Flashback: ‘The most important thing in this world is liberty’ (1887)

(It can be argued — and I do — that Robert Green Ingersoll employed American English with more eloquence and skill than anyone before or since. He was a lover of Liberty and passionately patriotic. He also was an agnostic. I hope that these few excerpts will encourage others to delve further into his work and enjoy it as much as I have.)

“These heroes are dead. They died for liberty. They died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solid pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or storm, each in a windowless palace of rest. Earth may run red with other wars; they are at peace. In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death. I have one sentiment for the soldier, living and dead. Cheers for the living, and tears for the dead.” (from undated speaker’s notes in Ingersoll’s hand, discovered in the attic of his birthplace)

“I would not wish to live in a world where I could not express my honest opinions. Men who deny to others the right of speech are not fit to live with honest men.”

“The most important thing in this world is liberty. More important than food or clothes — more important than gold or houses or lands — more important than art or science — more important than all religions, is the liberty of man.” (from Ingersoll’s appeal to the jury in the trial of a man charged with blasphemy, 1887)

“Our Government should be entirely and purely secular. The religious views of a candidate should be kept entirely out of sight. He should not be compelled to give his opinion as to the inspiration of the Bible, the propriety of infant baptism, or the immaculate conception. All these things are private and personal. He should be allowed to settle such things for himself and should he decide contrary to the law and will of God, let him settle the matter with God. The people ought to be wise enough to select as their officers men who know something of political affairs, who comprehend the present greatness, and clearly perceive the future grandeur of our country.”

“Our Government has nothing to do with religion. It is neither Christian nor pagan; it is secular. But as long as the people persist in voting for or against men on account of their religious views, just so long will hypocrisy hold place and power. Just so long will the candidates crawl in the dust — hide their opinions, flatter those with whom they differ, pretend to agree with those whom they despise; and just so long will honest men be trampled under foot.

“Churches are becoming political organizations.”

“It probably will not be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political, as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there are not liberals* enough to hold the balance of power, this Government will be destroyed. The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave.

“As long as the people persist in voting for or against men on account of their religious views, just so long will hypocrisy hold place and power.”

“All laws for the purpose of making man worship God, are born of the same spirit that kindled the fires of the auto da fe, and lovingly built the dungeons of the Inquisition. All laws defining and punishing blasphemy — making it a crime to give your honest ideas about the Bible, or to laugh at the ignorance of the ancient Jews, or to enjoy yourself on the Sabbath, or to give your opinion of Jehovah — were passed by impudent bigots, and should be at once repealed by honest men.

“An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures. Certainly he ought not so to act that laws become necessary to keep him from being laughed at. No one thinks of protecting Shakespeare from ridicule, by the threat of fine and imprisonment.” (from Some Mistakes of Moses, Section III, 1879)

*If you wince at Ingersoll’s use of the word “liberals,” understand that at the time it represented a political ideology known as “classical liberalism” — what today we’d probably call “libertarian.”

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