Dresden, NY, Redux

April 7, 2012
How to travel if you’re me: Find the thruway and begin to get on the thruway. Realize you don’t have any munny. Make an illegal U-turn and go to Wal-Mart and buy that underwear you’ve been needing so you can also get some cash munny. Put on AC/DC’s High Voltage as loud as your radio will go. Drive an hour or so to your destination. Then realize that it’s still closed and does not actually open until Memorial Day.

I was prepared fully to have an awesome blog post for Blog Against Theocracy, about how I made it to the Ingersoll house and learned so much. I mean, I did learn a few things. Such as:

  • There is a kid who lives next-door to the Ingersoll House who may actually be Napoleon Dyanamite, just give him a few years
  • Golfers appreciate a nice car horn blast as you’re driving by
  • Cows appreciate it just as much when you lean out the window and yell “MOO!”
  • There are churches in Geneva, NY, that are so beautiful that they might almost make a guy like me believe in the Lord Jesus Christ

Oh, wait, here’s a picture:

Church in Geneva NY

Did this trip learn me anything about Robert Green Ingersoll? Not really. But the lake is certainly beautiful, so the drive is worth it anyway. But I reckon for today and tomorrow, I will have to stick to sharing with you what’s in Susan Jacoby’s excellent book, have I mentioned this book to you yet? Did you run out and purchase your own copy? Hmmmmmm?


There is an amazing thing about Mr. Ingersoll: He was a true progressive.

I mean, back in the day, you could be a forward-thinking, progressive, even a “liberal” kind of thinker and still think that Jim Crow laws were just dandy and that women shouldn’t oughtta be anywhere near a polling place.

Not Robert Ingersoll. I know, I know: “But he was a Republican!” Remember, though, the Republican Party of today is not even the Republican Party of the Reagan era. It sure as hell isn’t the Republican Party of Lincoln, which was the political party to which Ingersoll belonged. In fact, Ingersoll was a Republican mainly for two reasons: He was an abolitionist, and he believed in the gold standard. These were both once upon a time planks of the Republican Party, bleev it or not.

Jacoby: “In 1883, when a conservative Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875…Ingersoll issued a withering blast at the justices. Describing the decision as ‘a disgrace to the age in which we live,’ he declared that the high court’s opinion ‘puts the best people of the colored race at the mercy of the meanest portion of the white race. It allows a contemptible white man to trample upon a good colored man.’” Jacoby notes that it took 80 years hence for Congress to right the wrong Ingersoll spoke of.

To put Ingersoll incredible foresight into a hell of a proper perspective, let’s turn to the fact that this man, who died in 1899, had a position on the highly topical issue of CONTRACEPTION.

“Ingersoll, speaking before there were any reliable methods of contraception, nevertheless envisioned the day when science would ‘make woman the owner, the mistress of herself’ by enabling her ‘to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.’ Effective means of contraception, Ingersoll said, would ut an end to the poverty of families with more children then parents could support. ‘This frees woman,’ he declared. ‘The babes that are then born will be welcome. They will be clasped with glad hands to happy breasts. They will fill homes with light and joy.’

(This from Ingersoll’s last public address, delivered before the American Free Religious association, Boston, June 2, 1899.)

Another thing Ingersoll was: He was funny. Here’s how he recalled his Sundays growing up (his father was a Presbyterian preacher):

After the sermon we had an intermission. Then came the catechism with the chief end of man…We sat in a row with our feet coming within about six inches of the floor…After that we started for home, sad and solemn—overpowered with the wisdom displayed in the scheme of atonement. When we got home, if we had been good boys, and the weather was warm, sometimes they would take us out to the graveyard to cheer us up a little.

King of Late Night. I’m telling ya.

For tomorrow, I’m going to discuss why, perhaps, you have not ever heard of Robert Ingersoll. It was a factor he was aware of in his lifetime and it is indeed why the man never ran for office.

I’ll also include one of the most quotable statements the man made regarding the issue at hand, The separation of church and state.

Dresden, NY

March 19, 2012
I drive alone to Dresden, NY, eager for a road trip, having not had an excuse for one in quite some time. It’s a beautiful day, untimely for upstate New York, with the crisp air just shaking the snow off its boots.

