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Robert Dale Owen

Robert Dale Owen

Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877), Scottish-born American legislator, was conspicuous among radicals in the 1820s and then won stature as an exponent of social legislation.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 9, 1801, Robert Dale Owen, the eldest son of Robert Owen, attended the school his father had established at New Lanark. After studying for 4 years at Hofwyl, Switzerland, he came home to head his old school, which he celebrated in his An Outline of the System of Education at New Lanark (1824).

In 1825 Owen joined his father in his New Harmony, Ind., experiment, where he taught and edited its Gazette. He was impressed by the idealism of the social reformer Frances Wright, who was at New Harmony in 1825, and toured Europe with her. When Owen returned to New Harmony he found it in decay; still bent on social change, he organized a group of "Free Enquirers" who repudiated religion, exalted education for all, and urged lenient divorce laws and fairer distribution of wealth. Owen moved to New York City in 1829, and with Frances Wright urged his causes in the Sentinel and the Free Enquirer, as well as through the short-lived New York Working Men's party.

In 1832 Owen married Mary Jane Robinson in a ceremony repudiating male dominance. They visited England, where Owen helped his father edit the Crisis, and then settled in New Harmony. In 1836 Owen was elected for the first of three terms in the Indiana Legislature. There he advocated liberal causes, including universal education. In 1842 he was sent as a regular Democrat to the U.S. Congress. During his second term in Congress he prepared the bill (1845) creating the Smithsonian Institution.

Defeated for a third term in Congress, Owen helped liberalize rights for women in Indiana. President Franklin Pierce appointed him chargé d'affaires for Naples, Italy, in 1853. Back in America 5 years later, Owen joined other antislavery Democrats in crossing over to the Republican party. He was a moderate on slavery, but the increasing gulf between pro and antislavery forces gave contemporary distinction to such writings as The Wrong of Slavery (1864). In Italy, Owen had been converted, like his father, to spiritualism, and he wrote eloquently on its behalf in Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (1860) and The Debatable Land between This World and the Next (1872). His last years were hectic, owing to the death of his wife in 1871, embarrassments caused by unscrupulous spiritualists, and his own bout with mental illness in 1875, from which he recovered. He married Lottie W. Kellogg in 1876. Owen died at their summer home at Lake George, N.Y., on June 24, 1877.

Further Reading

Much of the writing on the elder Owen and New Harmony deals also with Robert Dale Owen. His autobiographical chapters in Threading My Way (1874; repr. 1967) are excellent, although confined to his early life. Studies of him are Richard W. Leopold, Robert Dale Owen (1940), and Elinor Pancoast and Anne E. Lincoln, The Incorrigible Idealist: Robert Dale Owen in America (1940). □

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Owen, Robert Dale (1801-1877)

Owen, Robert Dale (1801-1877)

Son of the British socialist Robert Owen. He was born November 9, 1801 in Glasgow, Scotland, and educated in Switzerland. Owen eventually emigrated to America. He lived for several years in his father's socialistic community, New Harmony, in Indiana. He served in the Indiana legislature and in Congress. He introduced the bill organizing the Smithsonian Institution and in 1846 became one of its regents and chairman of its Building Committee. Owen was a member of the Indiana Constitutional Convention in 1850. In 1853, Owen was appointed Chargé d'Affaires at Naples and Minister in 1855. He remained there until 1858.

Owen was disappointed to learn of his father's attachment to Spiritualism. But experiences with the famous medium D.D. Home during his stay in Naples started his career of psychic investigation. Owen worked to prove whether survival was a certainty or delusion. He published two books, Footfalls on the Boundaries of Another World (1860) and The Debatable Land Between this World and the Next (1871), in support of the Spiritualist movement. In spite of scandals, such as cheating on the part of the mediums Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Holmes in 1874, Owen continued to advocate his new faith until his death. He died June 17, 1877.

Sources:

Harrison, John F. C. Quest for the New World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.

Oved, Yaacov. Two Hundred Years of American Communes. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publications, 1993.

Owen, Robert Dale. The Debatable Land Between this World and the Next. London: Trubner, 1871.

. Footfalls on the Boundaries of Another World. Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1860.

. Threading My Way; Twenty-Seven Years of Autobiography. 1874. Reprint, New York: A. M. Kelley, 1967.

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Owen, Robert Dale

Robert Dale Owen, 1801–77, American social reformer, b. Scotland; son of Robert Owen. He studied at his father's New Lanark school and in Switzerland. In 1825 he went to New Harmony, Ind. There he met Frances Wright, with whom he established (1829) in New York City the Free Enquirer, a paper opposing organized religion and urging wide social changes. In this and in his Moral Physiology (1830) he publicly advocated birth control for the first time in the United States.

Owen later became active in Indiana and U.S. politics. As a member of Congress (1843–47) he was instrumental in the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. When the Indiana constitution was revised in 1850, Owen secured an extension of property rights for married women and state provision for public schools. He served (1853–58) as U.S. minister to Naples, where he became a spiritualist. After his return to the United States he strongly advocated the emancipation of slaves and helped investigate the condition of the freedmen. His writings include An Outline of the System of Education at New Lanark (1824), Hints on Public Architecture (1849), The Wrong of Slavery (1864), The Debatable Land between This World and the Next (1872), a novel, a play, and numerous pamphlets.

See the autobiography of his early years, Threading My Way (1874); biographies by R. W. Leopold (1940, repr. 1969) and E. Pancoast and A. E. Lincoln (1940).

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