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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 697

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This is the grave of Robert Latham Owen.

Born in 1856 in Lynchburg, Virginia, Owen grew up in a pretty affluent household. His father was president of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. The family lived in the biggest mansion in town. The Civil War was of course not friendly to Virginia railroads. The infrastructure was completely torn up and Owen’s father resigned as president in 1867 after he opposed consolidation with railroads owned by William Mahone, later to become notorious as attempting something of a biracial populist political coalitions known as the Readjusters. Then his father died in 1873, just as the Panic hit which destroyed railroad wealth around the nation.

This death and the panic which decimated the family investments made the family downwardly mobile. His mother resorted to teaching music to feed her children, though as a part Cherokee southerner, she did not come from an elite background and had started her adult life teaching music. But this was still a southern elite family, at least socially. Robert got scholarships to attend Washington & Lee University. He was a very good student and graduated as valedictorian in 1877. As Owen’s mother was part Cherokee, he moved out to Indian Territory (today, Oklahoma) after graduation to become teacher at the Cherokee Orphan Asylum. Remember that the Cherokees adopted chattel slavery by the late 18th century, adapting their own preexisting slave systems to the new realities. So a southern elite family having Native connections would not be that shocking. A family friend of the Owens, former Confederate Colonel William Penn Adair, was a Cherokee leader and he invited Owen out there.

Owen was admitted to the bar in 1880 and then was secretary of the Cherokees’ Board of Education from 1881-84. He ran the International Fair in Muscogee from 1882-84, which was a huge annual Native fair. He started a newspaper in 1884 and then when Grover Cleveland took over the presidency and Democrats could get patronage again, he successfully lobbied to be Indian agent for the so-called Five Civilized Tribes. He was deeply involved in setting up an American legal system in what was soon to become Oklahoma, creating systems of compulsory arbitration to solve cases and then, when the state was subjected to the white land rush that stole so much Indian land in 1889, helped establish the first U.S. court in the territory. When Democrats lost in 1888, Latham moved into private business and became the executive of a bank in Muscogee for the next decade. He took on a bunch of cases representing the Cherokee against the federal government, winning a $5 million victory for the Eastern Cherokees in North Carolina in 1906 for lands stolen from them by the government in the 1830s in violation of treaty rights. Owen was hardly immune to the personal corruption endemic in these years. He engaged in a lot of sketchy land deals that made him rich, plus he made tons of money in his banking and lobbying career and then invested in mineral lands and oil. He was a very wealthy guy by the early twentieth century.

As Owen aged, he dedicated himself increasingly to politics, largely a combination of Populism and Native rights. He was a member of the Democratic National Committee from 1892-96. He pushed for a bill to provide Indians citizenship in 1901. And then in 1905, he tried to create a separate state for Oklahoma Natives. The State of Sequoyah would have split modern Oklahoma in half, with a state dominated by the Native population in the eastern half and a state dominated by the white population in the west. But Theodore Roosevelt was completely opposed to the idea of an Indian dominated state. Congressional Republicans refused to consider it–in part because it would have been dominated by Democrats. In 1907, when Oklahoma was finally created, the two halves of Indian Territory were combined into one state.

It made some sense then that when Oklahoma became a state, Owen would run for Senate. He had a pretty reformist agenda–prohibition, women’s suffrage, the direct primary, the initiative and referendum, and to get corruption out of politics. He was close to William Jennings Bryan and they held many of the same politics. These early elections were dominated by Democrats, in part because of the anti-Black politics that made the South dominated by that party but also because Oklahoma had been subjected to the entirety of Gilded Age Republican corrupt corporate despoliation and there was a ton of hatred of corporate power there. So when Owen ran for the Senate, he had a good shot of winning. But of course, the Seventeenth Amendment had not yet passed. Owen was a big supporter of direct election of senators. So Democrats ran a non-binding primary that would provide a sort of nominee that the state legislature would consider. Owen won that and was sent to Washington.

