On April 12, 1832, in New York City, thirty-year-old Robert Dale Owen married nineteen-year-old Mary Jane Robinson. The son of reformer and socialist Robert Owen, Robert Dale Owen shared his father’s views and was a writer and a publisher. He also served in the Indiana legislature and Congress, was the American ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies during the Pierce administration, served on the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission during the Civil War, advocated for the right of women to vote, and was instrumental in establishing the Smithsonian Institution. The year before his marriage, he had published “Moral Physiology,” a treatise on birth control, in which he wrote, “That chastity which is worth preserving is not the chastity that owes its birth to fear and to ignorance. If to enlighten a woman regarding a simple physiological fact will make her a prostitute, she must be especially predisposed to profligacy.”
In letters to Nicholas Trist written from Mary Jane’s family home in Petersburg, Virginia, Robert praised his fiancée’s mathematical abilities and noted that she was a recent convert to vegetarianism, having read Shelley’s “Queen Mab.” He described Mary Jane as having “a degree of originality of thought & independence of character which I had never, I believe, met with in a girl of nineteen before.” For her part, Mary Jane had attended a lecture by Robert and told her sister when she came home that she had seen the man she intended to marry.
Having drawn up a marriage contract, Robert and Mary Jane were married by a justice of the peace. A friend who attended the ceremony on a half-hour’s notice stated that there was nothing in the couple’s dress that would distinguish them as a groom or bride. Before the ceremony, Robert wrote the following letter, which he circulated among his friends:
NEW YORK, Tuesday, April 12, 1832.
This afternoon I enter into a matrimonial engagement with Mary Jane Robinson, a young person whose opinions on all important subjects, and whose mode of thinking and feeling, coincide, in so far as I may judge, more intimately with my own, than do those of any other individual with whom I am acquainted.
We contract a legal marriage, not because we deem the ceremony necessary to us, or useful, in a rational state of public opinion, to society; but because, if we became companions without a legal ceremony, we should either be compelled to a series of dissimulations which we both dislike, or be perpetually exposed to annoyances, originating in a public opinion, which is powerful though unenlightened; and whose power, though we do not fear or respect it, we do not perceive the utility of unnecessarily braving. We desire a tranquil life, in so far as it can be obtained without a sacrifice of principle.
We have selected the simplest ceremony which the laws of this state recognize, and which, in consequence of the liberality of these laws, involves not the necessity of calling in the aid of a member of the clerical profession, a profession the credentials of which we do not recognize, and the influence of which we are led to consider injurious to society. The ceremony, too, involves not the necessity of making promises regarding that over which we have no control, the state of human affections in the distant future, nor of repeating forms which we deem offensive, inasmuch as they outrage the principles of human liberty and equality, by conferring rights and imposing duties unequally on the sexes.
The ceremony consists simply in the signature, by each of us, of a written contract in which we agree to take each other as husband and wife according to the laws of the State of New York, our signatures being attested by those friends who are present.
Of the unjust rights which, in virtue of this ceremony, an iniquitous law tacitly gives me over the person and property of another, I cannot legally, but I can morally divest myself. And I hereby distinctly and emphatically declare that I consider myself, and earnestly desire to be considered by others, as utterly divested, now and during the rest of my life, of any such rights, the barbarous relics of a feudal and despotic system, soon destined, in the onward course of improvement, to be wholly swept away; and the existence of which is a tacit insult to the good sense and good feeling of this comparatively civilized age.
I put down these sentiments on paper this morning as a simple record of the views and feelings with which I enter into an engagement, important in whatever light we consider it; views and feelings which I believe to be shared by her who is this afternoon to become my wife.
Robert Dale Owen.
I concur in these sentiments.
Mary Jane Robinson
Robert and Mary Jane had six children before Mary Jane’s death in 1871. Robert remarried in 1876 and died the following year.
Boston Investigator, June 15, 1832
Richard William Leopold, Robert Dale Owen: A Biography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940).
Rosamond Dale Owen, “Robert Dale Owen and Mary Robinson,” in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownell Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper, eds., History of Woman Suffrage: 1848-1861 (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1881).
Louis Martin Sears, “Some Correspondence of Robert Dale Owen.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Dec., 1923, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Dec., 1923), pp. 306-324.