Barkley, Alben William (Nov. 24, 1877 - Apr. 30, 1956), U.S. representative, senator, and vice-president, was born in a log cabin near Lowes, Ky., the son of John Wilson Barkley, an impoverished tobacco farmer, and Electra A. Smith. He rose to prominence in a manner that exemplified the American success ethic. As a boy he combined his schooling with hard farm labor; after graduation from high school, he worked his way through Marvin College (B.A., 1897) and spent a year studying law at Emory College (1897-98). Most of his legal education was the product of reading and observation in the offices of prominent Paducah, Ky., attorneys for whom he worked. Admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1901, he still felt it necessary to spend a summer at the University of Virginia Law School in 1902. On June 23, 1903, he married Dorothy Brower; they had three children.
The young lawyer soon turned to politics. He was a first-rate speaker and a gregarious, energetic campaigner. In 1905 he was elected prosecuting attorney of McCracken County, Ky. Four years later he won office as county judge, essentially an administrative position in which his chief accomplishment was improvement of the rural roads. In 1912 he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat.
As a congressman Barkley reflected the interests and aspirations of the rural progressive wing of the early twentieth-century Democratic party. He quickly became a follower of Woodrow Wilson, whom he described in 1954 as "the greatest statesman and greatest President under whom I ever served." A down-the-line supporter of the New Freedom, he was especially active in working for rural credit and highway aid measures. He was an equally strong backer of the president's foreign policy, including the decision for war in 1917, the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, and the League of Nations. His faith in Wilsonian internationalism remained steadfast for the rest of his life.
Barkley was, however, no ideologue. Above all a professional politician whose career rested upon his ability to persuade his constituency to elect him to office, he was willing to adjust his positions on specific issues. Like many rural progressives he supported prohibition, although he was personally skeptical of the dry crusade. As he recalled it, he strictly observed the Eighteenth Amendment, but he was happy enough to advocate its repeal in 1932 after national sentiment had swung against it. Like all good Wilsonians he was a low-tariff man, but he voted for high duties on coal, one of his state's most important products. After he sustained his only electoral defeat--a 1923 candidacy for governor of Kentucky--partly because he had offended powerful interests by advocating a tax on coal production, he reversed his position.
When Barkley was elected to the Senate in 1926 he was already something of a national figure. He had served as acting chairman during much of the 1924 Democratic convention, the first to be nationally broadcast. In 1928 a group of supporters unsuccessfully promoted him for the vice-presidency. Both before and after the 1928 convention he supported Alfred E. Smith; he was capable of bucking the prejudices of his constituents if he felt the issue was important enough. In 1932 he was one of the leading preconvention supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who secured his designation as convention keynoter. Thereafter he was a major speaker at every Democratic convention through 1952, and he delivered keynote speeches again in 1936 and 1948. Later generations might find his addresses excessively partisan and bombastic; committed Democrats at the time found them both inspiring and entertaining. As a political orator, Barkley had few peers.
Easily reelected to the Senate in 1932, Barkley established himself as one of the most prominent supporters of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Democratic majority leader Joseph Robinson appointed him assistant majority leader in 1933. After Robinson's death in 1937 Barkley ran to succeed him. Aided by intensive White House support, he defeated Mississippi Senator Pat Harrison by one vote. Facing a serious primary challenge from Kentucky governor A. B. ("Happy") Chandler in 1938, he once again got strong backing from the administration. A small scandal surfaced when investigative reporters discovered that Works Progress Administration workers had been pressured to donate to the Barkley campaign, but the senator won rather handily.
Barkley's performance as majority leader drew mixed evaluations. Robinson had been one of the strongest leaders in the history of the Senate, and Barkley succeeded him just as the conservative coalition was beginning its twenty-five year dominance of the Congress. He not only faced difficulty with the Republicans but also suffered frequent obstruction from powerful members of his own party. He appears to have seen his job as one of conciliation between the conservatives on Capitol Hill and the militant New Dealers who formulated the White House legislative program.