Owen would serve three terms in the Senate, though the first being shorter than six years to stagger the state’s Senate elections. He was the second Native-identified person to serve in the Senate, behind Charles Curtis of Kansas. As a former banker, Owen was highly dedicated to fixing the nation’s unstable and frequently disastrous financial system. His first speech on the Senate floor infuriated Senate Republicans such as Rhode Island’s Nelson Aldrich, who attempted to shout down Owen’s harsh attacks on banks and big corporations. He was very much in the minority on these issues while Roosevelt and Taft were president but when Wilson won in 1912, he lobbied for the creation of the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency and then was named its first chairman. He was a critical figure in the creation of the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was the Glass-Owen Act, with Carter Glass being the other named sponsor. However, Glass was the more effective senator and is really the prime mover, even if it was Owen’s committee. He had other ideas as well that would take longer to implement, such as what became the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Owen argued for that all the way back in 1913. He also strongly criticized the Federal Reserve’s control by conservative Republicans in the 1920s, arguing that its deflationary policies were disastrous for the economy. He was right about that as they were major contributor to the Great Depression.

While banking was certainly Owen’s primary issue in the Senate, he worked on other issues too. He was a big player in the passage of the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916, which extended credit to farmers through cooperatives. And of course he was a major player on Native issues, where he did what he could to push for mineral rights for the tribes, especially in Oklahoma. Unfortunately, while he was part Cherokee, he also was so committed to individual ownership and capitalism that he helped pass the Removal of Restrictions Act, which had protected the Five Civilized Tribes from the terror of the Dawes Act, allowing them to hold lands communally. Now each person would be allotted lands they could sell, which excess lands available to whites. To this day, this has created massive displacement for Native communities. He opposed high tariffs except to protect Oklahoma oil producers (I have always loved the hypocritical personal exceptions to high tariffs in American political history).

But he also mostly stood for good things. He fought like hell to get Arizona admitted as a state when Republicans wanted to block the bill because the proposed state Constitution had the initiative and referendum provision that Progressives supported. One the ironies of this is that Arizona had this amazing Progressive movement right at statehood and then that completely fell apart and it immediately became one of the nation’s most conservative states, which has only recently started to change. Anyway, he was also the cosponsor of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, which banned child labor and which the dastardly Supreme Court threw out in 1918 by a 5-4 decision. He lobbied for a Cabinet-level Department of Health, which would not happen until the Eisenhower administration. He fought for the League of Nations after World War I and was a close advisor of Wilson through the war.

Owen was a pretty prominent politician by this point. So he decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1920. He wrote a bunch of books to promote sound banking and economic populism and fought hard for prohibition. But the Eighteenth Amendment infuriated huge parts of the Democratic base, especially immigrants in cities. Bryan appeared with him a few times on stage, but never endorsed him and by the time of the convention, he fell to the wayside pretty quickly. He ended his Senate career by turning against the Treaty of Versailles for its harsh policies on Germany and generally opposing the isolationism of the Harding years. He decided not to run for reelection and retired after the 1924 election.

Owen spent his later years continuing to harp on how poorly other nations had treated Germany. He wrote a book titled The Russian Imperial Conspiracy, 1892-1914: The Most Gigantic Intrigue of all Time, which sounds real subtle. He also became a Washington lobbyist. He refused to support Al Smith in 1928 because the candidate was a wet. He became the first prominent Democrat to endorse Herbert Hoover. Whoops. But he did get behind FDR in 1932. He also tried to work out a universal alphabet based on phonetic principles. He died in 1947, at the age of 91.

Robert Latham Owen is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Lynchburg, Virginia. This is the same cemetery as Carter Glass, which might be some sort of neat package consider they were the co-sponsored of the Federal Reserve, but they actually hated each other.

If you would like this series to visit other political figures who worked with Owen, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Edward Keating, the congressman who co-sponsored the Keating-Owen Act, is in Suitland, Maryland and Gilbert Hitchcock, another key senator in the Federal Reserve creation, is in Omaha, Nebraska. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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