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William Shreve Bailey

Kentucky Abolitionist


 Information taken from an article by Will Frank Steely-Murray State College-Murray, Kentucky and Danny Duncan Collum, of Sojourners Magazine


William Shreve Bailey, a poor mechanic of Newport, published the only antislavery and the only Republican newspaper printed in Kentucky in the 1850s.  Calling himself a "cotton machinist and steam engine builder", Bailey, as an abolitionist, was particularly obnoxious to some Southern "gentlemen", who disdained manual labor and manual laborers.

Bailey and his wife, Caroline and daughters are an example of an entire family enlisted in the antislavery work.  When he had difficulty with his employees he let them go and trained the women in his family to aid him in the work of publishing.  At one time he observed that he had ten children that could set type. "I know of no other family that ever took such an untiring stand upon its own soil." (1)

Moving to Newport in 1839 Bailey established a machine shop in that Northern Kentucky town.  A "Mr. Ryan" published The Newport News and Bailey began to write abolition articles for his newspaper.  Bailey's contributions brought criticism to the paper, and the editor insisted that Bailey buy him out.  The mechanic purchased the press for $650 and set it up in the upper story of a store he had in the meantime established.  From there in March 1850, he began a decade long attack upon the institution of slavery.

Bailey's newspaper in the 1850s was really several newspapers in succession.  While he was publishing the daily Newport News he began publication of the Kentucky Weekly News. Later the Newport News was renamed the Newport & Covington Daily News. Eventually the daily paper had to be discontinued, and for the latter part of the decade the Kentucky Weekly News was given the more appropriate title, The Free South (2).

From the mastheads Bailey proclaimed that his papers stood for "Liberty and Equality" and "The Rights & Interests of the people-True Democracy-The Freedom of Kentucky & the Downfall of Slavery."  In the columns of his newspapers Bailey appealed to his fellow Kentuckians to abolish slavery.  Like Cassius Clay, who published the anti-slavery organ called The True American in Lexington in 1845, Bailey opposed the institution of slavery on economic grounds.  Unlike Clay the editor-mechanic made it clear that he was for "Immediate, not gradual abolition."  He hoped for the abolition of slavery in the state by the Kentucky legislature.  He was aware that if such were to occur the law-making body would have to be reconstituted along less pro-slavery lines.

Appealing to the non-slaveholding "laboring masses" of the state, Bailey observed that the legislators of Kentucky cared nothing for them:

"They are all either slaveholders or those who are known to favor the institution of slavery, and those who interest it is to encourage slavery and accumulate slaves can have no sympathy for the massed whose wages they reduce by forcing them to compete with the unpaid labor of black men and women."

Bailey blamed the slaveholders for keeping the laborers in ignorance of their true interests:

"It is for want of a better education among the laboring masses that this state of things exist, and for the same reason the Kentucky Weekly News is hated, and for a like cause the Savior was crucified upon Mount Calvary". (3)

One of Bailey's chief difficulties was a shortage of funds to carry on his work.  Seeking aid he wrote in 1852 to the American Missionary Association.  That body was the most important antislavery organization in the West in the decade of the 1850s. It carried on extensive work in Kentucky and was responsible for the support of John G Fee and the other founders of Berea College.  In consequence of Bailey's appeal to the Association, Fee was sent to visit the Newport publisher.  He was not impressed with the machinist and reported critically that he "will not do.  He has neither intelligence nor correct principles for the work-no correct motives of reform."  In short, Bailey's abolitionism was not of the religious sort which attracted Fee and the Bereans. (4)

In a few months after the unfavorable estimate of Bailey was passed on to American Missionary Association headquarters the Newport publisher offered to let Fee edit the newspaper.  Bailey suggested that Fee's editorship would enable the machinist to travel in the South in the antislavery work.  Fee wrote early in 1853, stating that he did not want to be associated with Bailey. 

