Charles Jared Ingersoll, a dinner-party delight

Charles Jared Ingersoll

Charles Jared Ingersoll

Charles Jared Ingersoll was a prominent 19th century Philadelphia lawyer, member of Congress and writer. A good friend of Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte, Ingersoll was known for his lively conversation, his admiration for the United States, and his eccentric dress.

A Princeton dropout

Charles Jared Ingersoll was born in Philadelphia on October 3, 1782. His father, the lawyer Jared Ingersoll, had been a delegate to the Continental Congress and signed the US Constitution for Pennsylvania. His mother, Elizabeth Pettit, was the daughter of Charles Pettit, a wealthy New Jersey lawyer and merchant who had served as an aide to Governor William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s son, and had also been a member of the Continental Congress. One of Ingersoll’s early recollections was of the funeral of Benjamin Franklin in 1790.

As might be expected given this background, Ingersoll grew up in a stimulating home. Well-known political figures often visited his father. Ingersoll had several opportunities to observe President George Washington, and, on at least one occasion, dined at the presidential table.

In 1796 Ingersoll entered Princeton University. His professors “were much struck with his quickness in learning; but he was still very young, was rather lacking in application, and his youthful spirits were at times too strong to bear the restraints of college discipline.” (1) He dropped out after three years. He then studied law under private tutors and was admitted to the Philadelphia bar in June 1802.

Impressions of Napoleon

Almost immediately thereafter, Ingersoll sailed for Europe. He did a tour of the continent, accompanied by Rufus King, the American minister to London. While in France, Ingersoll met Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte at the home of the American minister, Robert Livingston, who was negotiating the Louisiana purchase. Ingersoll also saw Napoleon reviewing his troops and at the opera. He described the then-First Consul as:

thin and pallid, with a mild and languid Italian expression…. His personal appearance then was perhaps most remarkable for its extreme dissimilitude to his colossal character: not only uncommonly small, but looking still more diminutive and young, owing to a smooth, almost beardless, and unpretending countenance, without anything martial or imposing in his air or manner. He looked, I thought, like a modest midshipman. His height was but five feet two inches, French measure, equal to five feet seven inches English or American. Between Bonaparte as I saw him, slender, pale and small, and the Emperor Napoleon, grown fat and stout, there must have been considerable difference of appearance. (2)

Ingersoll’s admiration for Napoleonic France was dampened when he witnessed the sudden and apparently causeless arrest of a man by a group of soldiers – something he recounts in Napoleon in America. In later years, influenced by his friendship with Joseph Bonaparte, Ingersoll found redeeming features in the Emperor.

Napoleon, apart from rabid ambition, was a model of domestic, particularly matrimonial virtues, far exceeding most of not only the royalty, but the aristocracy of Europe…. Nor were all the evils of his undeniable despotism so injurious to France as the Bourbon restoration….

Bonaparte, vainest man of the vainest nation, failed in all but what it preferred…. Capable of intense abstraction, with never surpassed reasoning faculty, imbued with mathematical investigation, Bonaparte either never had, or lost the power of patience; had no fortitude, but was a creature of passion; worked, raged, ruled, narrated, and expired prematurely, the most perplexing illustration of the vanity of human wishes.

Posterity will account weakness what contemporaries impute as wickedness. Less sanguinary, not more rapacious than most of them, of his immensity scarce a wreck remains. By unequalled victories enormously aggrandized, his empire subjugated, was reduced below royal or republican France; and of all his achievements, what remains? Not founder, but chief European builder of popular election, the permanent result of his career is representative government.” (3)

Proud American

After a visit to England, Ingersoll returned to the United States in 1803. The following year, on October 18, he married Mary Wilcocks (b. Jan. 2, 1784), the daughter of Alexander and Mary (Chew) Wilcocks, and the granddaughter of colonial Pennsylvania’s chief justice Benjamin Chew. Announcing the event to Rufus King, he wrote, “I am a very young man, and a very poor one, but I hope you won’t think I am committing a rash act.” (4)

Ingersoll and Mary had nine children: Charles Jr. (1805), Alexander (1807), Harry (1809), John (1811), Benjamin (1813), Elizabeth (1815), Edward (1817), Ann (1822) and Samuel (died in infancy). They made their home in Philadelphia and spent their summers at a 20-acre property called Forest Hill, about four miles north of Germantown, Pennsylvania (it’s now part of Philadelphia).

