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 on Robert Dale Owen
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).