from Chicago to Scotland on August 9th: I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in the history of ideas at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. In the meantime, I’m overjoyed to have this window of time to explore parts of my country which I’ve never seen, and to learn as much as I can along the way…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

A page from Ernest East’s Abraham Lincoln Sees Peoria, published in 1939, in the collection of the Local History Room, Peoria Public Library

Peoria, Illinois, July 28th, 2017, continued

From the 200 block of N Jefferson Ave between Hamilton Blvd and Fayette St, I zigzag my way south past Courtyard Square. According to Lewis Lehrman’s Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point, ‘Douglas and Lincoln probably stayed at Peoria House… at the corner of Adams and Hamilton Streets.’ Peoria House was a popular place for visitors to stay until it was destroyed by fire in 1896. According to Peoria Historical Society, it was replaced in 1908 by the grand Hotel Mayer, which, in turn, would burn down on 1963, when a drunken guest’s bedding caught fire and spread. The site is now occupied by a large Caterpillar office building.

Ernest East, however, writes in his Abraham Lincoln Sees Peoria that Lincoln definitely was a regular guest here. A contemporary newspaper report about one of these occasions, on March 27th, 1857, said ‘Hon. Abraham Lincoln is in our city and stopped at Peoria House. Mr L., it will borne in mind, is to be our next United States Senator. The people have decreed it–the next legislature will have only to ratify their nomination.’ The Peoria Republican proved overconfident, however. Though the Republicans won the popular vote, senators were then elected by the legislature, and due to some last minute political wrangling, Lincoln’s political sparring partner Stephen A. Douglas was awarded the office instead.

Mayer Hotel, 1907 to 1963, built at old Peoria House site at Adams and Hamilton, Peoria, Illinois

Lincoln had served one term in Congress, from 1848-1849. This was his highest office before being elected as President in 1860, almost twelve years later. As with my musings on my visit to Galesburg, Barack Obama comes to mind often when I think of the historical and political issues connected to Lincoln. After all, Obama’s presidency is, in some part, Lincoln’s legacy too. Obama was also elected President after serving as United States Senator, in his case serving seven years in Congress, as opposed to Lincoln’s less than two with a several year gap between. Nevertheless, I remember many people complaining that Obama was unqualified, with far too little political experience. I don’t remember ever hearing this about Lincoln, though I’m certain this was a big issue for many voters at the time. Lincoln did, however, have a good deal of experience in the state legislature, and like Obama after him, was very well educated in the law. The proof’s in the pudding, I suppose, and the leadership abilities that Lincoln demonstrated throughout his Presidency had made us forget, so many years later, that he was not a seasoned statesman when he entered that office. We have yet to see how Obama’s legacy will fare with the test of time beyond the historical importance of the fact that an African-American was elected to two terms as President. I believe it will hold up fairly well, despite the unremitting and I think, unpardonably nasty opposition to every single one of his policy objectives while he was in office. And Obama’s grace and dignity under fire are beyond reproach. He certainly kept to the moral high ground.

Presidents Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln

Many readers might object to my characterization of Obama’s presidency as in any way a part of Lincoln’s legacy. After all, wasn’t Lincoln a racist and only a reluctant abolitionist? I reply, yes, both of those things are true, but the story is much more complicated. It’s also true that Lincoln evolved over time, in his heart as well as in his mind, and the evidence shows he came to believe that abolition was not only politically the best thing to do, but also the only morally right thing to do. Remember that Frederick Douglass met him, personally, on multiple occasions when Lincoln was President, and he came away from each of those meetings convinced that Lincoln was personally free from racial prejudice. Douglass was not a man to be fooled: he was a longtime and fierce critic of Lincoln’s, both before and after these meetings.

And remember too, that for all his imperfections, Lincoln was the lead man in actually getting that crucial, terribly stressful job of legally abolishing slavery done, facing down the vehement opposition to it at great cost to his own physical and mental health. Obama also went through this sort of political and moral transformation. He had initially opposed legal marriage equality for gay couples based primarily on his own religious beliefs. Nevertheless, what he learned in the process of leading this diverse nation of free people was sufficient to change his mind. Obama eventually offered his strong public support for the right of gay people to marry. He also nominated progressive justices to the Supreme Court who were more likely to consider marriage equality cases as matters of equal protection rather than matters of tradition. Which they did in 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which effectively legalized gay marriage, based on the grounds that denying it to gay couples violated 14th amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection. I hope that one day I’ll write about the first United States Presidency of a gay person being, in part, Obama’s legacy as well.

