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Robert L. Owen

Robert L. Owen

  • Senator, US Senate, 1907–1925
  • Born: February 2, 1856
  • Died: July 19, 1947

Oklahoma Sen. Robert L. Owen co-sponsored the Federal Reserve Act with Rep. Carter Glass of Virginia. Together, the two steered the legislation to final approval and President Woodrow Wilson’s signature in December 1913.

Owen was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1856, to Robert Owen, president of the Virginia and Tennessee Railway, and Narcissa Clark Chisholm. As a ten-year-old, Owen attended school near Baltimore and later graduated from Washington and Lee University with honors and a master’s degree in 1877.

The family’s fortune was lost to unexplained circumstances, likely related to the Civil War and reconstruction. The loss, and the death of his father, forced Owen and his mother, who was of Native American descent, to move to the Indian Territory, where they were entitled to tribal property.

While living in what later became Oklahoma, Owen briefly taught school at the Cherokee Orphan Asylum before studying law and gaining admittance to the bar in 1880. In 1885, he was appointed head of the United States Union Agency for the Five Civilized Tribes.

Owen owned and edited a newspaper in Vinita, Oklahoma, and in 1890 established the First National Bank of Muskogee, where he served as president until 1900.

In 1893, Owen witnessed the events that culminated in the banking panic that year. Owen wrote in a 1919 memoir, “This bank, like many other banks, lost 50 percent of its deposits within as many days because of the panic, which frightened people and caused them to withdraw their funds for hoarding throughout the United States.”

The panic, Owen wrote, “demonstrated the complete instability of the financial system of America and the hazards which businessmen had to meet under a grossly defective banking system.” 

When Oklahoma was granted statehood in 1907, Owen was appointed to represent the state by the Oklahoma legislature. With the selection, Owen was not only one of the state’s first two senators but also one of the nation’s first two senators of Native American decent.

Owen was a leader in the direct election of senators and the Child Labor Act, among other issues. The highlight of his Senate career, however, arguably was his involvement with the Federal Reserve Act. 

“The whole country owes you a debt of gratitude and admiration,” Wilson wrote to Owen. “It has been a pleasure to be associated with you in so great a piece of constructive legislation.” 

After retiring from the Senate in 1925, Owen practiced law in Washington, DC, but devoted much of his time to promoting an international alphabet that he hoped would make English a universal language. The system, which was inspired by an eighty-five-character alphabet created by the Cherokee Chief Sequoia in 1823, was unsuccessful, but it received a significant amount of media attention.

While establishing the Federal Reserve may have been Owen’s greatest accomplishment, much of the credit went to co-sponsor Carter Glass.

In later years, “Glass and Owen squabbled with each other very bitterly” about who was the principal author of the Federal Reserve Act, says Dr. Kenny L. Brown, chair of the department of history and geography at the University of Central Oklahoma and a leading expert on Owen.

According to Brown, Owen and Glass finally resolved their differences after Owen penned a letter to Glass saying that it was time for the dispute to end and noting that both men were raised only a few blocks apart in the same childhood hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia.

Later, Owen was also recognized by the Federal Reserve. An area near one of the Federal Reserve buildings in Washington, DC, is known as Robert Latham Owen Park.

After the death of his wife, Daisy Hester, in 1946, Owen lived the final months of his life alone in an apartment near Washington’s Meridian Hill Park. After being hospitalized for several weeks with an illness and undergoing an operation, he died in 1947 at the age of ninety-one. Today, Owen and Glass are both buried in Lynchburg’s Spring Hill Cemetery.

Written by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. See disclaimer.