Owen, Robert Dale (DNB00)

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OWEN, ROBERT DALE (1801–1877), publicist and author, was born in Glasgow on 9 Nov. 1801, and was the eldest son of Robert Owen [q. v.] The New Lanark factory was then at the neight of its prosperity, and Owen received an excellent education. At the age of fifteen he was deeply influenced by a brief but important acquaintance with Clarkson, and in the following year was sent to the Swiss college of Hofwyl, then flourishing under the direction of Fellenberg. The influences thus received confirmed his innate tendency to a somewhat inconsiderate philanthropy, and induced him to sympathise with his father's unfortunate transfer of his industrial and social activity from Scotland to America, where he hoped to find a wider scope for his projects as a moral and economical reformer. The circumstances connected with the New Harmony experiment have been mentioned under Owen, Robert. Its mismanagement is fully admitted in the autobiography of Robert Dale Owen, who sums up: 'A grave mistake as to money; yet better than the opposite extreme.' He had joined it in 1826; 'in the spring of 1827 New Harmony ceased to be a community,' and he returned to Europe with Frances Wright [see Darusmont, Frances], in whom, as well as in her enterprise at Nashoba towards the gradual conversion of the negroes into free labourers, he had conceived a deep interest. After making the acquaintance of Lafayette and other distinguished personages, he returned to America, enabled his father 'to get rid of certain swindlers in whom he had placed an unmerited confidence,' edited for a time the ' New Harmony Gazette,' and in 1828 commenced at New Harmony, with Frances Wright, the publication of the 'Free Inquirer,' an avowedly socialistic journal, full of attacks on Christianity ancl the established order of things. This naturally involved him in much obloquy, which was not diminished either by the tracts he published in conjunction with 'Frances Wright, or by his platform discussions, and his endeavour to deal with the delicate question of Malthusianism in his 'Moral Physiology' (1831). In 1832 this phase of his career came to an end; and he devoted himself to the public affairs of the State of Indiana, being elected to the legislature in 1835. His action in this capacity was highly beneficial, the appropriation to the public schools of half the surplus revenue paid over by the United States Government being principally due to him. In 1843 and afterwards he was elected for three successive terms to the House of Representatives. As a democrat he acted with his party, and vigorously supported in a published speech the annexation of Texas, though a measure mainly urged by the slave power with the object of obtaining more votes in congress. A speech on the Oregon Question also attracted much attention. He was more characteristically employed in promoting the organisation of the Smithsonian Institution, and was appointed chairman of the committee on the subject. He afterwards became one of the regents. In 1850 and 1851 he took an active part in the revision of the constitution of Indiana, and passed a bill securing widows and married women independent rights of property, on which account he received a testimonial from the women of the state. This legislation contributed to the reprehensible laxity of Indiana legislation on divorce, on which subject Owen had a lively epistolary controversy, published in pamphlet form, with Horace Greeley. In 1850 he published a useful and practical treatise on the construction of plank roads, a subject of great importance in America. From 1853 to 1858 he was United States minister at Naples. During the civil war he was active as a pamphleteer on the union side, especially as the author of 'The Policy of Emancipation,' three letters addressed respectively to President Lincoln and two of his ministers, advocating the immediate emancipation of the slaves. The letter to the president was placed in his hands three days before the issue of his famous emancipation proclamation (1 Jan. 1863), and is affirmed by Secretary Chase to have had considerable weight with him; but it is known on Lincoln's own authority that he had decided upon the issue of his proclamation on receiving the news of M'Clellan's victory at Antietam Creek. Owen's letter is, nevertheless, a very cogent piece of reasoning. In 1863 he was chairman of a committee appointed by Secretary Stanton to examine into the condition of the emancipated freedmen, and embodied his observations and deductions in a work entitled 'The Wrong of Slavery, the Right of Emancipation, and the Future of the African Race in the United States' (1864). He had already, like his Neither, exchanged his early materialism for a spiritualism embracing belief in almost all descriptions of alleged supernatural phenomena, and had published in 1859 the book by which he is probably most widely known, 'Footfalls on the Boundary of another World'. It is full of striking stories, well told. 'Debatable Land between this World and the next,' a work of similar character, followed in 1872. In 1874 he published 'Threading my Way,' an autobiography of the first twenty-seven years of his life. It is full of interest, and it is to be regretted that he did not carry out his intention of completing it. In his latter days he was for a time deluded by the notorious 'medium,' Katie King, and suffered from an attack of insanity, from which, however, he soon recovered. He died at his summer residence on Lake George on 17 June 1877. His character and his standing as a public man are well conveyed in the obituary notice in the New York 'Nation': 'Mr. Owen was a gentleman in the best sense of the word, and his early education in Switzerland and lifelong scholarly habits, joined to native moderation of character, secured for him a sphere of usefulness and a degree of public esteem which his more radical and less dispassionate associates failed to attain.'

Owen's daughter Rosamond was second wife of Laurence Oliphant [q. v.]

[Owen's Threading my Way, 1874; Appleton's Dictionary of American Biography; New York Nation, 6 July 1877.]

R. G.