Caterpillar AB building at Adams and Hamilton, on the site of the old Peoria House and then the old Meyer Hotel in turn, opposite Courthouse Square in Peoria, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln stayed here many times, and Stephen A. Douglas may have stayed here as well.

Robert G. Ingersoll first moved here in 1857 as a young lawyer with his brother Ebon Clark Ingersoll, also a lawyer, who eventually became a congressman. They opened a law office at 4 Adams St ‘opposite the courthouse, on the second floor of a two-story frame house reached by an exterior staircase,’ according to his biographer Edward Garstin Smith. Today, the section of Adams St that’s across from Courthouse Square is entirely occupied by that huge Caterpillar office building, pictured above, that also covers the old Meyer Hotel site.

According to local historian Norman Kelly, the young Bob Ingersoll and about ten of his friends got themselves arrested in September of 1857, that first year. They had set a bonfire in the middle of Main Street, singing songs around it at two in the morning. Perhaps Ingersoll was just a little too excited about his new home! In any case, after they had sobered up, Ingersoll requested a trial where he would represent the whole bunch of carousers, including himself. He conquered the jury’s hearts and minds with his combination of impressive legal knowledge and droll humor, promising that he and his buddies would perform a rousing rendition of that same song for them if the jury would acquit… with the understanding that the acquittal would be in accordance with the evidence and the law, of course. An acquittal did follow, but the account doesn’t reveal whether the jury got their concert. I imagine they did.

According to a letter to his brother John in February of 1858, Ingersoll slept at the law offices and boarded at ‘the finest hotel in the city;’ Ebon and his wife lived elsewhere. So, for the most part, 5 Adams Street was Ingersoll’s first home in Peoria.

Caterpillar welcome center, at the southeast corner of Main and Washington, on the site of the Ingersoll law office from 1873-1875

I walk one block south and west and stop at the southeast corner of Main and Washington Streets, where Ingersoll moved his law practice in 1873, three years after his tenure as Attorney General of Illinois and before he moved his solo practice to his home in 1876. His office was on the second floor of the Second National Bank building, which became the Peoria National Bank. Ingersoll had spent the intervening years making a living on the lecture circuit, in which he was very successful, and campaigning for Republican candidates for office.

The Clinton House was built in 1837 as a two-story brick hotel at Adams and Fulton Streets. It was destroyed by fire in 1853, and Schipper and Block department store was built on the site in about 1879. The name was changed to Block & Kuhl in 1914. Local History and Genealogy Collection, Peoria Public Library, Peoria, Illinois

Adams and Fulton Sts detail, Insurance Maps of Peoria, Sanborn 1927, Local History and Geneology Room, Peoria Public Library

I double back on Main one block north, then head left on SW Adams another block. The old Clinton House used to stand at Fulton and Adams Streets. The conversation I had with Chris Farris at the Local History and Geneology Department earlier today led me to the white terra cotta glazed two-story department store building that used to be Newberry’s. Therefore, I take photos of that location. However, the more I dig, the more I discover that can’t be the site. A closer reading of the Abraham Lincoln Sees Peoria account of Lincoln’s visit to the Clinton House, and double-checking the 1927 Sanborn map against postcards of the Clinton House and the Block & Kuhl Department Store that was built on the site, reveal that the Block & Kuhl department store, and thus the Clinton House, stood on the other side of the street. The old Chase Bank Building stands there now.

Chase Bank Building, photo by Dave Zalaznik, use courtesy of Peoria Journal Star, Illinois

Former Chase Bank Building which stands at the former site of Clinton House and then the Block & Kuhl department store, photo by Dave Zalaznik, use courtesy of Peoria Journal Star

Aerial view of Adams and Fulton with the ‘The Big White Store’ Block & Kuhl, once Schipper & Block, now the site of the old Chase Bank Building and once the site of the old Clinton House, Peoria IL, Local History & Geneology Collection, Peoria Public Library

Selection from the Peoria Register and North-Western Gazetteer, February 15, 1840, p 3, Library of Congress

More digging for details of the Clinton House and Lincoln’s visit here uncovers a newspaper announcement of the re-opening of Clinton Hall to the public under John King’s management. The Peoria Register and North-Western Gazetteer published this on February 15th, 1840, but the announcement includes an earlier date: November 16, 1839. Therefore, King had already been running the house for nearly 3 months when Lincoln and 120 other men dined here on February 10, 1840. The dinner followed a rally for Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison on February 10th, 1840, at which Lincoln spoke.

