Surprising Things About Two 19th Century Presidents

I am reading Susan Jacoby’s recent book, “The Great Agnostic,” subtitled “Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.” Ingersoll was a very popular orator and lecturer in the second half of the 19th Century, despite the fact that he was an outspoken critic of organized religion, particularly Christianity.

“Freethought” was a euphemism for atheism and agnosticism, advocating reliance on what Ingersoll called the three pillars of freethought: observation, logic and experience, as opposed to faith-based beliefs.

Jacoby included some interesting facts about two early Presidents that I had never heard before.

Ulysses S. Grant, during his campaign and after he was elected, advocated the revocation of tax exemptions for churches. Of course, his advocacy went nowhere in the Congress of that time, but his popularity as a Civil War hero must have been considerable to overcome what must have been an immensely unpopular position at the time.

The second, even more astonishing, was about Lincoln. Like Washington, Jefferson and many other early Presidents, Lincoln never belonged to a church and was evasive when questioned about his religious beliefs. When Protestant clergy urged him to invoke God in his opposition to slavery, he replied as follows: (I love this.)

“I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that I represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed that he would reveal it directly to me; for unless I am more deceived in myself that I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is, I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain, physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible, and learn what appears to be wise and right.”

A clearer articulation of “Freethought” would be hard to find.

After reading Jacoby’s book, and several others about Ingersoll, I find it puzzling why this great man, acknowledged even by his critics as honorable and honest, has disappeared from our history. I checked my local library for books about him…nothing.

Is this a “Christian conspiracy?”

If so, we nonbelievers are equally to blame for letting the memory of his speeches and lectures be covered by the dust of time. We need to clear away that dust so that people can learn about him.  And then, perhaps some will be inspired to pick up his sword and continue the struggle to advance his ideas.

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