William S. Bailey: Abolitionist Editor in the Slave State of Kentucky

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

PikeBy Doug Logan, Ockerman Middle School, Florence, KY

Well-known is the account of Elijah P. Lovejoy’s tragic death in Alton, Illinois, in 1837.  Editor of the abolitionist newspaper, the Alton Observer, Lovejoy—the “patron saint of American journalists”—was shot and killed by a pro-slavery mob intent on destroying his press.  In response to Lovejoy’s murder, a thirty-seven-year-old tanner named John Brown swore publically:  “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”  That vow, which ultimately led to Brown’s daring raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859, caused the lesser-known strife faced by a Kentucky editor whose abolitionist press was destroyed in a fashion strikingly similar to Lovejoy’s.[1]

Born in Centerville, Ohio, in 1806, William Shreve Bailey moved to Newport, Kentucky, in 1839.  A cotton machinist and steam engine builder, he established a machine shop in this industrial city ideally located just south of the Ohio River from Cincinnati and east of the Licking River from Covington.  Noted as an “infidel” in religion, Bailey—a Democrat—was a staunch abolitionist; in 1850, the mechanic began contributing articles to the Newport News, calling for the immediate abolition of slavery.  Shortly thereafter, the proprietor of the News—a Mr. Ryan—was harassed for publishing Bailey’s writing, commentary that some Northern Kentuckians felt was “too radically liberal for a slave state.”  At Ryan’s urging, Bailey bought out the beleaguered publisher, purchasing the News’ type and press for $650.  The ambitious mechanic-turned-journalist utilized the second story of his machine shop to support his new endeavor, and he issued his first paper on March 7, 1850, with the motto, “Liberty and Equality.”[2] 

“From the mastheads,” historian Will Frank Steely notes, “Bailey proclaimed that his papers stood for…‘The Rights & Interests of the People—True Democracy—The Freedom of Kentucky & the Downfall of Slavery.’”  Interestingly, though, Bailey opposed slavery for economic reasons.  A member himself of the laboring class, Bailey maintained that the abolition of slavery would lead to an increase in wages for white workers.  His newspaper—aptly renamed the Free South in 1858—appealed not to Newport’s wealthy, influential citizens but to its working class.  Of the Kentucky legislature, Bailey wrote in 1858:  “They are all either slaveholders or those who are known to favor the institution of slavery, and those whose interest it is to encourage slavery and accumulate slaves can have no sympathy for the masses whose wages they reduce by forcing them to compete with the unpaid labor of black men and women.”  Bailey labeled slavery as “a system that required whites to oppress blacks,” and he chastised slaveholders for not only shackling their laborers physically, but intellectually:  “It is for the want of a better education among the laboring masses that this state of things exist[s], and for the same reason [my newspaper] is hated.”  These charges, historian Lowell Harrison contends, allowed Bailey to “continue the journalistic assault” initiated in Kentucky by Cassius Marcellus Clay in 1845.[3] 

Bailey was the father of eleven children.  Eventually, his entire family was involved with the production of his newspaper, a situation that led to the termination of nearly a dozen employees.  When four of Bailey’s daughters learned to set type, several employees objected, stating that “it would injure the trade and bring its members into contempt.”  The employees were dismissed, Bailey began writing all of the articles himself, his daughters continued to set type, and his sons learned to make the forms and work the press.  One of his daughters, at age ten, was responsible for obtaining advertisements.  Bailey claimed that opponents from other newspapers in Northern Kentucky would “watch the advertisements every morning…, and then go to Cincinnati, and state to the advertisers that they…would purchase nothing from any house that advertised in the Newport News.”  These “boycotts” crippled the family’s enterprise.[4]

