Willie Alben Barkley, the eldest of John Wilson and Electa Eliza (Smith) Barkley's eight children, was born November 24, 1877. His grandmother, midwife Amanda Barkley, delivered him in the log house she lived in with her husband, Alben, in Wheel, Kentucky. Barkley's parents were tenant farmers who grew tobacco, and his father was an elder in the local Presbyterian church. Both parents were religious, opposed to playing cards and alcohol. Occasionally, Barkley's parents would leave him in the care of his grandparents for extended periods. During these times, his grandmother related stories of her relatives. Her childhood playmates included Future U.S. Vice President Adlai Stevenson I and James A. McKenzie, a Future U.S. Representative from Kentucky.
Barkley worked on his parents' farm and attended school in Lowes, Kentucky, between the fall harvest and spring planting. Unhappy with his birth name, he adopted "Alben William" as soon as he was old enough to express his opinion in the matter. In the difficult economy of late 1891, relatives convinced Barkley's father to sell his farm and move to Clinton, to pursue opportunities as a tenant wheat farmer. Barkley enrolled at a local seminary school, but did not finish his studies before entering Marvin College, a Methodist school in Clinton that accepted younger students, in 1892. The college's President offered him a scholarship that covered his academic expenses in exchange for his work as a janitor. He allowed Barkley to miss the first and last month of the academic year to help on the family farm. Barkley was active in the debating society at Marvin. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1897, and his experiences at Marvin persuaded him to convert to Methodism, the denomination with which he identified for the rest of his life.
After graduation, Barkley went to Emory College (now part of Emory University) in Oxford, Georgia, the alma mater of several administrators and faculty members at Marvin. During the 1897–1898 academic year, he was active in the debating society and the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, but he could not afford to continue his education and returned to Clinton after the spring semester. He took a job teaching at Marvin College but did not make enough money to meet his basic living expenses. He resigned in December 1898 to move with his parents to Paducah, Kentucky, the county seat of McCracken County, where his father found employment at a cordage mill.
Barkley joined the Broadway Methodist Episcopal Church, where he was a lay preacher, and several fraternal organizations, including Woodmen of the World, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and the Improved Order of Red Men. On June 23, 1903, he married Dorothy Brower (November 14, 1882, to March 10, 1947). They had three children—David Murrell Barkley (1906–1983), Marion Frances Barkley (1909–1996), and Laura Louise Barkley (1911–1987). Laura Louise married Douglas MacArthur II, a U.S. diplomat and nephew of General Douglas MacArthur.
On December 19, 1904, Barkley declared his candidacy for county attorney of McCracken County well before the March 1905 Democratic primary. The Republicans did not nominate a candidate, so the Democratic primary was the de facto general election. Barkley faced two opponents in the primary – two-term incumbent Eugene A. Graves and Paducah Police Court Judge David Cross. He organized his own campaign and made speeches across the county, showcasing his eloquence and likeability. Graves received more votes than Barkley in Paducah, but McCracken County's rural farmers gave Barkley the victory, 1,525 votes to 1,096; Cross came in third with 602 votes. This was the only time Barkley ever challenged an incumbent Democrat.
Taking office in January 1906, Barkley saved taxpayers over $35,000 by challenging improper charges to the county. He prosecuted two magistrates for approving contracts in which they had a conflict of interest. Even Republicans admitted that he performed well, and he was chosen President of the State Association of County Attorneys. During the 1907 gubernatorial election, he was the Democratic county spokesman, and despite his previous support for the Gold Democrats, he backed william Jennings Bryan in the 1908 presidential election. Friends encouraged him to run for county judge, a powerful position which controlled county funds and patronage, and he announced his candidacy on August 22, 1908. After the chairman of the county's Democratic Club Executive Committee endorsed him, the incumbent judge, Richard T. Lightfoot, retired rather than challenge him.
On January 16, 1909, Democrat Hiram Smedley, county clerk since 1897, was indicted for embezzlement. Smedley resigned, and Barkley was appointed to a three-man commission to investigate the losses. The commission found $1,582.50 missing, and the county's Fiscal Court authorized Barkley to settle with the company that held Smedley's surety bond. In May 1909, Smedley was arrested and charged with 20 counts of forgery, prompting an audit of the county's finances that showed a shortage of $16,000, only $6,000 of which was accountable to Smedley. The scandal gave Republicans an issue for the upcoming campaign. In a series of debates, Barkley's opponent, Thomas N. Hazelip, claimed that the county's entire Democratic organization was corrupt and made charges against past Democratic administrations. Barkley responded that he had no more responsibility for those wrongdoings than Hazelip had for the murder of william Goebel, a Democratic governor who had allegedly been assassinated by Republican conspirators in 1900. He pointed to his improvement of the county's finances through inspection of charges presented to his office and showed evidence that he had fulfilled his obligations as county attorney, a fact Hazelip conceded. In spite of the scandal, Democrats won every county-wide office, although by reduced margins, but Republicans captured a 5-to-3 majority on the Fiscal Court. Barkley's victory margin—3,184 to 2,662—was the smallest of any county officer.
