Image from the Library of Congress
From The Kentucky Encyclopedia -
Alben William Barkley, congressman, senator, and vice-president, was born in a log house on November 24, 1877, near Lowes in Graves County , Kentucky. His parents, John Wilson and Electra Eliza (Smith) Barkley, were tenant farmers who raised dark tobacco. Barkley attended common school in Lowes between fall harvest and spring planting. In 1891 the family settled on a wheat farm near Clinton in Hickman County, where Barkley enrolled in Marvin College in 1892. Within five years he earned a bachelor of arts degree.
After Marvin, Barkley enrolled at Emory College of Atlanta, a Methodist school connected with Marvin. He spent the 1897-98 academic year studying classics and participating in the school debating society, but his poverty sent him back to Clinton, where he taught in the Marvin College intermediate department. Unable to afford to rent a room and pay for meals, Barkley resigned in December 1898 and joined his parents in Paducah, where his father had found regular employment. Barkley obtained access to the library of Democratic Rep. Charles K. Wheeler, and in the summer of 1899 barristers William S. Bishop and John K. Hendrick hired Barkley as their law clerk. After two years of study and clerking, he passed the bar examination and opened an office in 1901. Hendrick's friend Judge L.D. Husbands appointed him circuit court reporter.
In Paducah, Barkley joined the Broadway Methodist Episcopal Church and numerous local organizations and attended dances and socials. He was a talented speaker and his rich baritone could be heard preaching lay sermons or telling jokes. He married Dorothy Brower of Tiptonville, Tennessee, on June 23, 1903. They had three children: David Murrell, Marion Frances, and Laura Louis.
In 1904 Barkley entered the Democratic primary for county attorney, establishing in this campaign a successful style and pattern for future runs. He announced his candidacy in December 1904, well before the March primary, because the primary rather than the general election was the key to gaining office in the heavily Democratic region. He was solely responsible for the organization and leadership of the campaign. He overwhelmed the voters with personal appearances, which appealed to his gregarious nature and showed off his talent in speechmaking and debating.
As county attorney, Barkley prosecuted three hundred wrongdoers and saved the county thousands of dollars by challenging overcharges against the local government. In 1907 the Democratic State Central Committee invited him to serve on the speakers' bureau and he was elected president of the State Association of County Attorneys. The local Democratic club looked to save the party from its scandal-ridden image by nominating Barkley for county judge. The 1909 election was the most vicious campaign in Barkley's career, and his victory marked him as a formidable political force.
The new judge repaid his staunchest supporters, farmers, by nearly bankrupting McCracken County with a massive project of road improvements. But he also inaugurated a number of progressive measures, such as appointing a purchasing agent and auditing the county books. Barkley announced late in 1911 that he planned to run for 1st District representative to the U.S. Congress. In the primary, Barkley faced three strong contenders, including his former employer Hendrick.
Barkley quickly took two positions most important to the farmers: lowering taxes and reducing the influence of the railroads through stricter regulation by the Interstate Commerce Commission. He also advocated federal support for highway construction, and his opponents tagged him a socialist. Midway through the 1912 campaign the national Democratic delegates selected Woodrow Wilson as the party's presidential nominee and adopted a progressive platform favorable to Barkley, who with the support of the district farmers won a large plurality in the primary and a secure victory in the general election.
During his seven terms in Congress (March 4, 1913, to March 3, 1927), Barkley served on the Interstate Commerce Commission. Barkley enlisted in Wilson's New Freedom program to bolster economic stability by eliminating financial privilege, and he strongly supported the Clayton Anti-trust Act Of 1914. Barkley moved beyond the New Freedom, however, by seeking governmental solutions to a variety of social problems, including child labor in interstate commerce. He was coauthor of a bill to ban liquor sales in the District of Columbia, which laid the foundation for future prohibition measures; though the initiative eventually failed, it gave Barkley national prominence and put him in the forefront of the Progressive movement. He gave hundreds of talks to aid fellow Democrats in their election bids between 1916 and 1922.