As was the case with his friend Nicholas Biddle, Ingersoll’s time in Europe made him a staunch defender of the United States. A writer of plays, poetry and political pamphlets, Ingersoll published articles in which he criticized the tendency (prevalent among old Federalists, such as his father) to idolize England. He told his countrymen that they were, in general, the equals of Europeans and, in some respects, their superiors. He thought America’s future would be great and her influence on the world enormous. In 1811 he wrote to President James Madison that

want of self-respect, an unjust self-appreciation, has always struck me, since my return from Europe, as a defect in the American people. (5)

Ingersoll supported the War of 1812 against England and later wrote a four-volume history of it.

The life of the party

Like his father and grandfather, Ingersoll decided to combine his legal career with a political one. He was elected to Congress as a Democratic-Republican for 1813-1815, and served as chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary. He did not stand for re-election, having been appointed as the US district attorney for Pennsylvania, a position he held from 1815 to 1829.

Ingersoll spent a lot of time in Washington – unaccompanied by Mary, though he was always keen to have his children visit – where he enjoyed parties and political conversations, about which he was quite chatty in his correspondence and diary. Here’s a sample from February 14, 1823:

Every Tuesday Evening during the Session Mr. [John Quincy] Adams sees company, and every assembly is a dancing one as indeed all their large evening parties are here. There was a large one at Mr. Calhoun’s last night. There was one at Taylor’s on Monday – and week before last I believe there was one every evening…. [T]he rain has kept me in my chamber till now two o clock, which, by the bye, is not long after breakfast in Washington. Mr. Adams gave us a very good dinner yesterday, there were 4 servants in waiting; and as he gives such dinners at least once a week, I believe, during the session, I dare say the President [James Monroe] is right in thinking that $6000 a year does not pay for all his hospitality. It seems to me that the dinner giving system has increased very much since I first knew this great watering place – will you let me call it – where amusement is a business, a need, to which almost every body is given up from 5 o’clock till bedtime. All the Secretaries give dinners & balls frequently, I fancy weekly, and many other persons who, I should think, can ill afford it. The court & bar dine to-day with the President. In my opinion a Judge should never dine out in term time except on Saturday or Sunday, if then. In England I am told they hardly ever do; and I fancy the pillars of Westminster hall would marvel much if they could see the Supreme court of the U. S. begin a day’s session, aye, after robing & taking their places, by receiving from the Marshal their cards of invitation and taking up their pens to answer them before the list of cases is called for hearing. (6)

As you might guess, Ingersoll was much in demand as a guest.

In conversation he eminently excels, and is the delight of every dinner party; he is extensively acquainted with English and French literature, an excellent classical scholar, quick in quotation, and fond of drawing comparisons; he is curious in seeking the motives of men and has frequently given me the key of the characters of those around us with much acuteness and felicity; and I have ever found him inclined to praise rather than to censure. He has no secrets, and can keep none; the only error in his nature being an uncontrollable impulse to utter at once, regardless of time and place, the thing he feels or knows or even suspects…. [T]he breast of Ingersoll is guiltless of all wilful malice, and free from all vindictive passions; but happier would he be had he more cunning to be more discreet. (7)

He also must have been quite something to look at.

