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The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought [Hardcover]

Susan Jacoby
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

4 Jan 2013
During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of America's enduring culture wars, Robert Green Ingersoll was known as "the Great Agnostic". The nation's most famous orator, he raised his voice on behalf of Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a vigour unmatched since America's revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899, even his religious enemies acknowledged that he might have aspired to the U.S. presidency had he been willing to mask his opposition to religion. To the question that retains its controversial power today - was the United States founded as a Christian nation? Ingersoll answered an emphatic no. In this provocative biography, Susan Jacoby, the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism", restores Ingersoll to his rightful place in an American intellectual tradition extending from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine to the current generation of "new atheists". Jacoby illuminates the ways in which America's often-denigrated and forgotten secular history encompasses issues, ranging from women's rights to evolution, as potent and divisive today as they were in Ingersoll's time. Ingersoll emerges in this portrait as one of the indispensible public figures who keep an alternative version of history alive. He devoted his life to that greatest secular idea of all - liberty of conscience belonging to the religious and nonreligious alike.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (4 Jan 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300137257
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300137255
  • Product Dimensions: 21.3 x 14.9 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 965,274 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Won Honorable Mention in the 2013 Great Midwest Book Festival for the Biography/Autobiography category, given by JM Northern Media LLC--Great Midwest Book Festival"JM Northern Media LLC" (11/04/2013)

About the Author

Susan Jacoby is the author of ten books, including Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, The Age of American Unreason, and Alger Hiss and the Battle for History. She contributes to many newspapers and national magazines. She lives in New York City.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good read 15 Jun 2013
By Mike
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
When I heard a couple of weeks ago there was a new book on Ingersoll out by Susan Jacoby, I ordered a copy and it was a very good read. I don't think I learnt much new about Ingersoll, but it was different from other biographies I have read in that it is written thematically rather than chronologically, and its strength was the way it attempts to explain the significance of Ingersoll in the context of his own times and American society today. One of the key things it identifies is he was not a scientist or a philosopher, but was able to interpret and promote the new ideas of free-thought to the average person. His appeal was widespread, not just among freethinkers. Jacoby emphasises how modern his views were on topics from feminism to animal welfare, and that unlike some of the 'new atheists' was not devoid at the same time of the poetic \ emotional and romantic side of life. Interesting points as well about the prevalence of social Darwinism at the time and how Ingersoll separated himself from such ideas. He saw Darwin not as setting down survival of the fittest, and he showed that far from being shocked at the idea of being descended from apes, showed how these ideas supported the ideas of social progress. A good read, as is Jacoby's 'Freethinkers'.
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63 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Restores Ingersoll to his Place in History 13 Dec 2012
By Dan Allosso - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Susan Jacoby sets out to -- and in her afterword advises "new" atheists to work tenaciously to -- restore Robert Ingersoll to his rightful place in American history. In two hundred pages, she makes a compelling case. Ingersoll was not only a champion of freethinkers, he widened the field for religious moderates and everyone who prefers a secular government and public sphere. And he lived an interesting life in interesting times.

My only criticism of this story is that American freethought during the end of the 19th century seems very isolated. Jacoby has called this period the Golden Age of American freethought (in Freethinkers as well as here); it was also the golden age of British freethought, and the two traditions were in regular contact with each other. One example would be contraception, which Ingersoll advocated on the basis of women's right to control their own bodies. It wouldn't detract from Ingersoll at all to acknowledge that freethinkers advocating birth control had a long and important history on both sides of the Atlantic when Ingersoll took up the issue. Of course you can't do everything in 200 pages, but in her letter to the new atheists, the author calls out to readers of some contemporary British atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens. Perhaps there would be less need to re-establish these ties across the water if we knew more about the ongoing transatlantic interactions between people like Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile, Frances Wright, R. D. Owens, Charles Knowlton, Charles Bradlaugh, Abner Kneeland, Gilbert Vale, and Robert Ingersoll throughout the 19th century.

