Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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RALPH I. INGERSOLL was born in New Haven, February 8th, 1789. His father, Jonathan INGERSOLL, a gentleman of great moral worth, and "among the foremost in his profession," was successively State Attorney, a Judge of the Superior Court, and Lieutenant Governor of the state. Jared INGERSOLL, the famous stamp-master, one of the ablest lawyers of his time, and the ancestor of those of the name in Philadelphia, was his grand-uncle. A junior brother, also distinguished, was the late Judge Charles A. INGERSOLL. His fourth son, his successor in practice, is now Governor of Connecticut.
After his graduation at Yale College in 1808, Mr. INGERSOLL read law two years with Seth P. Staples, and then opened an office in New Haven. The period was an interesting one. Pierpoint Edwards, able and eloquent, had recently been transferred to the bench of the District Court of the United States, leaving at the bar, as its most prominent members, David Daggett, Nathan Smith and S. P. Staples, each pre-eminent in his way. The last will be remembered as the founder of the law school of New Haven. Of the two others, the first had the advantage in early education, scientific training, and compact and powerful argument. The last was distinguished for native shrewdness, practical knowledge of character in every phase and station of life, marvelous and matchless skill in finding his way to the minds and hearts of juries. They long lived side by side, and were on excellent terms. Perhaps equal in natural gifts, equally adroit in combat, they usually pitted against each other. Gentlemen of the old school, their exalted reputations, dignified and portly forms and courtly manners, the white tap-boots, ruffled shirts and powdered hair, made them note-worthy personages in every circle.
It is the best evidence of Mr. INGERSOLL'S energy and talent that he was able, in the presence and by the side of these strong men, first to stand erect, than to attain eminence. Doubtless the models he had before him awakened ambition, and thus contributed to his success.
While still young, Mr. INGERSOLL became interested in politics. Though by birth a federalist, when the question was presented whether Connecticut should longer have a state religion, and congregationalists be a privileged sect, he, with his father and other influential churchman, took the side of equal rights, and in 1817 became "tolerationist." As a member of the new party, he was chosen, two years later, to represent New Haven (previously a strong federal town) in the legislature. The session which followed, on account of the new constitution and the laws it made it necessary, was an important one. Mr. INGERSOLL was made second clerk, (the clerks were then members,) assumed the second place on the judiciary committee, and immediately took a high position among the leaders in debate. He was a working member, faithful to his trust, and probably the ablest man on his side. So well satisfied with him were his townsmen that they kept him in the house till wanted for a higher service. In 1820 and 1821, he was chairman of the finance committee, and in 1824, speaker. In 1825 he was elected a representative to Congress, which election vacated his seat in the state legislature to which he had been again chosen.
Continuously for eight years, Mr. INGERSOLL represented his state in Congress. In accordance with the views of the largest wing of the democratic party at home, he for the first four years supported the administration of Mr. Adams, and afterward acted with the national republicans, led by that master spirit, Henry Clay. For three years he served on the committee of the District of Columbia, but in 1829 was placed in that of ways and means, the most important committee of the house. Here he remained four years, holding during his last term the second place. Among his distinguished associates were McDuffie, Verplank, Gilmore, and, at the close, Polk. While yet a new member he spoke rarely, but at a later period not unfrequently, always with energy and effect. Steadily to the end he rose in estimation of his fellow-members and the public. Able, incorruptible, industrious, and vigilant, he appears to have given his time to the nation's business as he would have done to his own. Very clearly he was not afraid of responsibility, and when the yeas and nays were called was nearly always in his place. While still a representative in Congress, he served one year (1830) as mayor of New Haven.
Space does not permit the writer to state in detail how, in consequence of new developments and the progress of events in Washington and elsewhere, Mr. INGERSOLL and his friends in Connecticut, after four years' opposition, came in 1834 to support Gen. Jackson's administration. Suffice it to say that whatever he then did was the result of his discovering the general excellence of President Jackson's measures somewhat earlier than did his political censors - for not many years had elapsed before all parties admitted that these measures were for the most part wise and patriotic. During the bank panic, in the spring of 1834, while the "new departure" in Connecticut was still in progress, and before discordant elements had become quite harmonized, Mr. INGERSOLL was nominated for state representative, and defeated by the whigs, so called.
On his return from Congress in the spring of 1833, Mr. INGERSOLL found that his professional business was broken up, and at the age of forty-four was obliged to begin, as it were, anew. But the industry and talent which had once achieved the victory soon enabled him to wear off the rust of eight years, and to regain all he had lost. In the meantime he became State Attorney, which office he filled with his usual fidelity and ability about twelve years. In 1835 Gov. Edwards selected him to fill a vacancy in the Senate of the United States, a position to which the legislature soon to meet would undoubtedly have elected him, but he peremptorily declined. Often when his party was in power was he requested to take the nomination for Governor; and it is undoubtedly true that on many occasions he might have had any office in the gift of the people. In only one instance did he depart from his settled purpose on leaving Congress not to accept honors which interfered with his profession, and that was in 1846, when his friend, President Polk, appointed him Minister Plenipotentiary to the Russian court. It is strictly true, as those who knew the man will readily believe, that the compliment was unsought and unexpected. After an absence of two years, having served his government faithfully and ably, he gladly returned to his profession, and with unabated vigor practiced it twenty years, never with greater success.
Though long in political life, and sometimes active as a party manager, Mr. INGERSOLL's native dignity, his innate manhood, preserved him from contamination - from the vices of those unclean spirits which are the scourges of every political organization. Disreputable practices he discouraged as unprofitable and immoral. Though he did not escape detraction and even abuse, so few were his vulnerable points, so strong was he in character and the hearts of the people, that his opponents found profit in forbearance and discretion.
