Josiah Bailey (1873-1946)

Written By North Carolina History Project

Josiah Bailey was a leading figure in North Carolina’s progressive movement during the early twentieth century. In the 1930s and 1940s, he served as a Democratic U.S. senator from North Carolina, and he co-authored the “conservative manifesto,”a bipartisan criticism of the New Deal and defense of fiscally conservative policy.

Born in Warrenton, North Carolina, in 1873, he spent his childhood in Raleigh. His father, Christopher Bailey, was a Baptist preacher and the editor of an official Baptist newspaper called the Biblical Recorder. After Bailey graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest in 1893, he worked with his father at the Recorder and took the editorial reins after his father’s death in 1895.

As editor of the Recorder, Bailey emerged as an influential political commentator. His views were progressive: he supported efficient and beneficent government, embracing causes such as public education and temperance. His progressivism was not dogmatic, and he advocated localization when feasible. For instance, while leading the North Carolina Anti-Saloon League, he did not advocate wholesale prohibition; he instead supported a local option bill, which, if passed, would require each municipality to hold a regular referendum on prohibition. When members of the Anti-Saloon League in 1907 lurched toward support of national prohibition, Bailey resigned. That year Bailey resigned from the Biblical Recorder. In 1908, he was admitted to the bar in North Carolina.

Bailey secured his first two government posts in 1913. One position, ”internal revenue collector for all of eastern North Carolina,” was federal. The other was a seat on North Carolina Governor Locke Craig’s Commission on Constitutional Amendments, the most significant recommendation of which was that North Carolina institute a mandatory six-month school year. While developing a reputation as a reform-minded activist in the Democratic Party, Bailey became, by 1918, one of North Carolina’s twenty highest-paid attorneys.

In 1924, Bailey ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. He proved unable to compete with the conservative, Angus McLean. During the 1928 presidential contest, North Carolina’s Democratic politicians supported the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover.  Bailey, however, supported his party’s candidate, Alfred E. Smith, and he chastised North Carolina Democrats for opposing Smith on grounds of his Catholicism.

Bailey’s support for Smith paid off in 1930. Inaugurated only months before the crash of 1929, Hoover had become unpopular, and the Democratic Party in North Carolina was unwilling to support incumbent U.S. Senator Furnifold Simmons, who had supported Hoover in the 1928 presidential election. Bailey, who had opposed Hoover, ran in the Democratic primary and defeated Simmons. In the general election, Bailey was elected by a margin of over 70,000 votes.

In the Senate, Bailey remained a loyal Democrat, but he opposed many of the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on principled grounds. Though he accepted many individual components of the New Deal, he became a fierce and effective opponent of Roosevelt’s more radical plans, such as the plan to pack the Supreme Court. In 1937, Senator Bailey co-authored a “conservative manifesto” that enumerated a set of conservative principles while questioning both Roosevelt’s fiscal policy and his consolidation of federal power. His opposition to Roosevelt largely evaporated in 1939; the beginning of the Second World War prompted Bailey to cease criticizing many Roosevelt policies, yet throughout the war, he opposed Roosevelt’s labor policy.

Bailey died in 1946 after a year and a half of chronically poor health.