Robert Dale Owen Biography


Robert Dale Owen


Birth: November 7, 1801 in Glasgow, Scotland

Death: June 24, 1877 in New York City, New York, United States


"STUDENTS of American life have long been impressed by the remarkable breadth of interests shown by many leading public men a century ago. just because they dispersed their efforts so widely, however, some of these have gradually and rather undeservedly faded from the pages of history. In such a group belongs Robert Dale Owen, one of the most versatile figures in an age of versatility. As editor, educator, and labor leader, as politician, diplomat, and man of letters, as legislator, feminist, and champion of a new religious faith, as advocate at one time or another of all sorts of reforms ranging from birth control to Negro emancipation, and as author of all sorts of books from theological discussions to treatises on architecture and plank roads, Owen was one of the best known and most publicized men of his generation. Surprisingly enough, he has been also one of the most neglected."

--Robert Leopold, Harvard biographer   


"Writing history is like making a bouquet in a garden of rare and beautiful flower. there is such an array of material, so much to choose from, so little that can be chosen, and so much to be left untouched."

--Judge Banta "The Voyage of Oscar Wilde"

In preparing this sketch I was forced to reject more material used; to cast aside more flowers than my bouquet contains. If I have had the judgment to select those which give forth the sweetest fragrance, those whose colors best blend in unison, I have been fortunate, indeed.

Robert Dale Owen, litterateur, reformer and statesman, Was born in Glasgow, Scotland, November 7, 1801 His father was Robert Owen, the noted philanthropist, and his mother a daughter of avid Dale, a rich cotton-spinner, renowned for his benevolence. When Robert was a child his father removed to New Lanark, a village near Glasgow, where he operated an extensive cotton mill. He had a delightful home, known as Braxfield House, where he lived in elegance, and at which he entertained many of the most distinguished men of his day, among them the Grand Duke Nicholas, afterwards Emperor of Russia. Here young Robert remained until he was sixteen years old. receiving all the advantages which wealth and cultured surroundings could bestow. At that age he left home, and with his brother William went to Switzerland, and for three years attended the school at Hofwyl, near Berne, conducted by M. Fellenberg, a noted Swiss scholar and statesman. On leaving Hofwyl he returned to New Lanark (statement of his daughter about his overwork and commitment)

"The cause of the calamity which has befallen us is simply an overworked brain. My father believed his strong Scotch constitution could, even in his old age, endure all things ; but richly endowed though he was with physical and mental vigor, he could not break God's laws of health with impunity, and we. his children, can not, with our love and care, shield him from the effects of his error."

Mr. Owen was received into the Indiana Hospital for the Insane July to, 1875, and left it restored to health October 14, of the same year. A few days before he left the institution be addressed Dr. Everts, then its superintendent, a letter, from which I make the following extract:

"If a man wishes to be well spoken of by those who had hitherto slighted or reproved him, lie had better either die or suffer a temporary civic death by confinement in a lunatic asylum De mortuis nil nisi bonum--we speak with tender favor of the dead. This has been amply illustrated by the many newspaper notices of myself' which have fallen tinder my, observation since an inmate of this institution. I trust that on entering the world again I shall give no cause for retraction of these good opinions of the press, so kindly volunteered while temporarily secluded."

Soon after leaving the Insane Hospital Mr. Owen took up his residence at a cottage on the banks of Lake George, and resumed his literary work. He was engaged to write a series of articles for Scribner's Monthly on his recollections of matters in the West, but soon after finishing the first one, he sickened and died. The end came on the morning of the 24th of June, 1877, at his cottage home. His funeral services were conducted by a Mr. Huntington, a Presbyterian minister, in the presence of the family and neighbors of the dead philanthropist. After the services were over a procession was formed, which marched around the lake shore to the cemetery near the village of Caldwell. -Here the remains of Mr. Owen were deposited in the earth. One who was present at the burial thus describes the scene:

"It was a scene for an artist. As the casket was being lowered into the grave we looked up to take in a glimpse of the surroundings. In the company were persons representing various conditions of life. Here was a believer, there an infidel, yonder several Christian neighbors, and beyond these a group of Indians, watching with wonder every movement. The beautiful lake stretched out before tis in full view ; Upon its bosom was the new steamer, coming rapidly toward tis ; the sun gilded the tops of the distant mountains, and its light reflected from a thousand wavelets. From the grave you can see his former home; from his home you can behold some of the most pleasing aspects of nature ; from nature as she is here revealed you may, if pure in heart, see God!"

Mr. Owen was twice married. His first wife's maiden name was Mary Jane Robinson. He married her in New York, April 12, 1832. The marriage ,vas performed by a notary public, in the presence of the bride's family and a few of her neighbors. Previous to the marriage, Mr. Owen drew up and signed a paper, from which I make this extract:

Of the unjust rights which, in virtue of this ceremony, an iniquitous lax-, tacitly gives me over the person and property of another, I can not legally, but I can morally, divest myself. And I hereby distinctly and emphatically declare that I consider myself, and earnestly desire to be considered by others,. as utterly divested, now and during the rest of my life, of any such rights, the barbarous relics of a feudal and despotic system, now destined in the onward course of improvement to be wholly swept away, and the existence of which is a tacit insult to the good sense and good feeling of the present comparatively civilized age."