Making matters worse, on October, 6, 1851, in the wee hours of the morning, Bailey’s machine shop and all of its contents—including his type and press—were destroyed by fire.  Friends managed to raise $517 with which Bailey procured two new presses valued at $2,000.  Forced to sell his house, Bailey moved his family into upstairs quarters over a new printing shop; publication resumed within six weeks of the fire.  In dire financial straits, Bailey sought to capitalize on his ties to radical political abolitionists in the Northeast.  Historian Stanley Harrold notes that northern abolitionists “lavished praise, criticism, and money on southern advocates of emancipation because they regarded them as crucial” to their cause.  Bailey—publisher of the sole antislavery newspaper in Kentucky in the 1850s—was among the few individuals, Harrold asserts, whom northern radicals believed embodied the “thrust of abolitionism” in the slave states.  Bailey began traveling to the Northeast throughout the 1850s to obtain funding for his weekly in Newport.  His success in procuring donations underlines what Harrold calls the “high regard” in which northern political abolitionists held their antislavery allies in the South.[5]

A blow to his opponents in Northern Kentucky, Bailey’s financial backing from northern radicals did nothing to enhance his status among Newport’s elite; nor did hosting parties for slaves in his new home.  Though the slaves who attended these parties did so with the permission of their masters, Bailey was forced to pay a fine for promoting such activity.  Unyielding in his determination to wave the antislavery banner, Bailey devoted most of the space in his newspaper to coverage of national events, advocating the tenets of the newly-formed Republican Party.  Though he represented Kentucky at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 1856, Bailey criticized his party over time for merely opposing the expansion of slavery and not pursuing its abolition where it currently existed.  This line of attack won him praise from his northern supporters and solidified his stance as an immediatist.[6]

Within days of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, the pro-slavery Covington Journal published an article on October 22, 1859, which called the raid an example of “practical abolitionism.”  Historian Lawrence F. Barmann notes that newspapers across the nation leaped at the chance to characterize Brown and his men as practical abolitionists—“fanatics [who] were fully capable of organizing a military crusade and leading a servile insurrection against the South.”  Infuriated, Bailey published an article in the Free South, replying to the Journal’s assertion:  “The Journal says [Brown’s raid] is ‘practical Abolitionism,’ but we say the cause is practical Pro-Slaveryism.”  Bailey claimed that the principle cause for the riot was “the dissatisfaction of the workmen in regard to their treatment and pay;” secondary was “to secure their right of suffrage at the polls. . . .They were merely preparing for defense, not for aggression.”  The abolitionist editor stated that the raid was “founded upon the actions of slaveholders and the depressing effects of the system of slavery upon free white men.”  In response to the Journal’s claim that the raid was “villainously fearful,” Bailey countered that Brown—who “seems to have acted from an internal sense of justice and duty, in obedience to Christian principle”—could not “in justice be called a ‘villain.’”  This retort would cost the abolitionist editor dearly.[7] 

Rumors circulated that Bailey was in correspondence with John Brown immediately prior to the raid on Harpers Ferry.  Bailey denied such accusations:  “I never saw Mr. Brown—never wrote to or received a line from him in my life, nor knew anything about his movements until the difficulty was published in the newspapers.  Falsehoods have been thrown into circulation,” alleging “that I contemplated the capture of the [Newport] Barracks…to arm the negroes…and commence war upon…slaveholders in [Kentucky].”  Bailey concluded, “[H]ow any person could…believe such…stor[ies] is [difficult] to conceive.”  Whether they believed the rumors or not, a mob of about thirty men approached Bailey’s print shop at about half-past seven on the evening of October 28, 1859, determined to “abolish [his] incendiary sheet,” the Cincinnati Commercial reported.  They “pied a considerable quantity of type, broke one of the presses, and carried of[f the forms] on which the outside of the paper was being printed.”  Bailey and his family, who lived above the print shop, were present at the time.  They “begged without avail” for their property to be spared but were cursed by the mob.  The two presses were carried into the street, and the type was thrown into the gutter.  The Commercial noted that “police were present, and, if they did not positively aid in the destruction of property, they certainly did not attempt to do their duty, but were passive spectators of the lawless scene.”  Bailey was warned to leave town immediately.[8]

