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Our Rich History: William Shreve Bailey was a heroic abolitionist editor, provoked ire of pro-slavery groups


Part 16 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

By Paul Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Nestled at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, today’s Harper’s Ferry is a sleepy little tourist town of less than 300 people in the state of West Virginia. In the 1850s, however, it was a vibrant and strategic crossroads of over 1,500 people in Virginia, literally one of the most important intersection points of railroad and telegraph communications between the East and the West, the North and the South.

The Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad steamed through Harper’s Ferry, connecting with points east to Baltimore, Maryland, and west to the Ohio River. Meanwhile, the Winchester and Potomac Railroad (W&P) ran north from Winchester, Virginia to Harper’s Ferry, where it joined the B&O. This railroad junction was the first of its kind in the United States, tying together two very pioneering railroad lines. Telegraph lines, crucial to the operation of the railroads, also traversed Harper’s Ferry.

From Harper’s Ferry, the B&O Railroad traveled northwest to Cumberland, Maryland, another strategic transportation and communications hub, where the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal from Washington, DC reached in 1850. Nearby lies the Cumberland Narrows through the Appalachian Mountains. In the early 1800s, the National Road (also called the Cumberland Road) was constructed from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling, West Virginia on the Ohio River, and beyond. In addition, the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad, completed to Wheeling in 1853, also traversed the Cumberland Narrows. See also Our Rich History: “The Ohio River Valley was the epicenter of a major global war.”

William Shreve Bailey (From Accessible Archives)

At Wheeling, West Virginia, the transportation links all came together. Lying at mile 191 of the 981-mile-long Ohio River, Wheeling’s geographical location is simultaneously one of the best—and one of the most bizarre—in America. The Ohio River Valley was THE waterway to the then-West, now called the Midwest. Squeezed into the narrow, so-called “Northern Panhandle” between Pennsylvania and Ohio, one of the strangest border compromises/configurations of American history, Wheeling was a Virginia aberration. Anti-slavery in sentiment, the city and points south literally seceded from Confederate Virginia during the Civil War. Admitted to the Union as West Virginia in 1863, Wheeling became the state’s first capital.

Wheeling’s ties to Cincinnati, Newport, and Covington downriver were strong, as steamboats plied the Ohio River Valley filled with raw materials and finished manufactured goods. Close to the midpoint of the Ohio River is Newport, Kentucky, lying at mile 470. By the time of the Civil War, Newport was a flourishing manufacturing city in its own right, and also a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio.

As a city at the northern tip of the slave state of Kentucky and located in the county of Campbell, Newport was like Wheeling, somewhat of an aberration. In 1850, Campbell County had 177 slaves, about 1.3% of a total population of 13,127 (US, Census Office, Seventh Census, p. 611). Ten years later, on the eve of the Civil War in 1860, Campbell County had even fewer slaves, 115, a little more than one-half of 1% of the total population of 20,909. (US Census Office, Eighth Census, p. 180.) In fact, of 109 counties in Kentucky in 1860, only two others (Jackson and Johnson in Appalachia) had lower slave-to-total-population percentages than Campbell County.

While slavery was economically insignificant to Campbell County in 1860, that fact did not mean that either the county or Newport was necessarily a bastion of abolitionist sentiment. The vast majority of white Americans had little direct connection whatsoever with slavery, and little if any commitment to either side of the debate. It is to that portion of the white citizenry that both the proponents and opponents of slavery focused their attempts in order to influence public policy, especially by the 1850s. See also Our Rich History: “Abolitionism and the Ohio River Valley, intersection points between free, slave states’”

In 1839 William Shreve Bailey (born in Centerville, Ohio in 1806) moved to Newport. He described his regular employment as a “ ‘cotton machinist & steam engine builder,’” (Will Frank Steely, “William Shreve Bailey, Kentucky Abolitionist,” Filson Club History Quarterly, vol. 31, July 1957, p. 274). Purchasing the press of The Newport News in 1850, he embarked upon an increasingly abolitionist tone to this and other newspapers that he edited. By the late 1850s, his main newspaper had adopted the title, The Free South.

Bailey’s abolitionist press provoked the ire of pro-slavery supporters. In October 1851, a mob attacked and burned the store and residence where Bailey was publishing. In a story reprinted from the Cincinnati Atlas, it was reported that Bailey “and his family barely had time to escape with their lives, without saving any of their furniture, type or presses. His loss is about $3,000—without any insurance. It was his all, and therefore the loss is a severe calamity to him” (Covington Journal, October 11, 1851, p. 2). Bailey’s friends, including the abolitionist Ira Root of Newport and many Covington citizens, raised money to enable him to rebuild his newspaper (Public Meeting,” Covington Journal, October 18, 1851, p. 3).

Riddled by debt throughout the 1850s, Bailey relied upon his wife and many children to help him publish his newspaper. At one point, he was forced to sell his own home to finance his debts. In addition, he experienced other harassment. “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” (Steely, p. 278).

Unlike some of the other abolitionists of Kentucky, such as Cassius Marcellus Clay and Rev. John G. Fee, Bailey appealed directly to working-class laborers. Slaves, he argued, drove down the wages of the working class. Bailey’s direct economic appeal to workingmen did not earn him the respect of John G. Fee, the founder of Berea, Kentucky, who on behalf of the anti-slavery American Missionary Association wrote that Bailey “has neither the intelligence nor correct principle for the work — no correct motives of reform” (Steely, p. 275).

Far from discouraged, Bailey even offered to allow Fee to edit his newspaper, but to no avail. Apparently, Bailey was not necessarily a strong-enough advocate of Christianity to endear himself to Fee, who wrote: “‘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 a man I want to do business with’” (Steely, pp. 275-276). On the other hand, Cassius Clay advocated for funds on behalf of Bailey’s newspaper.

In June 1859, Bailey was one of several men who helped to organize the Republican Party in Campbell and Kenton Counties for the upcoming 1859 state election. In fact, Bailey’s The Free South was the only Republican newspaper in the state at the time. Bailey’s efforts proved fruitful, for in the later 1860 presidential election, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln received the largest number of votes in Kentucky in Campbell County.

In October 1859, the Ohio River Valley and its communications network erupted with news. Abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) had attacked and captured the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), hoping to incite a slave rebellion. Captured, tried, and executed, Brown became a martyr for the abolitionist cause.

The actions of John Brown seemed to galvanize fear in Northern Kentuckians. Even to those with no interest in slavery whatsoever, clearly the nation was being torn apart. Tempers and violence were rising, and in a region whose Ohio River trade depended upon the South for sources of raw materials and for markets for manufactured goods, businessmen were nervous.

Less than two weeks after John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, a mob attacked The Free South’s headquarters. Over the course of two evenings, the angry crowd destroyed Bailey’s press type and robbed his home, warning him to leave town. Bailey refused. Standing firm, and knowing that he would not receive justice in a Kentucky court, he sued the mob for $15,000 in a Cincinnati court. He also armed his headquarters. Continuing publication of The Free South, Bailey was arrested and incarcerated in Newport on the charge of publishing “incendiary documents” (“Newport,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, November 14, 1860, p. 2). Abolitionists bailed him out.

Abolitionists also raised funds to enable Bailey to visit Europe on an anti-slavery lecture tour, thereby postponing a trial against him. By the time he returned to the United States, the Civil War had started, and the trial was cancelled.

Next week: more about William Shreve Bailey

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

Note: Photo of William Shreve Bailey is from Accessible Archives.


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