If you have driven down Alben Barkley Drive in Paducah, Kentucky, seen Alben Barkley’s name on the historical markers in town, flew out of Barkley Regional Airport, or spent the day at Barkley Lake, this name will be familiar to you, but do you really know who he was and his accomplishments?
For those that are history enthusiasts living in the area, Alben Barkley Drive brings back the memories of Paducah’s most famous politician, that had a remarkable career in politics in the House of Representatives, as the Majority Leader in the Senate and as the 35th Vice President of the United States with President Harry S. Truman from 1949 to 1953.
Alben Barkley was born November 24, 1877 in a log cabin near Lowes, Kentucky in Graves County, but his given name was Willie Alben Barkley. His parents were John Wilson Barkley and Electra Eliza (Smith) Barkley, which were deeply religious tenant farmers who raised tobacco but later settled on a wheat farm in Hickman County, Kentucky in 1891.
He first attended Marvin College, in Clinton, Kentucky, and graduated in 1897 where he learned that he excelled in speech and debate, all the while working as a full-time janitor in school. Barkley continued his studies at Emory College in Oxford, Georgia, and afterwards, he attended the University of Virginia School of Law and graduated in 1901.
Never liking his name Willie Alben, he legally changed his name to Alben William Barkley. He later commented, “Just imagine the tribulations I would have had. A robust, active boy, going through a Kentucky childhood with the name of ‘Willie,’ and later trying to get into politics!”
Returning to Kentucky, Barkley clerked for two Paducah attorneys before passing the bar exam in 1901 and opened his own law office the same year. He married Dorothy Brower in 1903 and they had three children: David Murrell, Marion Frances, and Laura Louise.
Barkley decided to run for prosecuting attorney of McCracken County two years later, and he would later tell a story in his memoirs, That Reminds Me, about how he was said to have ridden a mule during the campaign stating, “This story is a base canard, and, here and now, I wish to spike it for all time. It was not a mule—it was a horse.”
From Judge to House of Representatives and the Senate
Working as the prosecuting attorney for four years, Barkley became a County Judge for the McCracken County Court in 1909 and held this position until 1913. It was at this time that he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1912 representing Kentucky’s 1st District.
In Congress, Barkley was heavily influenced by Woodrow Wilson and believed government needed to be flexible and have a willingness to experiment with social and economic programs. He was a proud liberal and progressive declaring, “I was a liberal and a progressive long before I ever heard of Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
In 1919, he was a leading figure in creating the Prohibition Amendment and the Volstead Act that was ratified as the 18th Amendment and enacted into law as the National Prohibition Act of 1920 that prohibited the manufacture, sale, transport, import, or export of alcohol beverages.
Serving seven terms in the House of Representatives, Barkley made an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination as governor of Kentucky, and after suffering this defeat in the 1923 campaign, he ran for the United States Senate in 1926.
Even though Barkley lost the election for governor, he did get name recognition which helped him win the 1926 election for Senator and won him the title of ‘iron man’ because of his ability to give as many as sixteen speeches a day.
When the New Deal was being debated in congress, Barkley worked closely with Majority Leader Joe Robinson from Arkansas, who was very different in style, and they were influential in passing much of the New Deal legislation between 1934 and 1936.
Having worked together in the Democratic minority in the 1920’s, Robinson gave an impression of strength and forcefulness, while Barkley was much better with his oratory skills and usually succeeded by using compromise with his jovial personality and his gift of storytelling. Robinson was happy to let Barkley forge alliances using his skills while he used a mix of threats, favors, and parliamentary skill.
Barkley was known to say about his storytelling ability, “A good story is like fine Kentucky bourbon, it improves with age and, if you don’t use it too much, it will never hurt anyone.”
In 1937, Joe Robinson passed away leaving a vacancy for the Senate Majority Leader position. Barkley was selected along with Pat Harrison, the chairman of the influential Finance Committee and very popular in the Senate, to compete for the leadership of the Senate.
President Roosevelt did not feel comfortable with Harrison because he would not support his Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937 that would appoint an additional member to the Supreme Court for every sitting justice over the age of 70. This would have increased the Supreme Court by a total of six new judges.
For this reason, Roosevelt privately threw his support behind Barkley and he won by just one vote to become the new Democratic Majority Leader from Kentucky. However, Roosevelt’s ‘court packing plan’, as some called it then, failed to be included in the final amended version of the bill in the Senate.
Barkley was the Senate Majority Leader from 1937 to 1947, and with the Democrats loss of the Senate in 1946, he became the Senate Minority Leader from 1947 to 1949. President Roosevelt, during the 1944 election campaign, had a tough time choosing between Harry S. Truman and Barkley for the Vice Presidential nomination but he was not chosen.
Barkley continued to support the President’s initiatives though, including the passage of the United Nations Charter and he supported the formation of Israel as a nation-state. He was also the chairman of the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack while also a member of the Congressional Nazi War Crimes Committee.
On March 10, 1947, Barkley’s wife, Dorothy, passed away, while in Washington D.C., after a long illness from a heart ailment. She had been in a critical condition for nearly three years. They were married for forty-four years.
Time as Vice President and his Legacy
When Truman became the President with the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, a Vice President was not picked to replace him but after Barkley’s keynote speech at the 1948 convention in Philadelphia, where he gave an impassioned speech saying, “Thomas Jefferson did not proclaim that all white men, all black men, or red or yellow men are equal, that all rich or poor men are equal, that all good or bad men are equal. What he declared was that all men are equal”, this speech was the deciding factor for Harry Truman picking Barkley for Vice President.