A group of concerned citizens met the next morning at the courthouse to discuss the matter.  The Cincinnati Gazette reported that J. R. Hallam and C. W. Cavanaugh were chosen to serve as the assembly’s president and secretary, respectively.  A resolution was offered, stating that “whilst we condemn the publication of [the Free South] in our midst…we would advise our fellow citizens not to precipitate any further action in the premises;” the resolution was opposed.  The citizens agreed that Bailey’s print shop should be relocated to Cincinnati.  The meeting adjourned to Bailey’s shop—a mere three blocks from the courthouse—to deliver its edict.  Numbering over 150, the mob assured Bailey that no harm would come to him or his family if he would simply allow them to remove his press.  Because Bailey refused to admit them, a piece of scantling was used to batter in his door.  “The house was then entered, and all the printing material carried down stairs and placed in a wagon,” the Gazette reported.  The mob “proceeded to [a] ferry-boat, with the view of transporting” the goods across the Ohio River to Cincinnati.  When they reached the wharf, however, “they changed their mind and threw everything into the river.”  The citizens reassembled briefly and appointed a vigilance committee “to see that the Free South shall not be reestablished in Newport.”  Later that night, a mob returned to Bailey’s home.  They stole more items—including Bailey’s pocketbook with $150—and “left the house a perfect wreck.”  Again, Bailey was warned to leave Kentucky.[9]

Swearing to “only go dead,” Bailey vowed to reestablish himself in Newport.  Sympathizers from Ohio visited Bailey and offered financial assistance and physical aid if necessary—“reminiscent,” Steely notes, “of Cassius Clay’s action in arming the True American.”  Taking advantage of his close proximity to Cincinnati, Bailey filed a lawsuit in the Queen City against the Campbell County citizens who destroyed his property.  These citizens reiterated their previous warnings to Bailey to leave the commonwealth.  Undaunted, the editor was committed to publishing his anti-slavery newspaper “in spite of tyrants,” writing, “I hope to not be forgotten by free men who are not in danger of life, and who can sleep without molestation from howling desperadoes.”  When publication of the Free South did, indeed, resume, Bailey was imprisoned for incendiarism.  Antislavery allies helped him post bail and encouraged him to travel to England to lecture and procure additional funding. [10] 

By the time Bailey returned to Kentucky from Europe, the Civil War was under way.  His case never came to trial, and financial contributions from influential northern abolitionists—the likes of which included Massachusetts governor John Albion Andrew, Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society leader Samuel E. Sewell, and “Secret Six” members George Luther Stearns and Gerrit Smith—kept his newspaper in production.  Coverage of the Lincoln administration and antislavery developments dominated its pages until the war’s end.  Bailey’s wife, Caroline, died of dropsy in 1867.  Later that year, Judge J. R. Hallam—who served as “president” of the assembly that ultimately destroyed the Free South’s press in October, 1859—filed a lawsuit in the Campbell County Circuit Court against Bailey for libel.  The editor printed a retraction and agreed to pay Hallam’s legal fees.  By 1870, Bailey had relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, where he resided until his death on February 20, 1886.  His remains were interred at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville.[11]  

Though the life and contributions of William S. Bailey may not be as well-known as those of Elijah P. Lovejoy or John Brown, they stand virtually unrivaled as the most significant example of the promotion of antislavery action in Kentucky in the 1850s.  An exemplary model of resilience and dedication, William S. Bailey undeniably fulfilled his desire to never be forgotten amongst the free men of his nation.



[1] Robert M. Sutton, “Illinois’ Year of Decision, 1837,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 46 (1965):  65; The Nation, 12 February 1914.

[2] The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, s.v. “Bailey, William S.,” by Theodore H. H. Harris; William S. Bailey, “A Short Sketch of Our Troubles in the Anti-Slavery Cause,” (Newport, KY:  Office of the Daily and Weekly News, 1858); Will Frank Steely, “William Shreve Bailey:  Kentucky Abolitionist,” Filson Club History Quarterly 31 (1957):  274; Stanley Harrold, The Abolitionists and the South, 1831-1861 (Lexington, KY:  The University Press of Kentucky, 1995), 30; Lowell Harrison, The Antislavery Movement in Kentucky (Lexington, KY:  The University Press of Kentucky, 1978), 65.