Lincoln was a committed Whig before he joined the Republican Party, formed 14 years after the Harrison rally. As a Whig, he supported protectionist policies such as high tariffs on imported goods, intended to boost American wages and industry. Today, this sort of policy is more likely to be found on the Democratic side of the political aisle, but not always. Bernie Sanders’s platform, in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, included many protectionist policies, but our current Republican president Donal Trump has also advocated slapping high taxes on imports. I wonder what Lincoln would think now, given the additional economic evidence from the past 150-plus years. I don’t believe, myself, that protectionism helps labor in the long run, neither here nor abroad: it blocks access to goods that people need and want and keeps too many out of the work force. Such tariffs are based on the idea that the marketplace is a zero-sum game, like trying to make and share a pie when only one size tin is available. In reality, however, the more people who can and do participate in making the pie, there’s no market-imposed limits to the size. (There are ecological limits, but that’s another story.) It takes regulation, not tariffs, to ensure that a few greedy gobblers don’t keep others from enjoying the bounty too.

Robert Ingersoll as a Civil War commander, early 1860’s

I pass through the Fulton Street Plaza, where the street narrows to form a walking path through a small park between Adams St and Jefferson Ave, and head back along Main St.

There are three addresses on Main Street that I seek, but the given addresses don’t match the old atlases I have access to, nor are there specified landmarks except a mention of proximity to the Courthouse: 1) In 1861, Robert and Ebon Ingersoll moved their law office from the one they had opened at 4 Adams St in 1857 to 55 Main St, 2) In 1865, now a married man, a Civil War veteran, and a father of two, Ingersoll’s office moved again to 45 Main St when city attorney S.D. Puterbaugh joined the practice; Ebon had left in 1864 to enter Congress, where he would serve for 7 years, and 3) in 1868, Ingersoll moved the office to 46 Main St when he took on another law partner, Eugene McCune, the city prosecutor. I don’t have a story right now in connection with these particular locations, but I may as well share these facts since I’ve obtained them, in case they may be useful to another doing historical research.

Civic Center from N William Kumpf Blvd, near site of old AME Episcopal Church, Peoria, Illinois

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1870 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

I make my way next to a site that used to be at Fifth and Monson, but both those streets have disappeared under the vast pavement of the Peoria Civic Center on N William Kumpf Blvd. Somewhere under all this asphalt and the sprawling concrete sports and events edifice used to stand the Ward Chapel African Methodist Church. Douglass spoke here in Peoria for the last time on February 7th, 1870 to this congregation and their guests. The address he delivered on that occasion is titled ‘Our Composite Nationality.’ The membership of all races in one great human family was among Douglass’ favorite themes, and this conviction drove Douglass’ work as a champion for many human rights causes: for the rights of Chinese and other foreign-born immigrants and citizens; for universal suffrage; for freedom of thought and religion; for improved conditions and wages for laboring people; for providing education to the disadvantaged; for just treatment of  Native Americans; for prosecuting lynchers; and for many, many more.

On this day Douglass said,

‘I am told there is objection to this mixing of races. We do not know what the original race was. It does not matter whether there was one Adam, a dozen Adams or 500 Adams. ‘A man’s a man for a’ that.’ [I love this inclusion of a line of Scottish poetry. I’m planning a series about Douglass here in Scotland while I’m living here for the next year.] I begin with manhood. Smiles and tears have no nationality. My two eyes tell me I have a right to see, my two hands, that I have a right to work. Almond eyes are not solely peculiar to the Chinaman. Hues of skin not confined to one race… I close, as I began, in hopes for the republic. Let us rejoice in a common sympathy a nd a common nationality supporting each other in peace and war, and to the security of a common country.’

Hear, hear, Mr. Douglass. We could really use you here today. Many carry on your fight for social justice but few with your power, eloquence, and wisdom. (And handsome face.)

Facing the northeast corner of Globe and Hamilton, former site of the Tabernacle, Peoria

The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, July 24, 1899, out of W. Virginia, from Chronicling America, Library of Congress

My last stop of the day is half a mile north on my way back to my hotel room, so I pick it up the car from where it’s parked near the Peoria Public Library, and drive uphill towards the big OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. When I arrive, I find a brand new parking lot and medical building at the northeast corner of Hamilton Blvd and Globe St, the UnityPoint Health Methodist Ambulatory Surgery building. It’s so new that Google Maps still shows nothing at the site but freshly leveled dirt and huge pipes ready to go into the ground.

This was the site of the Tabernacle, a huge octagonal multi-purpose structure built in 1894. A memorial service was held here for Ingersoll on July 24th, 1899 three days after his death. He was not buried in Peoria; he had moved to Washington D.C. in 1878, once again opening a law office with his brother, and then back to his native state of New York in 1885. His ashes were interred in Arlington National Cemetary since he was a Civil War veteran. But Ingersoll was among Peoria’s most famous and treasured adopted sons, having lived there for a little over 20 years. So, it was wise to hold his memorial service in such a large space.