At the Fiscal Court's January 1910 meeting, Barkley laid out an agenda to reduce the county's debt, improve its roads, and audit its books annually. Despite the Republican majority on the Court, most of the measures he proposed during his term were adopted. He appointed a purchasing agent and an inspector of weights and measures for the county and allocated a salary for the county's almshouse keeper instead of relying on fees to fund the position. He replaced the corvée system – wherein residents either paid a tax or donated labor to build and repair county roads – with private contracts. The widening and gravelling of county roads provided rural residents access to Paducah's amenities but reduced funds for programs like free textbooks for indigents and prevented Barkley from reducing the county's debt as planned. When he named his father as the county's Juvenile court probation officer, opponents charged him with nepotism.
Initially conservative, working with Wilson (who was elected president) inspired Barkley to become more liberal. On April 24, 1912, he first spoke on the House floor, favoring the administration-backed Underwood–Simmons Tariff Act which lowered tariffs on foreign goods. He endorsed Wilson's New Freedom agenda, including the 1913 Federal Reserve Act and the 1914 Federal Trade Commission Act. Because of his support for the administration, he was assigned to the powerful Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee and became the first freshman to preside over a session of the House. As a member of the Interstate Commerce Commission, he supported the Clayton Antitrust Act and sought to end child labor in interstate commerce through the Keating–Owen Act in 1916. He also supported measures to extend credit to and fund road improvements in rural areas.
A speaker for the Anti-Saloon League, Barkley co-sponsored the 1916 Sheppard–Barkley Act which banned alcohol sales in Washington, D.C. It was passed in 1917. He sponsored an amendment to the Lever Food and Fuel Act forbidding the use of grain – rendered scarce by World War I and a poor harvest in 1916 – to make alcoholic beverages. The amendment passed the House, but a conference committee amended it to allow production of beer and wine. Both measures increased Barkley's national visibility and set the stage for Future prohibition legislation, including the Eighteenth Amendment. By 1917, the state Democratic Party was divided over prohibition, and the prohibitionist faction tried to enlist Barkley for the 1919 gubernatorial race. The Memphis Commercial Appeal noted in late 1917 that Barkley had not declined the invitations, but his continued silence reduced the prohibitionists' enthusiasm. He also showed little interest in the faction's attempts to recruit him to challenge incumbent anti-prohibition Senator Ollie James in the 1917 Democratic primary.
Wilson supporters, including Barkley, campaigned for his re-election in 1916, using the slogan "he kept us out of war". By early 1917, Germany had lifted all restrictions on attacks on neutral shipping supplying Britain and France, outraging many Americans. The publication in February of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which a German official proposed to Mexico that, if the U.S. entered the war, Mexico should declare war on them and the Germans would work to return Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico to Mexican control, also brought the United States closer to war. Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917, and Barkley voted for the resolution when it came before the House two weeks later. At 40 years old, he considered resigning his seat to enlist in the U.S. Army, but Wilson persuaded him not to do so.
George B. Martin, who had served six months in the Senate in 1918 after being appointed to fill a vacancy, opposed Barkley in the 1932 primary, but Barkley defeated him by a two-to-one margin. In the general election, he defeated Republican Congressman Maurice H. Thatcher by a vote of 575,077 to 393,865, marking the first time in the 20th century that a Kentucky senator won a second consecutive term. Democrats gained control of the Senate during the 1932 elections; Joseph Robinson was chosen majority leader, and he appointed Barkley as his assistant. Together, they secured passage of New Deal legislation, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the Federal Emergency Relief Act. In July 1934, the Democratic National Committee chose Barkley to respond to Republican National Committee chairman Henry P. Fletcher's radio attacks on the New Deal. Later that year, he embarked on a tour of twenty states, defending the New Deal and stumping for Democratic candidates in the 1934 midterm elections.
By 1919, James had died in office and Governor Augustus Owsley Stanley was elected to his vacant seat. The divisive prohibition issue and recent Republican gains in the state made the Democratic gubernatorial primary of particular interest. Stanley was the leader of the party's anti-prohibitionists. Prohibitionists, led by former governor J. C. W. Beckham, did not support James D. Black, who became governor when Stanley went to the Senate and was seeking re-election. At the time of Black's election as lieutenant governor in 1915, he had sided with the prohibitionists; he was chosen to run with Stanley to balance the party's ticket, so the anti-prohibitionists did not entirely trust him either. Attempting to unite the party and prevent a Republican victory, Black invited Barkley, who had not been linked to either leader despite his support for prohibition, to be temporary chairman of the 1919 state Democratic convention. Barkley's convention address attacked Republicans and praised the Democrats' record without making reference to prohibition, but many in the Beckham faction refused to accept Black, and he was defeated in the general election by Republican Edwin P. Morrow. Chairing the convention introduced Barkley to state political Leaders outside the First District.
