John James Ingalls was born in Middleton, Massachusetts, on December 29, 1833. He graduated from Williams College in 1855. Foreshadowing his later reputation as a wit, his graduation thesis, entitled "Mummy Life," was a satire of college life. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1857. Moving to Kansas Territory, Ingalls settled in Atchison in 1860. He joined the anti-slavery forces and worked to make Kansas a free state. He was a member of the Wyandotte constitutional convention in 1859 and is reputed to have coined the state motto, Ad Astra per Aspera.
When Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861, he became secretary of the first state Senate and state senator in 1862. During the Civil War he served as judge advocate in the Kansas militia. As an editor of the Atchison newspaper, Freedom's Champion, for three years, he won a national reputation for a series of magazine articles. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1873, Ingalls served for 18 years. He supported labor and agriculture against monopolies. He also favored the Interstate Commerce Act and the Civil Service Law.
In 1877, Ingalls was elected president pro tempore of the Senate. Praised throughout his life for his keen sarcasm and quick wit, John James Ingalls died in East Las Vegas, New Mexico, on August 16, 1900.