Mr. Owen lived to see the iniquitous law swept away " in Indiana, and bad the pleasure of knowing that it was mainly by his efforts that it was done.

Mrs. Owen lived to a ripe old age, and until her husband had become one of the noted men of his day. When she died, Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a hymn, which was sung at her burial, and her husband delivered a eulogy upon her life and character, as he stood by her open grave. In this eulogy he thus declared his faith in a hereafter:

"I do not believe-and here I speak also of her whose departure from us we mourn to-day&emdash;I do not believe more firmly in these trees that spread their shade over its, in this hill on which we stand, in these sepulchral monuments which we see around us here, than I do that human life, once granted, never perishes more. She believed, as I believe, that the one life succeeds the other without interval, save a brief transition slumber, it may be for a few hours only. * Again, I believe, as she did, in the meeting and recognition of friends in heaven. While we mourn here below, there are joyful reunions above.

Mr. Owen's second wife's maiden name was Lottie Walton Kellogg. He married her about a year before he died. His autobiography, which was mainly written at her house, was dedicated to her.

Mr. Owen was a devoted Odd Fellow, and was appointed by the Grand Lodge of Indiana to purchase ground, and upon it erect a Grand Lodge hall. The building in Indianapolis known as Odd Fellows' Hall was the result of this appointment.

Mr. Owen, having been one of the early settlers of Indiana, knew what it was to travel over bad and muddy roads. In 1851 and '52, he warmly advocated, by pen and tongue, the construction of plank roads, and did much to create the plank road fever of that time. These roads, like the block pavements of to-day, were smooth and delightful to travel upon -,-,,hen new, and like them, also, were exceedingly rough and difficult to get over when old and worn. They lasted but a few years, and crave place to the gravel and macadamized roads now so generally used.

In 1843, Or 1844 Mr. Owen was invited by the Union Literary Society of Hanover College to deliver an address before it. So soon as it was known that the invitation had been given and accepted the faculty of the college and some of its trustees determined he should not speak. Rev. E. D. McMasters was the president of the college, and to him, more than any one else, was due the insult that was heaped upon Mr. Owen in this matter.

Knowing that Hon. James Y. Allison, of Madison, was then a resident of Hanover, I addressed him a note, asking for his recollection of the event. In judge Allison's reply he said:

"I remember the circumstances well, as I was one of the committee of the Union Literary Society to confer with Dr. Mcmasters on the subject. Mr. Owen had been invited as the anniversary speaker for the society, and Dr. McMasters said, "He, being an infidel, can not speak,' and we had to cancel the engagement."

The illiberality and dogmatism that prompted such a decision would have put upon Mr. Owen the iron boot and driven in the wedge, had the laws of the land allowed it. Thank God for the law that prevents bigots from putting men to the torture for it difference of opinion!

Mr. Owen's mother was a Presbyterian, and his father a deist. He adhered to the doctrines of his father until middle life, but the teachings of his mother had not been entirely lost upon him. In many of his speeches, and often in his writings, he spoke of Jesus, and always with reverence. In his latter days he became, as we have seen, a spiritualist, and he enriched the literature of his time with publications in favor of that doctrine. It has been charged that he recanted spiritualism before his death, but this is a mistake. He died in the faith he had so ably advocated and defended.

Mr. Owen was a radical of the most pronounced type. He tried to make the world better by uprooting and destroying that which he believed to be bad. He never advocated a measure because it was old; in fact, age was a reason for attacking it. He believed in progression. He thought the world should grow better as it grew older, and he labored hard to make it so. That in some respects he succeeded must be the verdict of mankind.

Mr. Owen was unusually prompt in meeting his engagements. If he made an appointment he kept it to the minute. He was always on hand when the train started, never being left nor having to run to reach it.

Mr. Owen was five feet eight and a half inches high, and weighed about 150 pounds. He had a large head (he wore a 7 1/2-inch hat) and a long face. His nose and mouth were large, his forehead broad and high. His eyes were a blue-gray, over which the lids drooped when he was absorbed in thought. Tile expression of his face was frank and mild. He had great earnestness in all his undertakings, from the most trivial to the most important. He would throw all his energies into an attempt to stop a street car rather than wait for the next one. To succeed in what he undertook, and to give pleasure to others, gave him the greatest happiness.

He was very fond of making presents. Indeed, this was almost a mania with him. In order to make an offering that would be a surprise, so as to give the greater satisfaction, he would take trouble out of all proportion to the result. He was impatient when forced to attend to business, particularly that relating to money matters. He had a contempt for money for its own sake, and spent it freely. He occupied but a small part of his time in money-getting, yet he made a good deal of it. His freedom, however, in spending money and giving it away prevented him. fro accumulating anything like a fortune.

