When Frederick Douglass and Robert Ingersoll Met in Peoria

Mar 8, 2021

Frederick Douglass, the renowned reformer, writer and orator, was well known in 1870. The former slave was probably the most famous African American of his time and on a cold February morning that year, he found himself in Peoria.

Douglass was on one of his many speaking tours and had just spoken the previous night in nearby Elmwood. Now it was time to travel by train from Peoria.

In order to have time to catch a train for his next engagement, Douglass had to spend the night in Peoria, a situation he confessed concern about, since on a previous visit, he’d been unable to secure a room for the night. An area resident who’d attended the Elmwood talk told him to call on Ingersoll.

“It would not do to disturb a family at such a time as I shall arrive there on a night as cold as this,” Douglass protested in his autobiography. He was assured, however, that Ingersoll would receive him warmly, regardless of circumstance.

Now a recognized celebrity, Douglass was able to spend the night “at the best hotel in the city.” Before leaving Peoria, however, Douglass decided to pay a visit to the city’s most illustrious citizen, Robert Ingersoll, who, like Douglass, was a noted speaker, one of the leaders of the “free-thinker” movement of that era.  Referred to as “the Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll openly called out the church of his time. “Religion can never reform mankind because religion is slavery” was Ingersoll’s stated belief and he stated it across the country where he was a much-sought-after speaker in an era before electronic media.

Before leaving to catch his train, Douglass paid a morning visit to the Ingersoll home. His published account reads: 

“Mr. Ingersoll was at home, and if I have ever met a man with real living human sunshine in his face, and honest, manly kindness in his voice, I met one who possessed these qualities that morning. I received a welcome from Mr. Ingersoll and his family which would have been a cordial to the bruised heart of any proscribed and storm-beaten stranger, and one which I can never forget or fail to appreciate.”

The experience also moved Douglass to speculate openly about matters of faith in an Ingersollian vein.

“Genuine goodness is the same, whether found inside or outside the church, and that to be an ‘infidel’ no more proves a man to be selfish, mean and wicked than to be evangelical proves him to be honest, just and human,” Douglass wrote. “Perhaps there were Christian ministers and Christian families in Peoria at that time by whom I might have been received in the same gracious manner… but in my former visits to this place I had failed to meet them.”

The significance of that meeting between the two men in Peoria is not lost on those who study history. “It was a meeting of two great minds. It was very appropriate that they meet,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president and co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis. 

Ingersoll and Douglass were kindred spirits in many respects. Not only were they among the most gifted—and busiest—speakers of their day, both were heavily involved in politics, urging equal rights for African Americans and women when those causes were anything but popular.

In 1883, 13 years after their first meeting in Peoria, Douglass and Ingersoll both raised their voices to oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling that invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had been enacted in response to civil rights violations against African Americans.

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