Twice in the 1890s, a world-famous speaker came to Galveston giving lectures (and drawing huge crowds) at The Grand 1894 Opera House. He spoke in 1896 on agnosticism, then in 1898 on liberty.
He stayed at the Tremont Hotel and The Hotel Grand as they existed before the 1900 hurricane destroyed so much of the island.
This man was a major leader of the 19th-century Republican Party, close friend of several U.S. presidents (and lived on Lafayette Park, neighbor of the White House, for several years) and ally of Frederick Douglass. He knew Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, but the presidents he was closest to were Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur, and, especially, James A. Garfield (he saw Garfield just before and again just after Garfield was shot in July 1881; Garfield died weeks later).
He was offered — and turned down — the equivalent (in today’s dollars) of $1 million-plus expenses if he’d go to Australia for a speaking tour. He gave talks across America in major cities like Galveston, Chicago, San Francisco and in hundreds of smaller ones. A town near Texarkana was named after him (but later changed its name to the current Redwater, Texas). A mountain in Washington state is named after him.
Preachers all across the United States led prayers for him, including by thousands of Christians on Thanksgiving Day, 1895. The prayers were focused on this Illinois attorney general, giver of the then most famous nominating speech at a national political convention, and man reputed to be among the nation’s most generous and kindly.
He steadfastly championed civil rights, voting rights for women and for citizens of the District of Columbia, and denounced slavery even before he led a regiment of Union soldiers at the Battle of Shiloh.
He memorized all of Shakespeare (one of his popular lecture subjects) and was an extremely successful attorney. His power to speak, in the days before radio, microphones, television and movies, made him the biggest entertainment draw in the land, reportedly being seen and heard in person by more people than any other American.
Walt Whitman declared that, “I see in Bob the noblest specimen — American-flavored — pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light.” And Mark Twain wrote, “I doubt if America has ever seen anything quite equal to it; I am well satisfied I shall not live to see its equal again. How pale those speeches are in print, but how radiant, how full of color, how blinding they were in the delivery! Bob Ingersoll’s music will sing through my memory always as the divinest that ever enchanted my ears.”
He was born Aug. 11, 1833, (you can visit his birthplace in Dresden, New York, on the Finger Lakes) and died in 1899.
In his day, he was widely known as “The Great Agnostic.” Today, he would more likely be called “The Great Secular Humanist.”
I invite you all to think “Happy Birthday” on Aug. 11 for Robert Green Ingersoll — now that you’ve heard of him.