Address to the Colored People
An 1867 speech by Robert Ingersoll in Galesburg, Illinois. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899), of Illinois, was an attorney, Civil War officer, public lecturer, writer and radical Freethinker. In the decades following the Civil War, Ingersoll became famous for his advocacy of progressive causes and as a champion of agnosticism. Few Americans bar Tom Paine have been so condemned by religious opinion as Ingersoll for alleged blasphemy in his critique of organized religion. For further, see Orvin Prentiss Larson, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll, a biography (New York: Citadel Press, 1962; 1993 re-edition).
In speaking to an African American audience at Galesburg, Illinois, Ingersoll addressed citizens of a town founded by abolitionists, one that was populated overwhelmingly by opponents of slavery and had a history of support for the Underground Railroad dating from the 1830s. The black community contained many property-owners and was well-established prior to the war, then its population expanded rapidly during and immediately after the war. Albert James Perry, History of Knox County, Illinois: Its Cities, Towns and People, vol. 1, Chicago, S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1912, 761-764. In 1867 Ingersoll faced a local black audience that was confident of its achievements and social position in Galesburg. Although Ingersoll does not mention his audience, this speech was probably delivered to the Illinois State Convention of Colored Men, held in Galesburg during October 16-18.
Ingersoll, speaking in his characteristic plain style, begins by reviewing the history of slavery as a historical institution that vitiated host societies. He discusses black and white abolitionists in his review, and links black revolutionaries in the Caribbean with leaders of the American Revolution. Ingersoll reserves his highest praise, however, for John Brown, whom he says “struck the sublimest blow of the age for freedom”. (12) Ingersoll’s understanding of emancipation is that stage by stage whites were forced to give blacks first freedom, then the vote, then civic equality. (14-15) He posits freedom as an inevitable achievement of progress and that slavery represents the antithesis of human progress. Ingersoll concludes by asking his black audience for racial forgiveness, stating “I wonder that you ask a white man to address you on this occasion, when the history of your connection with the white race is written in your blood and tears—is still upon your flesh, put there by the branding-iron and lash.” (16) Although Ingersoll is far too optimistic given that he proclaims “The great problem is solved” (17) and foresees the imminent achievement of civil equality between blacks and whites, his address speaks a post-war belief that the war’s great human loss had achieved a new era.