Barkley's own policy positions were predominantly liberal, even to the extent of supporting civil rights legislation, but he usually counseled acceptance of whatever compromises could be put through the legislative process. Frequently criticized as weak and ineffective, he was nonetheless capable of ordering the Senate sergeant at arms to "arrest" absent members in November 1942, in an effort to compel their attendance to break a filibuster. The following year he defeated a conservative attempt to limit his powers. Unlike Robinson, Barkley retained his regular committee assignments and carried a heavy legislative workload on top of his leadership duties. But his record was ambiguous because his name was never attached to a major bill, although he was involved in every important congressional issue of his time.
After the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Barkley backed Roosevelt's program of aid to the anti-Axis forces. As permanent chairman of the 1940 Democratic convention, he presided over Roosevelt's third-term nomination. After Pearl Harbor he was especially vocal in support of a new international organization and of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (Louis Brandeis had persuaded him of the merits of Zionism years earlier.)
The war years were personally and politically difficult. His wife, ill with heart disease, became an invalid requiring constant nursing care, and the senator had to supplement his salary with speaking fees; until Dorothy Barkley's death, on Mar. 10, 1947, he combined his congressional duties with an exhausting lecture schedule. Other disappointments came from the White House--Roosevelt passed him over for a Supreme Court vacancy in 1943 and for the vice-presidential nomination in 1944. The political rift between the president and Congress widened and made the Senate majority leader's position increasingly uncomfortable. In February 1944 Roosevelt issued a stinging veto of a revenue bill that Barkley had advised him to approve. The Kentuckian denounced the veto, resigned as majority leader, and was promptly reelected by fellow Democrats. The president quickly repaired their relationship, and a few months later at the Democratic convention Barkley placed Roosevelt's name in nomination for a fourth term.
Barkley was friendly with Roosevelt's successor, but Harry S. Truman appears to have considered the Kentucky senator a man of limited capabilities. After the Republicans gained control of Congress in the 1946 elections, Barkley, now Senate minority leader, was rarely asked to consult with the White House on legislative tactics. Truman dealt with other senators on foreign policy. Having no hope that the conservative Congress would pass his liberal domestic program, Truman requested it only to build a platform for the 1948 campaign. Barkley privately compared himself to a catcher in a night baseball game: he never knew what the pitcher was going to throw and the lights went out every time the ball was released. Nevertheless, after Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had turned the offer down, Truman selected Barkley as his vice-presidential running mate in 1948.
Barkley's vice-presidency (1949-53) was an active one. He lobbied for administration programs and was included in the decision-making process, but inevitably his major function was as an administration publicist and purveyor of goodwill, a role he handled well. He became known as the "Veep"--a title coined by his ten-year-old grandson. His personal life brightened considerably after his marriage on Nov. 18, 1949, to Jane Rucker Hadley, a Saint Louis widow some thirty years his junior. In 1952 he sought the Democratic presidential nomination. The outgoing Truman extended lukewarm support, but Barkley's advanced age cost him the backing of other key party leaders, and he withdrew.
After a brief semiretirement, Barkley was reelected to the Senate in 1954, defeating John Sherman Cooper. No longer a leader, he was considered a beloved elder statesman. He died of a heart attack while speaking to students at Washington and Lee College in Lexington, Va. For all his accomplishments, Barkley was perhaps best remembered as one of the last of the old-fashioned political orators. A friend, upon hearing the circumstances of his death, remarked fondly: "It is the way he would have wanted to go. He never could turn down a crowd."
[Barkley's papers are at the University of Kentucky. His only published memoir, That Reminds Me (1954), is based on a series of interviews with journalist Sidney Shalett. His wife describes their marriage in Jane R. Barkley (as told to Frances Spatz Leighton), I Married the Veep (1958). There is no biography; the most satisfactory treatment is Polly Ann Davis, "Alben W. Barkley: Senate Majority Leader and Vice-President" (Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 1963).
See also C. A. Leistner, "The Political Campaign Speaking of Alben W. Barkley" (Ph.D. diss., University of Missouri, 1958); Glenn Finch, "The Election of United States Senators in Kentucky: The Barkley Period," Filson Club Historical Quarterly, 45 (July 1971); John H. Hatcher, "Alben Barkley, Politics in Relief and the Hatch Act," ibid., 40 (July 1966); J. B. Shannon, "Alben W. Barkley: 'Reservoir of Energy,' " in J. T. Salter, ed., Public Men In and Out of Office (1946); and the obituary notice in the New York Times, May 1, 1956.]