[3] Steely, 274-75 (Kentucky Weekly News, 8 January 1858; Kentucky Weekly News, 22 January 1858); Harrison, 64-65; Harrold, 30, 134 (Bailey to Francis Jackson, June 29, 1857).  Bailey labeled slavery as “the great curse of our general prosperity” (“A Short Sketch”).  Steely writes that “Bailey, as an abolitionist, was particularly obnoxious to some Southern ‘gentlemen,’ who disdained manual labor and manual laborers.”  The author notes that after Bailey took over production of the daily Newport News, he began publishing the Kentucky Weekly News in 1851.  The Newport News was eventually discontinued, and the Kentucky Weekly News was renamed the Free South in 1858.  Clay began publishing his anti-slavery newspaper, The True American, in Lexington in 1845; in the same year, he was forced out of Kentucky by a pro-slavery mob.  Clay resumed publication of The True American in Cincinnati.

[4] “William Shreve and Caroline Ann Bailey,” http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~kycampbe/baileyfamily.htm; “A Short Sketch;” Cincinnati Commercial, 29 October 1859; Harrison, 65.  Information in “William Shreve and Caroline Ann Bailey” comes from the family files at the Campbell County Historical and Genealogical Society (Alexandria, KY).  Bailey’s wife, Caroline, nearly seven years his junior, was a native of New York.  The two were married in Washington, Ohio, in 1827.

[5] “A Short Sketch;” Steely, 274, 278; Harrold, 27, 30, 43.  The Cincinnati Atlas reported that “some cowardly villain set fire to the building in which Mr. Bailey resided, part of which also served as a printing office” (Cincinnati Atlas, 10 October 1851).  Coincidentally—later on the morning of October 6—Samuel Pike, editor of the pro-slavery Daily Maysville Kentucky Flag, appeared in Newport, offering $1,000 to bring his press from Maysville and build himself upon Bailey’s ruins.  Bailey, of course, refused Pike’s offer.  In 1852, Bailey wrote to the American Missionary Association, seeking funds for his newspaper.  The AMA, Steely notes, was “the most important antislavery organization in the West in the decade of the 1850’s.”  The AMA was active in Kentucky prior to 1852 and vigorously supported John G. Fee and the establishment of Berea College.  Consequently, upon Bailey’s appeal, the AMA dispatched Fee to Newport to appraise the situation.  Fee was “not impressed” and wrote in a letter to the AMA that Bailey “will not do.  He has neither intelligence nor correct principles for the work—no correct motives of reform” (Fee to the American Missionary Association, Cabin Creek, Kentucky, October 22, 1852).  Steely suggests that because “Bailey’s abolitionism was not of the religious sort,” Fee did not wish to be associated with him.  Interestingly, however, some of the Bereans contributed articles to Bailey’s paper in spite of Fee’s disapproval (Steely, 275-276; Harrison, 65).

[6] Steely, 278; Harrison, 65; Harrold, 30, 39-40, 44, 131, 147; Charles W. Johnson,Proceedings of the First Three Republican National Conventions of 1856, 1860 and 1864 (Minneapolis, MN:  Harrison & Smith, 1893), 24, 41.  When “a man whose campaign for the legislature Bailey opposed” approached the editor’s shop in 1855 and attempted to cane him, Bailey was fined for defending himself against the assailant (“A Short Sketch”).  Penned by Bailey and published in William Goodell’s Principia on March 31, 1860, read the following:  “If we disclaim the right of [federal government] interference with slavery in the States where it exists, we virtually acknowledge that it exists there of right, and if we admit this, then the Republican party ceases to meet the views of those who have labored through long years to arouse the people of the slave states to a true appreciation of their degraded condition” (quoted in Harrold, 148).  Vehement in his attacks on the Buchanan administration, Bailey “blamed [Buchanan for] attempting to force slavery upon the [Kansas Territory]” (Steely, 278).  Buchanan won over fifty percent of Kentucky’s votes for president in 1856; Fillmore won approximately forty-seven percent, but no ballots were cast in the Bluegrass State for the Republican candidate, Frémont.

