Robert Dale Owen died on the 24th of June, 1877.
Robert Dale Owen was undoubtedly Scottish as he was born in Glasgow and spent the majority of his first twenty-four years in Scotland. Nevertheless, Owen is far more famous in his adopted land of the United States, where he made his mark. Some online biographies suggest he is best known “for being integral to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution,” but that is a mere morsel and no more important than the fact of Dale, Indiana, being named after him. What Owen is really famous for is
being an advocate of social reform and an anti-slavery campaigner.
Robert Dale Owen was the eldest son of his namesake, the Welsh born social reformer, Robert Owen; one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement, and the man responsible for New Lanark, Scotland's model industrial community. The younger Robert Owen was steeped in his father’s socialist philosophy and also, in later life, came to share a fascination with spiritualism. It's quite strange to find that both men were involved in such shamanism, more so when the elder Owen's philosophy was based, in part, on a belief that all religions were “based on the same ridiculous imagination.”
Whilst Robert Dale Owen was conspicuous amongst “radicals” in the United States of the 1820s and '30s, perhaps his finest moment came on the 17th of September, 1862, when he wrote “man to man” to Abraham Lincoln, no less. Owen's open letter to the President was a plea to end slavery, and in addition to influencing the President's 'Emancipation Proclamation', it gave Owen material for his draft of the Fourteenth Amendment, which he submitted in 1865. Owen's letter has been described as urging an end to slavery “on moral grounds,” however, the letter covers as much of expediency as it does morality.
Despite there being no record of Lincoln's comments, it's fairly clear that Owen's letter greatly influenced the President, because the man who delivered it on the 19th, Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, said as much. That fact was recorded by Richard Leopold in his biography of Owen, in which reports that Chase said, “You will hardly ever accomplish a greater work than this letter.” In that letter, independently published in 1873, Owen wrote first about greater evils ensuing if slavery was not redressed, by which he meant the impact of the rebellion of the Southern States during the Civil War.
He wrote that “Property in man ...has become nationally dangerous” and made the point that slavery better enabled the Rebels to wage war as the slaves were “the suppliers of [the South's] commiseriat” – the means by which the South was able to sustain itself and, at the same time, send the full compliment of its adult male population to war. Owen went on to suggest that in a country in which slavery still existed i.e., if the South prevailed, there would be no assurance of “permanent peace.”
However, Owen did indeed write that “Property in man [was] always morally unjust” and went on, in a famous passage, to say to Lincoln, “It is within your power... as the instrument of the Almighty, to restore to freedom a race of men.” He added, stirringly, “Let them breathe free once more.” Owen also extolled the President to “Extirpate the blighting curse... ,” but mixing morality and pragmatism, he added, “Give back to the nation its hope and faith in a future of peace and undisturbed prosperity.” Three days after reading Owen's letter, Lincoln read a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, in which he stated, clearly echoing Owen's sentiments “...upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgement of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
Robert Dale Owen was born in Glasgow on the 7th or the 9th of November, 1801. Robert attended school at New Lanark, before studying for four years at the Emanuel von Fellenberg School in Hofwyl, Switzerland. He returned to Scotland in 1823, to head his old school and write 'An Outline of the System of Education at New Lanark', published in 1824. A year later, Owen emigrated to the United States and settled in Posey County, Indiana, before moving to New Harmony, on the Wabash River, which his father has purchased from the Harmony Society for £30,000. That American version of the socialist community of New Lanark was where that the United States' first kindergarten, first free public school, first free library, and first school with equal education, were established.
Owen taught school in New Harmony and was editor of the local 'Gazette', and by the time his father had returned to the United Kingdom, his own perspectives had been clearly established. Owen was influenced by the utopian Nashoba Commune of fellow Scot, Frances 'Fanny' Wright, in Tennessee. He travelled with her to England and Europe, before returning to the States. He moved to New York City, where he wrote for the 'Sentinel' and became the editor of the 'Free Enquirer', a paper he co-founded as a radical weekly. Owen's principles of socialism, abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, free secular education, birth control, and divorce laws were also reflected in his involvement with the Working Men's Party and his publication, in 1830 or '31, of 'Moral Physiology'.
Owen went back to New Harmony in 1832, after a honeymoon in England, and in 1836, was elected to the Indiana Legislature. Owen was a member of Congress from 1843 to 1847 and took a part in the settlement of the 'Oregon Question' and in founding the aforementioned Smithsonian Institution. In fact, Owen became one of its Regents and chairman of the Smithsonian's Building Committee. Owen went back to Indiana in 1850, where he became a member of the Constitutional Convention and was instrumental in liberalizing women's rights. From 1853 to 1858, Owen was, consecutively, Chargé d'Affaires and Minister Resident to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, in Naples.
Back in America, Owen joined other anti-slavery Democrats and crossed over to the Republicans. He penned his famous letter to Lincoln in 1862 and in 1863 and 1864, respectively, after heading a committee to investigate the condition of freedmen, published 'The Policy of Emancipation' and 'The Wrong of Slavery, the Right of Emancipation, and the Future of the African Race in the United States'. In the latter book, despite his moral stance, Owen counselled a 10-year delay in granting the newly emancipated slaves the right to vote. Spanning the Civil War, Owen was otherwise occupied in the Ordnance Commission and, during the Reconstruction era, The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.
Owen wrote several books, a novel, a play and numerous pamphlets. His books include 'Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World' and 'The Debatable Land between This World and the Next', both of which concerned spiritualism. Other books of note are: 'Discussion with Origen Bachelor on the Personality of God and the Authority of the Bible' (1832); the autobiographical 'Threading My Way: Twenty-seven Years of Autobiography' (1874); and the novel, 'Beyond the Breakers' (1870).
Robert Dale Owen died at his “summer residence” of 'Cosy Cove', at Crosbyside on Lake George, Warren County, New York, on the 24th of June, 1877.