According to Mark Hatfield with the Senate Historical Office:
While the president whistle-stopped by train, Barkley made the first “prop stop” campaign by air. He had come a long way since the days when he first campaigned for office on horseback. In six weeks he toured thirty-six states and gave more than 250 speeches. He spoke to so many small audiences that the press dubbed him “the poor man’s candidate.” But his strength and stamina refuted the charges that he had been too old to run.
This was the historical election where the Chicago Tribune newspaper had the headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Truman and Barkley had won when everyone thought they didn’t have a chance to succeed.
One evening, Barkley went to his daughter’s house in Washington and was talking about how he should be addressed, because he thought Mr. Vice President was too wordy. Barkley later told in an interview about a conversation with his grandson, Stephen M. Truitt, “Gramps, why not put two little e’s in there between those two big letters and call it Veep?”
The next day, he told the story to the press corps and the name stuck, and from then on, he was called ‘The Veep’.
At this time, Barkley was seventy years old but this did not slow him down. He was the last Vice President to preside regularly over the Senate, and Truman insisted, because of his legislative experience, that he be included in all of the cabinet-level meetings and on the National Security Council.
“He was certainly the first vice president that routinely attended National Security Council meetings”, Truitt stated in an interview with NPR, “And part of this was his own personality and the other part of it was Truman liked him and trusted him, and wanted him to do these things. He met with the president all the time, and was very important in his advice-giving to him.”
Also, because of Barkley’s talent in public speaking, Truman decided to have him be the administration’s principal spokesman to use his natural sense of humor and a gift of storytelling to help defuse many partisan and personal animosities.
“A Vice-President who is well liked by members of the Senate”, Barkley once stated, “and by the corresponding members of the House in charge of legislation can exercise considerable power in the shaping of the program of legislation which every administration seeks to enact.”
When asked about the Vice President, Truman replied, “Barkley, as Vice President, was in a class by himself. He had the complete confidence of both the President and the Senate.”
Captivating national attention with their romance in 1949, Barkley began courting Jane Hadley, who was half his age, and the press loved following the romance in the newspapers. On November 18, 1949, they were married in a big ceremony in St. Louis, Missouri.
Barkley’s granddaughter, Dorothy Barkley, who was a young girl at the time, recalled the publicity surrounding the wedding, “Their pictures were all over Life Magazine, all sorts of goings on because he was the first Vice President ever married while he was in the White House.”
Back in Paducah, Barkley lived in a house called ‘Angles’ that was built in 1859 by Colonel Quintus Quincy Quigley, who was another famous lawyer back in the nineteenth century from Paducah. A Kentucky historical marker is located at the home that reads:
Home of Alben W. Barkley, 1937-56. A good example of Greek Revival architecture. Built in 1859 by Colonel Quintus Quincy Quigley. Location on sharp angles of three tracts of land source of its name. In early married life Barkley and his wife dreamed of owning it. Dream realized after 30 years. Beloved home for 19 years while Senator and Vice President.
Mark Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, notes that Barkley was described as:
A storyteller of great repute, Alben Barkley frequently poked fun at himself and his office. He was especially fond of telling about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea; the other became vice president; and neither was heard from again. In Barkley’s case, the story was not at all true. He made sure that the public heard from him, and about him, as often as possible. And what the public heard, they liked, for Alben Barkley performed admirably as vice president of the United States.
In 1952, Barkley tried for the nomination for the President of the United States, but he withdrew because many felt he was too old to run. This was a bitter pill for him to swallow, but Barkley accepted the decision and delivered a farewell address to the convention with all of his usual grace and style. When he finished, he was given a forty-five minute ovation out of their respect for him.
Barkley retired afterwards but he was unable to stay retired. Barkley ran for and won his Senate seat back in 1954, against the incumbent Republican Senator John Sherman Cooper. Two years later, at Washington and Lee University, he was invited, on April 30, 1956, to deliver the keynote address at their mock convention.
At the end of the speech, Barkley reminded the audience that he was once again a freshman in the Senate, “ I was a junior congressman, then I became a senior congressman, and then I went to the Senate and became a junior senator, then I became a senior senator, and then Majority Leader of the Senate, and then Vice President of the United States, and now I’m back again as a junior senator. I am willing to be a junior. I’m glad to sit on the back row, for I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord, than to sit in the seats of the mighty.”
These were Alben Barkley’s last words, because shortly after saying this, he collapsed from a heart attack and passed away. Thus ended the career of one of Paducah’s finest heroes.
NPR concluded in their interview with Stephen Truitt:
In the end, Stephen Truitt says, his grandfather’s most profound legacy was the New Deal. Truitt says the program went hand in hand with his grandfather’s deeply-held belief that sometimes society needed a little bit of a boost from the government it created to reach its fullest potential.
It is a rare thing to see someone, whose parents were humble Kentucky farmers, achieve the success that Alben Barkley was able to accomplish, showing that a rural location does not decide the fate of one who strives to rise so high in the government. One may not agree with his liberal and progressive ideals, but Paducah has a long history of residents, belonging to both parties, staying current and debating the affairs of the day. He was no exception and took it as far as he could, to the Vice President of the United States.