Mr. INGERSOLL loved his profession, and with unfaltering resolution through a long life, devoted himself to it. Believing it a noble calling, having the first claim on his time and talents, he denied himself the pleasures and diversions in which others indulged. The few years he spent in different but allied pursuits, he grudged as comparatively unprofitable. With enthusiasm enough to give tension to the faculties, and make labor easy and productive, he fixed his mind irrevocably on the end. He desired to attain excellence and eminence as a lawyer; and on that objective point were brought to bear the convergent forces of his whole nature. Having noble endowments - an intellect vigorous and well balanced, obedient to the will, and equipped with every needful adornment, toiling on as if in the belief that genius, so called, confers nothing but the power to work effectively, his success was assured. He was a hard student but not of books alone. Profoundly did he study human nature, and thus gained the practical knowledge and skill which so distinguished him.
Mr. INGERSOLL was noted for proportionate and harmonious development of all the powers - powers which would have secured distinction in any walk of intellectual life. That he was an able lawyer, a close thinker, adequately learned, and familiar with the whole field of practice, all admit. His voice, pleasant, almost musical, and of unusual compass, could be heard distinctly in its lowest tones. The ready, fluent speech, graceful delivery, and active but natural gesticulation; the energetic, earnest manner, and the countenance which mirrored every thought; all contributed to his power as an advocate. While his language was select, his argument was clear, logical, compact and complete. Eminently persuasive, forgetting nothing and digressing rarely, he touched lightly on the weaker points and knew where to place the strain. If the chain broke the fault was not his.
Though speaking well with little premeditation, Mr. INGERSOLL was accustomed to prepare his cases thoroughly; looked at both sides and weighed opposing considerations. Well fortified himself, he was quick to see and expose an unguarded point in the enemy, dexterously driving home his advantage. Though when speaking to the court or a deliberative body, he addressed himself wholly to intellect, using little ornament; when standing before a jury or popular assembly, he gave himself more liberty; was sometimes impetuous, often eloquent. On these occasions he would show his power over the common mind, putting himself in contact with those primitive sentiments, convictions and instincts which lie at the foundation of human nature, and which are older than reason. With his hand on these hidden springs of action, he shaped and directed the cerebral movements, awakened emotion, or quickened the sense of right, carrying his auditors whither he would. Says one of the large experience: "He was the best public speaker I ever knew." In a notable degree he possessed that personal magnetism by the aid of which the orator sways and sets on fire the sympathetic multitude. At one time he was humorous and witty, at another serious and pathetic, and could be sarcastic. Oppression of the weak by the strong he would vehemently denounce; a prevaricating witness flay, if he could.
Unlike most lawyers, Mr. INGERSOLL was an experienced and accomplished writer. That he might keep up with the flow of thought, he wrote rapidly, but corrected with great care. If a sentence or a word did not suit him; if it were capable of a meaning different from the one intended, or did not express with sufficient fullness or precision the finished thought of his mind; it was discarded and another sought. Concerning his facts he was conscientiously scrupulous, and would state nothing which was not wholly and exactly true. Though often writing under provocation, and on exciting political questions, he was thoughtful of character, and never offensively personal. Said he to an impulsive young editor: "Never speak or write ill of a political opponent." His compositions, like his published speeches and addresses, were perspicuous and packed with thought. They were not long and never dreary.
No man ever lived a purer or more exemplary life than he. His character was adorned by all the public and private virtues. Honorable, manly and just, it is believed he was never guilty of a deed of meanness or conscious wrong. Governed himself by a delicate sense of duty and honor, he marveled at the low morality and mercenary instincts of many of our public men; marveled at the sudden growth and overshadowing power of the lobby. "When I was in Congress," he used to say, "nothing like it was known." An honest man and a patriot, the corruption and depravity everywhere visible distressed and alarmed him. He loved the government our fathers founded, feared the day of trial had come, and trembled for its safety.
In the best sense, Mr. INGERSOLL was a prudent man. Very properly he was reluctant to take a risk; would not give an opinion or advocate a measure unless there were solid grounds for it; would not put to hazard a good reputation, or butt his head against a wall, because pressed to do so. Not in the least fanatical, and opposed to radicalism and violence, he would go no further and no faster than seemed to him wise. Others were more enterprising, more adventurous, more aggressive, and sometimes without deserving it got more reputation. On account of his habitual caution, some impatient people thought he lacked courage, but he was not afraid to do his duty. When the way was clear and the right apparent, he was ready to go forward, and if the case were urgent was fleet as the fleetest.
Mr. INGERSOLL was delicately organized, of moderate stature, slender, straight, and of a healthy constitution. For his size his head was large, full in the frontal region and prominent at the angles. He had finely-cut features, thin lips, and dark eyes well protected by jutting brows. Till nearly eighty, with unclouded intellect, he continued his practice, and till the last went daily to his office when health permitted. There he would sit, reading and writing, giving a cordial welcome to any friend who might call. His intimate acquaintance with political life and character, taken in connection with his urbanity, kindness, candor, and simple dignity, made his conversation extremely interesting. His opponents, in their helplessness, sometimes called him aristocratic; but he was the reverse of that in dress, manners, and mode of life, and apparently in thought and feeling. In everything he was the farthest possible from ostentation or pretension. A slave to no appetite, neat in person and attire, refined in his tastes, and a thorough gentleman, he was a model of republican simplicity.
Six months before his decease Mr. INGERSOLL fell and broke his arm. The shock was too severe for him, and hastened his death. He died, without a known enemy, August 26th, 1872. In his last years he was a communicant of Trinity church. His widow, of Dutch parentage, whose maiden name was Margaret Van den Heuvel, of New York, a lady of great energy and discretion, and who was indeed a help-meet, still survives. They were married February 10th, 1814.