Looking for some thought-provoking weekend reading? I would suggest you consider Susan Jacoby’s wonderful essay for the newest issue of The American Scholar, in which she discusses in great detail the 19th-century freethought advocate Robert Ingersoll.
In case you’ve never heard of Ingersoll, as is the case for most people, here is a snippet of Jacoby’s article that will give you a glimpse of both his importance and influence:
The lasting absence of public consensus on the proper balance between religion and secularism in American life could easily be used to support the argument that Ingersoll’s current obscurity is richly deserved. He certainly did not put to rest the issue of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, with all of the attendant controversies about the proper role of religion in public institutions and rituals. Yet the persistent tension and inflamed emotion surrounding these issues ought to enhance rather than diminish the Great Agnostic’s stature. Intellectual history is a relay race, not a 100-yard dash. Ingersoll was one of those indispensable people who keep an alternative version of history alive. Such men and women are vital to the real story and identity of a nation, because, in their absence, public consensus about the past would be totally controlled by those who wish to recreate the country’s mythic origins in their own image. This includes both Founder worshippers who see the passionate, risk-taking leaders of the Revolution as figures on a marble frieze and anti-intellectual ideologues who think that too much education is a dangerous thing.
To understand Ingersoll’s importance, only look at a partial list of distinguished Americans of his own generation who were influenced by his arguments and, even more important, the younger admirers who lived into the 20th century, making critical contributions to American politics, science, business, and law and becoming leaders on behalf of civil liberties and international human rights.
The list of these luminaries includes Clara Barton, Clarence Darrow, Luther Burbank, Eugene V. Debs, Frederick Douglass, W. C. Fields, H. L. Mencken, Robert M. La Follette, Andrew Carnegie, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Thomas Edison, and my favorite Ingersoll fan of all, “Wahoo Sam” Crawford, baseball’s outstanding power hitter throughout the first two decades of the 20th century. (For Crawford’s memories of Ingersoll, see The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter’s classic oral history of the early days of baseball.)
The full article is available here. Enjoy your weekend.