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Our History: Featured Alumni: Barkley, Alben W., 1904

Over the decades our graduates have developed distinguished careers as justices, congressmen, ambassadors, educators, businessmen and women, and community leaders in many fields. This site features some of those late graduates.

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Alben William Barkley

U.S. Vice President

Alben Barkley was born Willie Alben Barkley in 1877 near Lowes, Kentucky. He graduated from Marvin College in 1897 and Emory College in Georgia in 1900 before studying law at the University of Virginia. Barkley was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1901 and began practicing in Paducah, Kentucky. He was the prosecuting attorney for McCracken County from 1905 to 1909 and judge of McCracken County Court from 1909 to 1913. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1912 representing Kentucky's 1st district. He served in the House until 1927 and was a leading figure in creating the Prohibition Amendment and the Volstead Act. After suffering a defeat in his 1923 gubernatorial campaign in Kentucky, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1926, to which he was reelected in 1932, 1938, 1944, and 1954.

Barkley was the keynote speaker at the 1932, 1936, and 1948 Democratic National Conventions. During the 1930s, he assisted Senate majority leader Joseph T. Robinson in passing much of the New Deal legislation of the 1934-36 period, such as the Securities and Exchange Act, National Labor Relations Act, and the Social Security Act. After Robinson’s death, Barkley became Senate Majority Leader with the vocal support of President Roosevelt. He served in that position from 1937-1947 and Senate Minority Leader from 1947-1949. Although he was passed over for the 1944 Vice Presidential nomination in favor of Truman, he continued to support Roosevelt and Truman’s initiatives in the 1940s, including the passage of the United Nations Charter. Barkley also served as chairman of the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack and member of the Congressional Nazi War Crimes Committee, and supported the formation of Israel as a nation-state.

In 1948, Barkley was elected Vice President at the age of 71. He was the first Vice President to become a member of the National Security Council, as mandated by the National Security Act of 1947. In 1949, he received the Congressional Gold Medal. Barkley became popularly known as "the Veep" at the suggestion of his grandson, and the name has been applied to subsequent Vice Presidents. He chose not to run for President in 1952, eventually hosting a television show “Meet the Veep” before his re-election to the Senate in 1954. Barkley died in 1956 after suffering a heart attack during a speech at Washington & Lee University, during which he had noted, “I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty."

His body lay in state in Washington, D.C. before being interred in Mount Kenton Cemetery near Paducah, Kentucky. In his honor, the award-winning debating society at Emory University was renamed the Barkley Forum in 1950. The Alben W. Barkley Distinguished Chair was also created in the Department of Political Science at Emory University. Lake Barkley, a man-made lake on the Cumberland River at the Kentucky-Tennessee border, and Barkley Dam at the same lake, are named in his honor.

Alben William Barkley's papers are available through the Kentucky Digital Library.