But that's my own pet project. Read the book! Rediscover Ingersoll!
45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Correcting the obscurity of an American hero. 31 Dec 2012
By Steven C. Lowe - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An easy to read and engaging biography of this not well-known American hero of liberty, science, human rights, and irreligion. The story of his life is woven into the examination of his liberal progressive positions on social issue of his day, which seem to be many of the issue we are debating still. The short, concise book is a good introduction to Ingersoll if you know little of him and is also interesting to Ingersoll-philes by organizing the chapters thematically around the causes and issues he advocated. So, rather than a strictly chronological read, Jacoby dives, one by one, into the major topics of his many speeches, and interviews: Science, including Darwin's Theory of Evolution; separation of church and state; free speech, especially blasphemy; women's rights and equality; Humanism and Freethinking; and his criticism of the Bible, church, and preachers. The value of a new, modern biography is that it can show us how relevant the work of its subject can still be to us today. With references to recent current events, people and debates, she illustrates how Ingersoll's words and arguments are still relevant. She closes with a chapter addressed to the so called `new atheists' advising that they should be learning from Ingersoll and giving him credit for having advanced the conversation challenging religion over 120 years ago. Highly recommended. If you have never heard of Ingersoll, you will ask yourself, "Why haven't I ever heard of this man before?"
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Voltaire...Paine...Ingersoll. This book restores his name to it's rightful place. 19 Jan 2013
By Bookaholic - Published on
To all the free-thinkers and skeptics reading the books of "new atheists"-Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins; you owe it to yourself to read this beautiful biography (followed by the complete works/lectures) of `The Great Agnostic'- Col. Robert Ingersoll. The new atheists are all wonderful authors, but they owe so much to this truly great man. Without his lifelong dedication to free-thought, in speeches, lectures, books, and most importantly in his life lived, we would live today in an even darker age of fundamentalism and tradition. For example, without Ingersoll's witness and remembrance, the name and works of Thomas Paine would have been erased from history and our textbooks.

Susan Jacoby does a wonderful job of capturing this man in all his contributions and his few flaws. She's captured all the nuances of the man, the era, the challenges, and illuminated the success of Ingersoll's life. The book humanizes a man who was essentially a genius of his era; a man who saw fit to give up an easy life of politics to speak truth to power. Who went beyond the suffrage movement of his day and preached for equality of the sexes (in 1870?!) and access to contraception, (the book includes one of my favorite quotes from Col. Ingersoll "After all, the sun is the only god that has ever protected woman." Like so much of what he wrote, as true today as when he wrote it.)

Buy this book, then buy another for a friend, and another for your local library. We owe it to future generations to keep Robert Ingersoll's name known and honored.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let Us Recall Ingersoll 23 Feb 2013
By R. Hardy - Published on
It is impossible to imagine that these days we could ever have a public figure like Robert Ingersoll. He was the very first American that most other Americans had ever heard of who publically declared, "I don't believe in God." That would not be surprising nowadays; there is a strong "New Atheist" movement, and there are statistics to show that the number of people who do not go to church and the number of people who claim to have no religion are increasing. Ingersoll, however, was popular; he was a genial man who got enormous audiences during a time when conventional Christianity was taken for granted, audiences who came to hear their beliefs critiqued and gently derided, and enjoyed having some fun at their own expense. Susan Jacoby, who has written on American secularism before, maintains that the current secularists have needlessly forgotten Ingersoll, and wants to bring his thinking back to our attention in _The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought_ (Yale University Press), an accessible account of Ingersoll's thinking and influence. Jacoby's book is a biography, and Ingersoll has deservedly had those before, but here she places him as a secularist hero for our own age. He does deserve to be better known, as an American original, by the devout and by the unbelievers.

Ingersoll was called "The Great Agnostic" in his own time, one of the reasons that he may not be so much of a hero to atheists today, who consider agnostics wishy-washy. It may be a point of philosophical confusion, but Ingersoll himself didn't see the difference between the two groups, since the main thing that characterized both was a lack of belief in gods. He was admitted to the bar in 1854, a practice he continued all his life, even after his oratorical shows began. He was a colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War. His distaste for religion might have made it impossible for him to be elected, or even appointed, to office, but his fellow Republicans sought him out for his rhetorical gifts. Ingersoll's lack of religious belief was his foundation for his own system of beliefs. "While I am opposed to all orthodox creeds," he said, "I have a creed myself; and my creed is this. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so." He never allied himself with the Social Darwinists, who, freethinker or Christian, thought that the poor, the immigrants, and the darker races were inferior. He insisted that women were the worst-paid and worst-treated workers in America, and that birth control was essential in liberating women from servitude. He believed, like Voltaire, and like Paine (whose obscurity as a patriot and anti-biblical polemicist Ingersoll spent a lifetime correcting) that human rights were universal and indivisible. He believed this precisely because of his disbelief in religion; you could not find ringing principles of free speech or free press, let alone the prohibition of religious requirements for office, by studying the ancient writings of any faith.