Looking back at Peoria’s downtown skyline from this rise, I’m treated to a lovely view. What a nice location for the city to pay tribute to one of its beloved former citizens.

View of downtown Peoria from near the former site of the Tabernacle at Hamilton and Globe

One more thing: Lincoln spoke briefly but memorably once at the Main St Presbyterian Church in the summer of 1844. I dig and dig but have the hardest time locating the location of that church. There was a very tiny congregation of Presbyterians co-founded by Lincoln’s good friends Lucy and Moses Pettengill in 1834 who, by the way, ran an important stop on the Underground Railroad from their home on Liberty and Jefferson. This Presbyterian congregation split into two: New School and Old School. Each one moved and changed named multiple times, especially the second one, so I don’t ever succeed in obtaining a photo of the 1844 New School Main Street church which Lincoln spoke at. But I do find a description of the location in East’s biography: the church was ‘situated on the lot above the alley adjoining the present Alliance Life Company building.’ The then-present Alliance Life Company building is the now-present Commerce Bank building, which is my second stop of the afternoon in search of the site of Rouse’s Hall where Frederick Douglass spoke on at least three occasions. I find no map which shows the location of that old alley, but it’s somewhere near where that long low 1960’s concrete building is in the photo above.

Commerce Bank, once the Alliance Life Company Building, Peoria, Illinois

Lincoln’s speaking appearance was an impromptu one this time: he was in town for a court appearance when he was persuaded to debate Colonel William May. May was a lawyer and former Congressman who started out as a fellow Whig, switched to run for Congress as a Democrat, switched back again to support Whig William Henry Harrison, and was a Democrat again by the time Lincoln accepted this debate. Why Lincoln did, I don’t know. The terms of the debate were so circumscribed, including a ban on discussing May’s political career, that it doesn’t sound like an enticing opportunity to me, given the plentiful fodder that May’s checkered history would provide for a vigorous and entertaining exchange.

Apparently, Lincoln thought so too. May, who was also a respected debater, used the latter portion of his time to rip apart the Whig party, comparing it to a liberty pole that looked nice from the outside but had actually been weakly spliced together from disparate elements, with dry rot leaving a gaping hole in the center. After May had left that door wide open for him, Lincoln couldn’t help but walk through it. He stood up and responded ‘Why, Colonel, that is the hole you left when you crawled out of the Whig party.’ After Lincoln followed with the suggestion that the hole be filled up so May couldn’t crawl back in, the crowd started laughing and arguing, the Whigs delighted, the Democrats angry that Lincoln had violated the terms of the debate. He acknowledged the latter and apologized, I think insincerely, since he remarked that the opportunity was just too good to resist. The hubbub did not die down, and the debate meeting broke up.

See? I told you before that Lincoln was a funny man.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Ballance, Charles. The History of Peoria, Illinois. Peoria: N.C. Nason, 1870.

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999

Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881.

East, Ernest E. Abraham Lincoln Sees Peoria: An Historical and Pictorial Record of Seventeen Visits from 1832 to 1858. Peoria, 1939

Garrett, Romeo B. Famous First Facts About Negroes. New York: Arno Press, 1972

Garrett, Romeo B. The Negro in Peoria, 1973 (manuscript is in the Peoria Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Collection)

Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889

Hoffman, R. Joseph. ‘Robert Ingersoll: God and Man in Peoria‘. The Oxonian, Nov 13, 2011

Hubbell, John T., James W. Geary, and Jon L. Wakelyn. Biographical Dictionary of the Union: Northern Leaders of the Civil War. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995

Kelly. John. ‘Robert Ingersoll, the ‘Great Agnostic’.’ The Washington Post, Aug 11, 2012

Kelly, Norm. ‘Peoria’s Own Robert Ingersoll‘, Peoria Magazines website, Feb 2016

Leyland, Marilyn. ‘Frederick Douglass and Peoria’s Black History‘, Peoria Magazines website, Feb 2005

Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.

Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois. Website, National Park Service

Peoria Register and North-Western Gazetteer, February 15, 1840, page 3. Library of Congress

Peoria Speech, October 16, 1854‘. Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois website, National Park Service

Smith, Edward Garstin. The Life and Reminiscences of Robert G. Ingersoll. New York: The National Weekly Publishing Co, 1904

Wakefield, Elizabeth Ingersoll, ed. The Letters of Robert Ingersoll. New York: Philosophical Library, 1951

The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, W. Virginia, July 24th, 1899. From Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress