John Owen served two, one-year terms as a North Carolina governor, after he had served in the House of Commons, as a state senator, and on the Council of State. He is known for being an advocate for primary public education and internal improvements and for warning against what he considered abolitionist attempts to spark civil unrest. He is the brother of James Owen, slaveowner of Omar Ibn Said, author of the only known American slave narrative written in Arabic.
A Bladen County native, born to Revolutionary Patriot Thomas Owen and Eleanor Porterfield, John Owen attended the University of North Carolina. Although he dropped out of the university, he later served as its Trustee and became a leading figure in state and national politics.
Before he became governor, Owen served in the House of Commons (1812-1814), as a state senator (1819-1820, 1827-1828), and on the Council of State (1824-1827). The General Assembly elected him governor in 1828 and again in 1829. Although asked to run for office again in 1830, Owen declined, retired from public office, and returned to his native county.
As governor, Owen championed primary public schooling, internal improvements, and popular election of sheriffs. Owen believed North Carolina had a moral obligation to educate children; education decreased ignorance, which thereby decreased crime and poverty and improved the workforce and the state’s economy. He lobbied to make the Outer Banks and some of the eastern rivers more navigable so that the state might increase trade and make more profits. Owen’s suggestion that sheriffs be not only elected by local justice but also by people within the counties was implemented. During his last gubernatorial term (1830, a year before Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia), Owen warned about possible civil insurrection, so he gave slave patrols more freedom to limit slaves’ activities.
Although no longer governor, Owen remained an important public figure. He served in the 1835 Constitutional Convention as a delegate. He might have been President of the United States, too. He turned down an invitation to be William Henry Harrison’s running mate in 1840 (Harrison died one month after taking his presidential oath).
Owen died in 1841 and is buried in Pittsboro.
Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (Raleigh, 2007); William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989); William Read, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Columbia, 2006).