On November 11, 1922, Barkley announced his candidacy in the 1923 Kentucky gubernatorial race. His campaign was spirited, and he earned the nickname "Iron Man." He supported the immediate completion of the state highway network and substantial improvement in the educational system, but he also attacked coal-mining and horse-racing interests. He narrowly lost the primary but gained the future support of Democrats, and when he announced for the U.S. Senate in 1926, no Democrat opposed him.
Barkley defeated Republican incumbent Richard P. Ernst in 1926, and his Senate committee appointments reflected a status far beyond that of a newly elected junior senator. In 1928 he was considered for the vice-presidential nomination; in 1932 he was selected temporary chairman and keynote speaker for the party's national convention. With the onset of the Great Depression, Barkley played a national role as spokesman and policy-shaper during Franklin Roosevelt's terms. Barkley assisted Senate majority leader Joseph T. Robinson in the enactment of much New Deal legislation, defending Roosevelt's policies on national radio. Roosevelt chose him to deliver the keynote address at the 1936 party convention, and when Robinson died in 1937 Roosevelt urged Democratic leaders to make Barkley his successor. The new majority leader was defeated in the management of the president's court-packing plan, but Barkley later impressed his colleagues with his legislative insight and persuasive rhetoric.
Roosevelt's focus on foreign affairs during World War II gave Barkley extraordinary power on domestic programs. Occasionally Barkley disagreed on issues of internal interest, and he slipped uneasily between the roles of administration cheerleader and watchdog. He attacked inequities in the War Production Board's contracting practices and successfully led the passage of a tax bill that Roosevelt vetoed as insufficient. Though Barkley resigned his majority leadership, he was quickly reelected, setting a precedent of autonomy for future congressional leaders. In 1944, however, Roosevelt chose Harry S. Truman over Barkley as his vice-presidential candidate, perhaps in retribution for legislative defeats at Barkley's hands. Though his wife, Dorothy, died of heart disease in 1947, Barkley continued his career and his popularity soared. He received numerous awards, was ranked as the most popular Democrat, and vied with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as Look magazine's most "fascinating" American.
In 1948 Truman asked Barkley to serve again as the convention keynote speaker, and later as his running mate. As the Democrats had seemed ripe for a presidential loss, their victory was a major upset. On January 20, 1949, Barkley took the oath as the nation's thirty-fifth vice-president, the oldest man to do so. He became the only vice-president to wed in office when he married Jane Rucker Hadley on November 18, 1949, after a cross-country courtship. Barkley was the first working vice-president in U.S. history. Because of his legislative expertise, Truman insisted on Barkley's inclusion in all cabinet-level meetings and on the National Security Council. His extraordinary speaking abilities made him the administration's principal spokesman, and Truman commissioned a vice-presidential seal and flag from the army's heraldic branch.
Barkley's age in 1952 prevented his candidacy for president. After leaving office he hosted a national political television show and then retired to write his memoirs. Finding retirement unsatisfactory, he entered the Senate race in 1954, handily defeating incumbent John Sherman Cooper; his colleagues appointed him to the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On April 30, 1956, Barkley traveled to Lexington, Virginia , to give a keynote speech before a mock convention conducted by students of Washington and Lee University. There he observed that he "would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty." At the conclusion of the address, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was buried in Paducah.
JAMES K. LIBBEY, Entry Author
Selected Sources from UK Libraries:
Barkley, Alben William, and Barkley, Jane R. Alben W. Barkley Papers, 1900-1956. (1900). Print.
63M143, Special Collections Research Center - Manuscripts Collection
Neelley, Ewing Edward. Alben W. Barkley : The Image of the Southern Political Orator. 1987. Print.
E748.B318 N440 1987a, Special Collections Research Center
Reichert, William O. The Political and Social Thought of Alben W. Barkley. Lexington, Ky.: [s.n.], 1950. Print.
Theses 1950, Young Library - Theses 5th Floor Rotunda