This month our nation celebrated the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. This past week it was announced that Lincoln is rated as the finest of our forty-four commanders-in-chief. That comes as no surprise. Lincoln is a perennial favorite, looming large in the minds of Americans as Honest Abe, the Rail Splitter and the Great Emancipator.
Born in Kentucky, spending part of his childhood in Indiana and most of his adult life in Illinois, Lincoln has close ties to this area. In 1816 his family moved to Indiana from Kentucky settling in Perry County. Only two years earlier, the Harmonists had made their way to the Indiana frontier and built a lovely village on the Wabash they called Harmonie. When the Harmonists sold out to Robert Owen in 1824, Lincoln still lived in Perry County and would do so for six more years.
As the young Lincoln strove for an education in the wilderness, there is no evidence that he knew of the wonderful community of scientists and educators dwelling so close and yet so far away in Posey County. One can only imagine the impact New Harmony might have made on Lincoln had his family settled only a few counties to the west.
What is certain is that one New Harmony citizen in particular would have an impact on President Lincoln and his policies. That citizen was Robert Dale Owen. Owen served in the Indiana House of Representatives, the United States House of Representatives and as United States minister at Naples. During his career he worked for the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, women’s rights and public schools. By 1858 he was retired from public life, but he remained very interested in the affairs of the country.
Both Lincoln and Owen were champions for human rights, each in their own way. Their connection was made in the fall of 1862. The war was not going well for the north. Calls were increasing for Lincoln to proclaim all slaves as free men. While Lincoln desired an end to slavery, his commitment to the preservation of the union caused him hesitate. On September 7th 1862, Lincoln received a heartfelt plea for the emancipation of all slaves from Robert Dale Owen. A transcript of the letter is at the Working Men’s Institute.
Owen encourages Lincoln to emancipate the slaves putting this great and noble act above all other considerations: “We ought to do that which is right even if the recompense be distant and uncertain: but we add folly to injustice if we neglect a great act of beneficence that is to be rewarded, even now, by our own preservation.”
Owen acknowledges that not all are in agreement that this is the correct action, and so he tells Lincoln: “It is idle to await unanimity. Men acquiesce in a thousand things, once righteously and boldly done, to which, if proposed in advance, they might find endless objections.”
Lincoln listened. Not only to Owen, no doubt, and most surely also to his own heart also. On September 22, 1862, The Emancipation Proclamation was announced, and within a year the North was victorious at Gettysburg and South was on a steady decline until the war’s end in 1865.
As a community we can be proud that one of our own spoke out for a cause he believed in. It is also a reminder that as citizens of the United States we all have the right to speak out and make our voices heard.
The Working Men’s Institute has books by and about Robert Dale Owen and books about Abraham Lincoln. Our new titles on Lincoln include: Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief and Lincoln President-elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861. Find out more about these fascinating men @ your library.