Jacoby has written a fine introduction to an American thinker. There are bigger biographies of Ingersoll, but the timing of this one when Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others are making atheism more apparent to theists (if not more acceptable) is excellent. Indeed, she ends the book with "A Letter to the `New' Atheists," exhorting them to remember Ingersoll for his devotion to science and reason, his disgust for religious oppression, and his insistence on reminding Americans that our founders had explicitly rejected any sort of theocracy. There is one characteristic none of the current atheist stars have to the degree Ingersoll did: humor. There are plenty of quotations here to show how he slyly turned a phrase or an idea that could even have believers laughing at the contradictions of their beliefs. We do not have his stage presence anymore, but Jacoby's book is an invitation to read his good-humored, serious lectures like "The Gods" or "The Ghosts." I have turned to them myself again in the past few days, with great pleasure, and from the latter I find: "Sir Thomas More declared that to give up witchcraft was to throw away the sacred Scriptures. In my judgment, he was right." And Jacoby is right to stir contemporary enthusiasm for her subject.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In praise of Robert G. Ingersoll 18 Feb 2013
By Fezziwig - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Jacoby introduces the subject of this book, Robert G. Ingersoll, as one of “the two most important champions of reason and secular government in American history---the other being Thomas Paine.” Ingersoll (1833—1899) lived in an era when to criticize Christian orthodoxy was not deadly to one’s life, but deadly to one’s career. Paine lived in an earlier era, when to proclaim one’s nonbelief was to risk one’s freedom, if not one’s life. Both men took great risks, and if the risks are slowly, but surely becoming less life-threatening, it is very much due to brave and clear-thinking men like these. Ingersoll is fascinating because of his broad appeal. He seemed to delight just about any audience---orthodox or secular. He did not preach to the choir. What so frustrated his antagonists was his ability to draw large and enthusiastic audiences in every part of the country. Equally frustrating to his enemies was the indestructible integrity of his personal and family life. It did not seem right that an admitted atheist should be living such a morally upright and happy existence. Yet, that was Ingersoll. Ingersoll defended the clear intentions of the founding fathers to keep God out of the U.S. Constitution. “They knew that the recognition of a deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying liberty of thought.” He saw that the marvel of these framers was that they established “the first secular government that was ever founded in this world.” Jacoby compares Ingersoll with “his hero Abraham Lincoln.” Both became lawyers, not after studying at law school, but after working and learning with older attorney’s in frontier law offices. Ingersoll was an intellectual pioneer in almost every area of human justice: racial equality, women’s rights, and even animal rights. He spoke out forcefully against the horrible practice of vivisection. And his favorite poet was Walt Whitman, a writer who was often condemned as a sexual reprobate and libertine. Ingersoll condemned corporal punishment of any kind and of course capital punishment. Jacoby writes, “Ingersoll’s argument against corporal punishment paralleled his opposition to both slavery and capital punishment: He insisted that all of these practices degraded those who imposed them even more than they did the victims.”

If we wonder why we have not heard more about Ingersoll, the same might be said about Thomas Paine. Any objective study of the history of 18th century American must surely recognize the importance of Paine to the creation in America of a free, secular, democratic republic. Surely, he ranks with Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. What kept him from recognition with those founders? What kept such a dynamic speaker and figure as Ingersoll from elective office? Jacoby concludes that it was his challenge to Christian orthodoxy that made him unelectable. And she sees this same prejudice operating today. Very few contemporary politicians have the nerve to state their lack of religious belief. Why should we be surprised at the level of hypocrisy among our elected officials? Jacoby has done well to bring this daring freethinker out of the shadows. And she rightly places him up there with Thomas Paine as a heroic voice in the evolution of our free, enlightened, secular democratic republic.
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