William Shreve Bailey was a journeyman mechanic in northern Kentucky in the 1830s. In 1839, he opened his own machine shop in the Ohio River town of Newport. Bailey sweated and strove to feed his 10 children and to achieve the measure of self-determination that came with owning a business.
Bailey could not limit his horizons to the pursuit of personal success. He was a mechanic who also read widely and thought his own thoughts. When the great debate about slavery heated up in the 1840s, William Shreve Bailey was listening. From the clamor and grease of his machine shop, Bailey heard the arguments for and against the peculiar institution, but he also found himself thinking about the social position of white workingmen like himself. He wondered who in Kentucky would really be hurt by abolition, and who might be helped.
From his own thought and study, William Shreve Bailey concluded that human slavery was morally wrong. This in itself was no revolution. Many advocates for Southern slave society admitted that slavery was an evil, but, they argued, it was a necessary evil that could not be eliminated in the foreseeable future.
But Bailey also decided that slavery was an obstacle to the well-being and social progress of the non-slaveholding white Southern majority. No workingman, he realized, could reap the full value from his labor so long as some workers were held in absolute bondage. Especially in the emerging non- agricultural labor market of Southern towns and cities, progress for any one worker required progress for all.