I drive mostly on thruway to the Seneca Lake area and came upon Geneva, New York, a lively little downtown, and I am pleased. I like lively little main streets like this; this is what Candidate Obama was talking about, Main Street versus Wall Street. Little shops and taverns and oh, a little music store I’ll visit on my way back.

I leave Geneva toward Dresden and am pleased to find myself deep in New York winery country. I pass winery after winery and spent grape bushes galore. I let the windows open to let the chilly wind rush around a little, and I’m blasting De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising.

I find Dresden eventually. It’s a crossroads. It’s so little there that you find yourself looking for the rest of it, and then I’m driving down a road ravine with signs warning that there’s actually no way to turn around. I figure I’d better find a way to do so before I’m sucked in to whatever black hole awaits. And then to my right is my destination, the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum.

Within five minutes of peering into the windows, I realize that it is closed to tourists except for on Saturdays and Sundays, information I did not somehow manage to glean from the World Wide Web. I take a few snapshots, stand for a moment to take the whole place in, including the smallest Post Office I have ever seen just across the street, and I get in my car and drive back.

Some might mark this road trip as a failure. No such thing. I will return to Dresden someday. Perhaps even when this place is open.


My interest in Robert Ingersoll stems from the writing of Susan Jacoby in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, an excellent book that any blogger endeavoring on the BAT should have a well-thumbed copy of. Ingersoll is one of her book’s showpieces, and as well he should be. He was known as a Civil War hero, a colonel indeed captured and then paroled by the South; as one of the great orators of his time; and as the “Great Agnostic.” He is the reason you know the name “Thomas Paine.” He was a spirited member of the Republican party and indeed spoke at one of that party’s convention to nominate a candidate to the floor (who was then not nominated).

He was one of the great Americans, a man I am coming to think of as that generation’s King of Late Night. And, as I may allude to here so many times it might become cloying: You’ve probably never heard of him.

One of the biggest things Robert Ingersoll accomplished: He resurrected Thomas Paine, who died broke and screwed. His country had twice turned its back on him, once to let him rot in a French prison. Theodore Roosevelt called Paine a “filthy little atheist…that apparently esteems a bladder of dirty water as the proper weapon with which to assail Christianity.”

Jacoby continues: “Were it not for the unremitting efforts of Ingersoll, who, despite his nineteenth-century fame and notoriety, is ignored in standard American history texts, Paine’s vital contributions to the revolutionary cause might have suffered the same fate. Unfortunately , no champion arose in the twentieth century to do for Ingersoll what Ingersoll did for Paine.

Well. I’m not sure I’d say I’m a “champion,” Susan, but we can sure get started, and what better occasion for this than the world-famous Blog Against Theocracy?

A few things to know about Ingersoll: Walt Whitman considered him to be the greatest orator of his time.

“It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass,” said Whitman of his friend. “He lives, embodies, the individuality, I preach. I see in Bob [Ingersoll] the noblest specimen—”American-flavored”—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light.”

Novelist Sherwood Anderson had Ingersoll as a character in his novel Poor White, so persuasive a speaker that he “…came to [a small Midwest town] to speak . . . , and after he had gone the question of the divinity of Christ for months occupied the minds of the citizens.”

Ingersoll is mentioned in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry, where Gantry’s friend Jim Lefferts suggests using an Ingersol sermon, “love is the only bow on life’s dark cloud,” but Gantry opts not to credit Ingersoll. “Rats!” exclaims Gantry. “Chances are nobody there tonight has ever read Ingersoll. Agin him. Besides I’ll kind of change it around.”

Colonel Bob Mountain in Washington state was named for Robert Ingersoll.

I kind of throw these facts up there to emphasize the stature of the man in his day. He was, as I’ve come to think of him, the Johnny Carson of his day.

What was mass media then, after all? Books and newspapers. The theater, and, perhaps, the symphony. Or, you went to see a guy give a speech. And the guy who is considered one of the best at the speech-making is Robert Ingersoll. He’s lauded for his monologues, and his ratings are through the roof.

He’s the King of Late Night of the time.