[7] Harrison, 65; Lawrence F. Barmann, “John Brown at Harpers Ferry:  A Contemporary Analysis,” West Virginia History 22, no. 3 (April 1961):  141-158; Tri-Weekly Yeoman (Frankfort, KY), 5 November 1859.  The Clinton Republican (Wilmington, OH) reported that “the ‘Chivalry’ of Newport took it into their heads that…if old Brown, with 16 white men…and 5 negroes, could capture a town in Virginia of 2,000 inhabitants, including the United States Armory, there is no knowing what amount of mischief old Bailey could do with a printing office in Newport, where there is nothing but the U. S. Barracks with a few hundred soldier[s] in it” (Clinton Republican, 4 November 1859).  The Yeoman published Bailey’s reply to the Covington Journal which first appeared in the Free South.  The Yeoman noted that “the citizens of Newport [were] justly indignant at [its] tone,” and added that “the Free South[‘s] attemp[t] to explain and justify the motives of old Brown will cause many to justify the…destruction” of Bailey’s press.

[8] Victor B. Howard, The Evangelical War Against Slavery and Caste:  The Life and Times of John G. Fee (Selinsgrove, PA:  Susquehanna University Press, 1996), 125; Bailey to Garrison, 1860 (quoted in William Lloyd Garrison, ed., The New Reign of Terror in the Slaveholding States for 1859-1860 [New York:  The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860], 65); Cincinnati Commercial, 29 October 1859; Steely, 279.  Howard notes that even Beriah Magoffin—elected governor of Kentucky in 1859—suggested that abolitionists and Republicans “had knowledge” of Brown’s plans to raid Harpers Ferry (127).  The Commercial noted:  “The press[es] would probably have been entirely destroyed, but those who undertook the job found it dirty work, the ink soiling their hands and clothes.”

[9] Cincinnati Gazette, 31 October 1859; Kentucky Yeoman (Frankfort, KY), 30 October 1859; Garrison, 66; Steely, 279.

[10] Harrison, 65-66; Kentucky Yeoman (Frankfort, KY), 30 October 1859; Steely, 279; Harris, 52; Harrison, 66.  In yet another appeal to the American Missionary Association for funding, Bailey wrote, “Arms are more respected here than law…and I find that those who use them are more esteemed than non resistants” (AMK, 66).  In nearby Covington for the Republican State Convention in November, 1859, Cassius Clay and George D. Blakely—Clay’s running mate for governor in 1851—addressed a public gathering in Newport from the very steps of the Free South’s office; Clay “insisted that [John] Brown’s uprising was nothing but the fruit of the invasion of Kansas by the proslavery party” (Howard, 125; Harrison, 67).

[11] Harris, 53; Harrold, 167; “William Shreve and Caroline Ann Bailey;” Casper L. Jordan, “Library Records and Research,” in Ethnic Genealogy:  A Research Guide, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (Westport, Connecticut:  Greenwood Press, 1983), 64.  Bailey was in England as late as May of 1861—a letter written by Anna H. Richardson from Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, to William Still on May 2, 1861, states that “Our worthy friend, W.S. Bailey, has lately been here” (William Still, Still’s Underground Railroad Records [Philadelphia:  William Still, 1886], 607).  The “Secret Six” were six wealthy abolitionists who agreed to secretly fund John Brown.  The New York Times reported in December, 1863, that Bailey “has come to the East to procure a press and other necessary material.  He has just been released from an old indictment…and is now free to devote himself to his work.  His boldness and persistency in advocating the doctrines of Free-soil in bygone years deserve recognition now and, as he will be for some time in this City, those who would assist him may address him through the Post-office” (New York Times, 18 December 1863).  Jordan notes that the monument at Bailey’s grave “was erected…by his life-long anti-slavery friend, Rev. Photius Fisk of Boston.”  It reads:  “One of the bravest pioneers of abolitionism for chattel slavery and of free thought for mental slavery.  Though often outraged and martyred for his principles he was never conquered, suppressed, nor discouraged.  It was through the efforts of such heroes that the world has been made fit for the abode of humanity.  He rests in the peace and honor so nobly won.”

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