No traits of his character were more prominent than his buoyancy and hopefulness. In the severest reverses he saw something good. He lived in the faith that mortal affairs were presided over by a beneficent being and influenced by his spirit. In a trustfulness childlike in its simplicity, he believed that, in some way or other, everything that transpires, no matter what its immediate appearance may be, works out for good.

In politics, Mr. Owen was a Democrat. On the breaking out of the civil war he separated from his party, and during the great struggle affiliated with the friends of Mr. Lincoln's administration, but on those questions which usually divide parties he was essentially a Democrat.

I can not better conclude this sketch than by adopting the language of another, one who knew Mr. Owen, intimately and well, Mr. B. R. Sulgrove:

"His manner was courteous, unaffected and conciliating. he never let his feelings displace his reason and force him to harsh language or ungenerous allusions. Even in the heat of a presidential campaign he never dealt in personal aspersions or imputations of bad motives. Severity, irritation, invective, were no parts of his rhetoric. He abused neither individuals nor parties, and was as little of a 'rabble rouser' as a quiet mail could be, though one of the most powerful and altogether the most winning of all speakers the Democracy ever had in this State. He relied on facts, and rational applications of them. and he never made a stump speech that did not contain more substance in a sentence than most stumpers could get into a wind gust continued, like a Chinese play or a Ledger story, for six months. He was what a party orator never was then and rarely is now&emdash;a scholar. He knew something besides 'antecedents,' and 'records,' and 'platforms,' and the stale drippings of ten thousand watery effusions. If he had any animating Principle to which all others were subordinated it was his humanity. In all his lectures and legislation and fugitive publications his theme was social or individual improvement, effacing mean prejudices, diffusing wholesome correction, elevating human nature. He inherited it from his father, and made it at least as effective by good sense and practical statesmanship as his father did by wealth and energetic preaching.

"In scholarship, general attainments, varied achievements, as author, statesman, politician and leader of a new religious faith, he was unquestionably the most prominent man Indiana ever owned. Others may fill now, or may have heretofore filled a larger space in public curiosity or interest for a time, but no other Hoosier was ever so widely known, or so likely to do the State credit by being known, and no other has ever before held so prominent a place so long with a history so unspotted with selfishness, duplicity or injustice. He was a pure man, and in two generations of politicians with whom he lived and labored there can not enough more of the same kind be named to have filled the bond of Sodom's safety. It is noteworthy that, though he began his public life an infidel, he ended it a believer in the most irrational of superstitions, if it be not the most inaccessible of sciences, his father did, too."

 The above sketch was reproduced from Biographical and historical sketches of early Indiana." by William Woollen (1883)


Biographical Sources:

Robert Dale Owen, Threading My Way: Twenty-seven Years of Autobiography, New York, 1874.
Robert Dale Owen, "A Chapter of Autobiography", Atlantic Monthly Volume 31, Issue 183 (January, 1873) at Making of America, Cornell
Richard William Leopold, Robert Dale Owen: A Biography, Harvard University Press, 1940; reprinted by Octagon Books, New York, 1969.
Josephine M. Elliott, editor, Robert Dale Owen's Travel Journal, 1827, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, 1977.
Arthur E.. Bestor Jr., The Incorrigible Idealist: Robert Dale Owen in America.
Lockwood, George B. The New Harmony Movement . New York: D Appleton and Company, 1905.
Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877) social reformer - Clark Kimberling
Biography of Robert Dale Owen
OWEN, Robert Dale, (1801 - 1877) - Biographical dictionary of the U.S. Congress (bibliography)
Robert Owen ( May 14 , 1771 - November 17 , 1858 ) - Robert Dale Owen's father
Robert Owen and his Sons from the Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911
A portrait of Robert Dale Owen. - Indiana Historical Society, another one here and Smithsonian
Robert Dale Owen Manuscripts - Indiana Univesity
Robert Dale Owen Biographical Sketch - Indiana Historical Society
New Harmony, Home of Robert Dale Owen
New Harmony, Indiana Owenite Community

Selected Bibliography

Threading My Way: Twenty-seven Years of Autobiography, New York, (1874)
The debatable land between this world and the next : with illustrative narrations. (1871)
Recollections of a busy life. (with Horace Greeley) (1868)
The Wrong of Slavery, the Right of Emancipation, and the Future of the African Race in the United States, Philadelphia, (1864)
Footfalls on the boundary of another world with narrative illustrations. (1860) (Bibliography)
Discussion on the existence of God, and the authenticity of the Bible. (with Origen Bacheler) (1832)
Popular Tracts, (with Frances Wright and others), 14 volumes in one, New York, (1830)
Moral philosophy, or, A belief and plain treatise on the population question ... (1830s)
Touching Visitants from a Higher Life - Robert Dale Owen: Atlantic Monthly Jan 1875
Some Results from my Spiritual Studies - Robert Dale Owen: Atlantic Monthly Dec 1874
How I Came to Study Spiritual Phenomena - Robert Dale Owen: Atlantic Monthly Nov 1874
The Convulsionists of St. Medard - Robert Dale Owen: Atlantic Monthly Feb. 1864
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