You wouldn’t expect to find a figure in American history quite like Robert Ingersoll, said Kate Tuttle in The Boston Globe. Though nearly forgotten today, this bald, portly self-taught lawyer was one of the most popular speakers of the Victorian era, and the subject closest to his heart was arguing against belief in God. In her “lively, passionate” biography of the man later dubbed “the Babe Ruth of the podium,” Susan Jacoby works to resurrect Ingersoll as a hero of free thought and a model for how secularists and devout religionists might speak to each other today. “Ingersoll critiqued religion but never despised the religious.” He wasn’t the spawn of a godless East Coast elite; he was the son of a Midwest preacher, and a leading Republican.
He followed his own path to the role of party kingmaker, said Katherine Mangu-Ward in The Weekly Standard. Born in 1833, he established his law career before serving as a cavalry colonel during the Civil War, then began touring as a speaker soon afterward. He studded his speeches with humor, which helped advance his arguments in support of women’s rights, racial equality, and Darwinian evolution. By the time the 1876 Republican convention arrived, he was ready to seize the spotlight with an acclaimed nominating speech for expected winner James G. Blaine. Jacoby, an outspoken atheist herself, mostly makes light, breezy reading of such episodes, but her “frequent interjections on current American politics” are caustic and jarring.
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The book also won’t teach readers much about agnosticism, said Michael D. Langan in The Buffalo News. Ingersoll didn’t even distinguish between atheists and agnostics, saying that both professed a belief, but not a certainty, that there is no God. But Jacoby’s book isn’t a philosophical tract, said Mythili Rao in TheDailyBeast.com. She has instead reintroduced a man we should remember fondly. Not only did he renounce his personal political ambitions to serve as a champion of secular thinking, his is the story of “a life well-lived.”
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