Joseph Weldon Bailey, United States congressman and senator, was born Joseph Edgar Bailey in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, on October 6, 1863, the son of Joseph and Harriet (Dee) Bailey. He attended five different colleges and universities before completing his law studies in Lebanon, Tennessee, in 1883. During his studies he replaced his middle name with the family name Weldon. He returned to Mississippi in 1883 and, after being admitted to the bar in Copiah County, began practicing law in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. As an avid Democrat who opposed the Republican tariff, he soon became embroiled in local politics. In January 1884 he was called to testify before a United States Senate committee investigating the violent tactics used by Mississippi Democrats in the local elections of 1883. When he was accused of being one of the leaders of the Democratic faction that initiated the violence, Bailey did not appear because he refused to perjure himself. No action was taken against him.
In 1885 he moved to Gainesville, Texas, and began practicing law. He quickly became politically active. He supported the unsuccessful prohibition amendment to the state constitution in 1887. In 1888 he refused attempts to nominate him as a congressional candidate because he was not old enough. Two years later he successfully ran for Congress, and in 1897 he was elected leader of the Democratic minority. During his terms in the House, he favored free silver and opposed expansionism. He also acquired a reputation as a parliamentary tactician and an orator. Despite political enemies, he was always a popular speaker in his home district; he remained a lifetime friend and hero to the young Samuel T. Rayburn. Bailey became a United States senator in 1901. In the Senate he advocated regulation of railroad rates and service and the 1909 tax on corporations. During his senatorial term charges were made that he had illegally represented the Waters-Pierce Oil Company, which was expelled from Texas for violating the antitrust laws because of its connections with the Standard Oil trust (see WATERS-PIERCE CASE).
Bailey damaged his early promise as a potential leader of the Democratic party in 1902 when, after a heated debate, he physically assaulted Senator Albert Beveridge. In 1906 Cosmopolitan magazine charged that Bailey was one of the senators who controlled the Senate to protect private interests at the expense of the public. He was, nevertheless, reelected and was eventually exculpated by the Texas House and Senate investigations. Nevertheless, these investigations revealed that as a corporate attorney he had received large fees for his work. An additional and perhaps even more damaging event was the revelation that Waters-Pierce had never broken its ties to Standard Oil, contrary to claims that it had severed relations in 1900. Bailey's public career was over; he was never elected to public office again. Facing a stern challenge in 1912 and disillusioned by the progressive movement within the Democratic party, he resigned from the Senate in September 1911 and established a lucrative law practice in Washington. He returned to Texas in 1920 and ran for governor. After his defeat, he established a law office in Dallas.
In 1885 Bailey married Ellen Murray of Oxford, Mississippi. They had two sons, one of whom, Joseph Weldon Bailey, Jr., had a long political career. Ellen died in 1926, and Bailey married Mrs. Prudence Rosengren in 1927. He died on April 13, 1929, during a trial in Sherman and was buried in Gainesville.