"The editor has no adequate ability-not much means-is a sort of skeptic-but has taken the ground of free discussion on all things-is anti-slavery-favoring infidelity his columns are much occupied with infidel communications.  He pleads in a letter to me the oppressions, hypocrisy and other sins of professing Christians as his excuse.  Now he is not the kind of man I want to do business with." (5)

Although the circulation of the Newport News was increasing Fee feared that it would be crushed by debt if something could not be done to aid Bailey financially.  Cassius Clay had offered to pay Fee's salary and all expenses if he would go to Newport and edit a paper. (6) Somehow Bailey managed to keep his newspaper going in spite of his monetary difficulties.  Later in the decade The Free South came to be noticed by different Northern church groups.  Bailey reported that as a consequence of that notice,  clergymen from New York had sent him $50 for use on his newspaper.

Under Bailey's proprietorship the Newport News became an abolitionist organ with the title The Free South.  Running an abolitionist paper in a Southern slave state was not an occupation for the faint of heart.  Trouble came in October 1851 when an angry mob of proslavery white burned the building that housed Bailey's press. The presses were destroyed in the blaze along with much of the family's clothing.  Bailey's wife and daughters had moved many of their personal effects to the store because their work obligated them to spend much time there. But the paper continued to appear.  His friends in Newport and surrounding areas raised $517 and within six weeks he overcame the competition of a pro-slavery newspaper which had sprung up to fill the void left by his burning. (7)

Cincinnati Atlas, October 10, 1851 and published in The Covington Journal, Saturday, October 11, 1851, page 2

Fire in Newport

We sincerely regret to learn that our friend and contemporary of the Newport Daily News, Mr. Wm S Bailey, has met with a severe calamity in the burning of his office and dwelling.  About 2 o'clock yesterday, some cowardly villain set fire to the building in which Mr. Bailey resided, part of which also served as a printing office, and  in a few minutes there was nothing left but a pile of smoldering ruins.  Mr. B and his family barely had time to escape with their lives, without saving any of their furniture, type or presses.  His loss is about$3000--without any insurance.  It was his all, and therefore the loss is a severe calamity to him.  His policy of insurance had expired a few days previously.

The citizens of Newport are determined that the spicy little "News" shall not be killed off in this manner and they are already at work to make up a sum to set Mr. Bailey upon his tripod again.  A public meeting was to have been held last evening for this purpose.  We hope soon to see friend Bailey again at work and with better luck.

Bailey's hardships and persecution continued throughout the decade.  His house and lot were sold to pay his debts and the family moved upstairs over the printing shop. A sheriff of an adjacent county collected $300 from Bailey in court as a result of a libel suit.  The editor claimed that he told the truth about the man.  In 1855 the son-in-law of a wealthy man in Newport, whom Bailey had criticized in his paper, tried to cane the editor.  Bailey beat him up and had to fight a lawsuit as a consequence.  Later he was forced to pay a fine for letting colored people have a party in his house.

The tragic final chapter for the paper came on October 22, 1859 when John Brown staged his famous raid on the U.S. Army arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.  On October 28, an angry mob attacked Bailey's offices, and over the protests of Bailey and one of his daughters moved two of his printing presses out into the street, and threw most of the type into the gutter.  The next night the mob returned and stole several items from his house, among them his pocketbook. Bailey was warned to leave the state or face worse violence.

Newspaper Office Mobbed at Newport Article-November 4, 1859

Instead he filed suit in the Cincinnati courts against the men responsible for the damage to his business for $15,000 and swore that he would only leave Kentucky "dead and some of them at least must die with me."  When he was imprisoned in Newport after the reappearance of The Free South, his Northern sympathizers bailed him out.  Funds were collected that he might go to England to lecture and collect money from British sympathizers of the antislavery cause.  Upon returning his trial was not held because the Civil War had come to Kentucky.  Bailey was permitted to continue his paper during and after the conflict.

1.William S Bailey, Office of the Daily and Weekly News, Newport 1858, subtitled "A Short Sketch of our Troubles in the Anti-Slavery Cause"
2.Bailey "Sketch" Eliza Whigham The Anti Slavery Cause in American and its Martyrs-London 1863 pp 46-47
3.Newport & Covington Daily News, August 5, 1856,  Kentucky Weekly News, January 8, 22, 1858
4.Fisk University American Missionary Association Papers October 22, 1852
5.American Missionary Association papers February 15, 1853
6.American Missionary Association papers July 15, 1853
7.Whigham Anti-Slavery pp 46-47

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