His eccentricity, especially in dress, is proverbial. Sometimes he is dressed ‘a la mode,’ sometimes his coat seems an heirloom from his ancestry, and sometimes, while his vest is of exquisite fashion, his hat is too shabby to discard. (8)

During these years, Ingersoll became a good friend of Joseph Bonaparte, who was living part-time in Philadelphia. Ingersoll writes extensively of Joseph and the Bonapartes in the first volume of his History of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain. He concludes:

Joseph was born for peace and quiet; Napoleon for war and tumult…. Like Napoleon, vain as an Italian or Frenchman, more vain than an Englishman or American, though a better republican, as regarded equality, than either the English or Americans, he was less republican in his ideas of personal liberty. In England, he would have been a Whig, in this country, a disciple of Washington…. Eclipsed by Napoleon, Joseph looked small beside that giant. (9)

Back in Congress

In 1830, Ingersoll served as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and, in 1837, as a member of the state constitutional convention. After two failed attempts to get elected to Congress (1837 and 1838), he succeeded in 1841. Serving until 1847, he became chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. His younger brother Joseph Reed Ingersoll – who was married to Mary’s sister Ann Wilcocks – also served in Congress from 1843-47, as a Whig (Ingersoll was a Democrat).

In 1846, Ingersoll charged his political foe, Daniel Webster, the former Secretary of State, with three counts of official misconduct. Webster was exonerated by a House Committee and, the following year, led the Senate in turning down President James Polk’s appointment of Ingersoll as US minister to France. Ingersoll retired from political life and devoted his remaining years to writing.

Charles Jared Ingersoll died in Philadelphia of inflammation of the lungs on May 14, 1862 at the age of 79. He was buried in the Woodlands cemetery. Ingersoll’s obituary notice for the American Philosophical Society, of which he was a member, noted:

Physically, he was slightly made, but of well-turned form and most gentlemanlike appearance. It is said…that when elected to Congress in 1813, then thirty-one years of age, his appearance was so youthful that the doorkeeper at first discredited his assertion that he was a member, and refused him admittance. He looked all his life many years younger than he really was. In his eightieth year he might well have passed for a man of fifty, erect, agile, scarce a hair turned gray or tooth lost. He possessed indeed a most excellent constitution, which he had preserved by the strictest temperance in meat and drink, and by regular exercise…. He retained his intellectual faculties in full vigor up to the time of his death. He was a free and attractive conversationalist, and one could rarely leave a company of which he had been a part, without carrying with him something well thought or well said by him. An Ex-President of the United States…used to say that, when in the vein, Mr. Ingersoll was the most agreeable man he had ever met at a dinner-table. He was affable and courteous to all who approached him…. He was ardent and outspoken as to his political opinions, and thereby gave a handle to his opponents to represent him as radical and extreme, which he never was. (10)

His son-in-law, the diarist Sidney George Fisher (married to Elizabeth), observed:

His intellect was not of a high order, but he wrote & spoke with ease, animation, and earnestness & was witty at times, generally sarcastic, clever, pointed, odd, never eloquent or profound…. His talents were of a kind that lead to wordly success but not to durable fame. (11)

Ingersoll’s wife Mary died three months later, on August 28, 1862, after suffering from a debilitating illness during the last five years of her life. She was 78.

You might also enjoy:

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

Nicholas Biddle, proud American

Henry Clay, a perfect original

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

James Monroe and Napoleon

John C. Calhoun: War Hawk

  1. William M. Meigs, The Life of Charles Jared Ingersoll (Philadelphia, 1900), p. 29.
  2. Charles Jared Ingersoll, History of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain, Second Series, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1853), p. 142.
  3. Ibid., pp. 159, 421-22.
  4. Meigs, The Life of Charles Jared Ingersoll, p. 38.
  5. Ibid., p. 45.
  6. Ibid., pp. 122-123.
  7. Sarah Mytton Maury, The Statesmen of America in 1846 (London, 1847), pp. 313-315.
  8. Meigs, The Life of Charles Jared Ingersoll, p. 310 (quoting an article published in 1841).
  9. Ingersoll, History of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain, Second Series, Vol. 1, pp. 416-17.
  10. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge, Vol. IX (Philadelphia, 1865), p. 270.
  11. Sidney George Fisher, A Philadelphia Perspective: The Civil War Diary of Sidney George Fisher, edited by Jonathan White (New York, 2007), p. 149.

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He has no secrets, and can keep none; the only error in his nature being an uncontrollable impulse to utter at once, regardless of time and place, the thing he feels or knows or even suspects.

Sarah Mytton Maury