Happy Birthday, Robert Ingersoll!

Statue of Robert G. Ingersoll in Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Illinois

Robert G. Ingersoll, orator, lawyer, politician and Civil War veteran often called ‘The Great Agnostic’, was a very famous man in his time but rather forgotten today. He was born on August 11, 1833 and died almost 66 years later. Among other things, he was a vocal and consistent advocate for abolitionism, women’s rights, freethought, and scientific progress. While very liberal and broad-minded, he was a dedicated family man. While his views are as progressive as could be for a person if his time, he was what we might call a square. Besides his unabashed and very public religious skepticism, he lived a life that even Victorian standards would consider altogether decorous and blameless, despite frequent attempts to discredit his views by finding something scandalous to publish about his personal life.

Ingersoll was a great friend of many of the era’s most interesting and influential people including Walt Whitman and Thomas Edison, who made two recordings of his voice with his new invention, the audio recorder.

He was also an admirer and promoter of the memory of Thomas Paine. Though Paine was a founding father of the American cause for independence with his great pamphlet Common Sense and other writings, he had long fallen out of favor in American public memory following the publication of The Age of Reason, his diatribe against religious orthodoxy and superstition, as he perceived it.

Robert Ingersoll in 1868

In the time Ingersoll enjoyed fame as an orator, freethought ideas had become more acceptable as a matter of public discourse. It was still generally unacceptable to be an out-and-out atheist, but even these could become popular speakers if they were eloquent and interesting enough. In fact, they were often considered novel and exciting, and free speech was enjoying one of its heydays in the United States in this period sometimes called The Golden Age of Freethought. This was a time when public speakers provided a very popular form of entertainment. Many of that era’s important thinkers and activists made their living, or much of it, through public speaking: Ingersoll himself, abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass, and feminist, atheist, and civil rights activist Ernestine Rose among them. Rose was also a famous orator in her day, pre-dating Ingersoll by almost a generation but like him, eloquent, witty, and a champion of Paine. She generally spoke only of topics related to her social justice causes, but Ingersoll and Douglass, like many famous orators, spoke on a wide range of topics such as Shakespeare (both men were big fans), science, politics, and much more.

For more about the eloquent and brilliant Ingersoll, please see the links to excellent online sources and to my own writings about Ingersoll below. Last year, I followed the lives and ideas of Robert Ingersoll, Frederick Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln in Peoria, Illinois, where Ingersoll lived and worked for many years; all three men admired and were inspired by one another. It was a most fascinating journey.

By Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy:

Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

Review: The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby

By others:

Robert G. Ingersoll: American Politician ~ by the editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica

Robert Ingersoll, the ‘Great Agnostic’ ~ by John Kelly for The Washington Post

Robert Ingersoll: Intellectual and Moral Atlas ~ by Tom Malone for The Objective Standard

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) ~ at SecularHumanism.org

That Old-Time Irreligion: ‘The Great Agnostic,’ by Susan Jacoby ~ by Jennifer Michael Hecht for The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review

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*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

Happy Birthday, Julia Ward Howe!

Julia Ward Howe, ca. 1855

Julia Ward Howe, poet and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.

She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.

Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. Lincoln was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory, continuing to resonate and inspire today in our Protestantism-derived culture. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death last fall. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ becomes ‘…let us die to make things cheap.’ Cohen redirects her line to critique today’s great sin of destroying our environment likewise out of greed, complacency, indifference to the fate we’re creating for our descendants, and slavish adherence to the ‘way it’s always been done.’

Julia Ward Howe postcard dated August 28th, 1903, from the Hutchinson Family Scrapbook in the collection of the Lynn Historical Society in Massachusetts. I was here in spring 2016 following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. The Hutchinson family dedicated their musical skills to the abolition movement and other reform causes and were friends with many prominent activists of their day. The scrapbook doesn’t note which member of the Hutchinson family Howe wrote this card to.

Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:

Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910: BiographyPoetry Foundation

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) – by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum

‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter – by Jill Lepore for The New York Times

Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1 – by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall, 1915

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Photobook: Marker and Train Station Where Abraham Lincoln’s Body Returned to Springfield, Illinois on May 3rd, 1865

Marker for Lincoln’s funeral train in the summer evening light, at the Springfield Train Station at 100 N. 3rd Street, Springfield, Illinois

Last year, I visited Springfield, Illinois to follow the life and ideas of Abraham Lincoln while following in his footsteps. The last Springfield site associated with Lincoln that I visited on July 29th, 2017 was the train station at 100 N. 3rd St. The brick station, though plain, has clearly been spruced up since the photos featured on Google Maps, dated 2007, that I find on the day I write this. There’s now a shady porch over the outdoor waiting platform, new paint and benches, and a handsome stone marker signed by Katie Spindell.

The marker commemorates the May 3rd, 1865 arrival of the funeral train carrying Lincoln’s assassinated body. He lies buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery, in the city where he established his legal and political careers, married, and raised a family. Read more about my Lincoln travels in articles linked here, or listen to the podcast versions.

Springfield Train Station at 100 N. 3rd Street, Springfield, Illinois

Screenshot of 2007 Google Maps image of the N. 3rd Street train station in Springfield, IL

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Photobook: Three Surveyors and One Other Guy

‘Three Surveyors and One Other Guy’, from a historical plaque in downtown Springfield, Illinois, spotted during my journey here following the life and ideas of Abraham Lincoln

National Surveyor’s week this year will be March 18-24, 2018. Happy National Surveyors week!

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: Hannibal and Florida, Missouri, in Search of Mark Twain

Mark Twain Memorial Bridge on the Missouri River, view from the riverside at the foot of Hill St, Hannibal, Missouri

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

Journal: Hannibal, Missouri, evening of July 31st, 2017

I’m sitting here on the waterfront between the Mississippi River and the train tracks, facing northwest. My back is leaning against a stone wall. The train whistle was deafening, but now the engine has passed and the freight cars are rumbling slowly by. The low, warm, dark peach last light of sunset is glowing gently through the steel truss bridge. I have a bottle of wine at my side and my laptop computer on my lap. The night is warm and humid. I’ve found a dark alcove beneath the park’s perimeter footpath so I can better see the last light of the sunset, and to avoid the clouds of mayflies swarming in the light around every post lamp.

Old town Hannibal is very old-timey America. Lots of brick, and false fronts, and clapboard siding. Look to the west end of the street and you’ll see a steep tree-covered hill with a perfect little white lighthouse perched on its side. The main street’s storefronts are mostly full, with antique and novelty shops, souvenir shops, cafes, ice cream and candy parlors, and bars and restaurants… 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!

O.P. Recommends: Frederick Douglass’ Drunk History Episode

This year brings all things Frederick Douglass to O.P., in celebration of the bicentennial of the great human rights activist’s birth, one especially dear to my mind and heart. So here I share my favorite episode of Drunk History, in which comedian and screenwriter Jen Kirkman drinks two bottles of wine before she tells Douglass’ story. It also stars Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass, Will Farrell as Abraham Lincoln, and Zooey Deschanel as Mary Todd Lincoln. Directed by Jeremy Konner. Prepare for some aching ribs…

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: New Salem, in Search of Abraham Lincoln

Statue of Abraham Lincoln as surveyor at New Salem, Illinois

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

New Salem, Sunday, July 31st, 2017

From the Michael J. Howlett building in downtown Springfield (part of which stands on the site of the Ninian Edwards house where Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were married and where Mary died), I head northwest on highway 97 to New Salem Historic Park. This is the site of New Salem, the small frontier commercial village which played no small role in Lincoln’s life as a young man striking out on his own. It’s a pleasant drive through farmland with homes and farm buildings and gas stations and tiny general stores scattered here and there. In a little under half an hour, I reach a wooded area, and soon after that, take the turnout to my left to New Salem. I stop for a snack at the little cafe offering a modest selection of hot dogs, nachos, sandwiches, and other things that take the edge off but don’t suffice as a meal. The park’s visitor center buildings are all closed because the air conditioning system isn’t working. I don’t blame them at all for not opening up: it feels very much like a summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid, and I imagine a full day indoors would get stuffy and miserable. But the park itself is open to roam, so I do… 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!