Barkley supported william Gibbs McAdoo for President at the 1920 Democratic National Convention, but the nomination went to James M. Cox. He campaigned for Cox and his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, but his speeches focused more on Wilson's progressive record than Cox's fitness for office. Republican Warren G. Harding defeated Cox in the general election, and Barkley found Common ground with him on issues such as the creation of the Veterans' Bureau and the passage of the progressive Sheppard–Towner Act. Barkley thought the administration was too favorable to big Business interests, however, and in 1922, he proclaimed that if Harding had returned the country to normalcy, "then in God's name let us have Abnormalcy".
Opposing Barkley in the primary was Congressman J. Campbell Cantrill, who along with Stanley, led the conservative wing of the party, opposing prohibition and women's suffrage. Beckham, leader of the liberal wing, intended to run, and his surrogates, particularly Louisville Courier-Journal Editor Robert Worth Bingham, began a "Business Man for Governor" campaign in late 1922. Beckham had served as governor from 1900 to 1907 and later in the U.S. Senate, but he was out of office (a "Business Man"), in contrast to Cantrill and Barkley. While Bingham's campaign forced Barkley to declare his candidacy earlier than planned, the tactic was not successful outside Louisville; Beckham supporters backed Barkley, more to prevent Cantrill's nomination than because they desired Barkley's. Barkley's leadership team included his own supporters, influential members of the Beckham faction, and erstwhile Cantrill supporters.
Recognizing the need to broaden his appeal beyond western Kentucky, Barkley opened his campaign in the central Kentucky town of Danville on February 19, 1923. He employed the slogan "Christianity, Morality, and Good Government", and he and Cantrill – colleagues in the House – agreed to refrain from personal attacks. Due to Percy Haly's influence on Barkley and Barkley's own admiration for Woodrow Wilson, he denounced the influence of the coal, racing, and railroad trusts in state politics. "Woodrow Wilson drove the crooks and corruptionists out of New Jersey, Governor Pinchot is driving them out of Pennsylvania, and if I am elected Governor of Kentucky I promise to drive them out of Frankfort," he declared. In contrast to his usual preference for low taxes, he advocated a tax on coal deposits. In addition to reducing the coal trust's political influence, he believed the increased revenue, which would largely be generated by out-of-state coal buyers, would result in lower property taxes on farmers. Friends in the Anti-Saloon League convinced him that banning parimutuel betting would cripple the racing trust. Many Catholics and Protestants – notably those affiliated with the Louisville Churchmen's Federation – favored prohibition and opposed parimutuel betting on religious grounds, and endorsed Barkley's candidacy, but Bingham, typically a Beckham ally, was slow to endorse him. Like Bingham, Lexington Herald Editor Desha Breckinridge had helped create the parimutuel betting system, and Barkley's positions were enough to convince him to back Cantrill, despite the fact that Breckinridge generally disliked Cantrill.
At the 1924 Democratic National Convention, Barkley again supported william G. McAdoo for President. Urban interests at the convention promoted New York Governor Al Smith, and a bitter convention fight ensued. During the course of 103 ballots, chairman Thomas J. Walsh needed a rest and temporarily yielded his position to Barkley. The convention was the first to be broadcast nationally, and Barkley's Service as chair augmented his national recognition and appeal. The two Democratic factions agreed to compromise, nominating John W. Davis, who Libbey called a "competent nonentity"; Davis lost in the general election to Calvin Coolidge. Barkley won another term in the House by a 2-to-1 margin over his Republican opponent in 1924, but Democratic divisions cost Stanley his Senate seat, and Barkley became even more convinced of the value of party loyalty.
Because of Barkley's role in crafting the Railway Labor Act, the Associated Railway Labor Organizations endorsed him to unseat Ernst even before he formally announced his candidacy on April 26, 1926. Since the 1923 gubernatorial contest, he had distanced himself from Haly and promised the conservatives that he would not push a ban on parimutuel betting if elected. Consequently, he had no opposition in the primary. Congressman (and later Chief Justice) Fred M. Vinson managed his general election campaign.
Democrats considered nominating him for vice President that year, calculating that his party loyalty and appeal to rural, agricultural and prohibitionist constituents, could balance a ticket headed by likely presidential nominee Al Smith, an urban anti-prohibitionist. When the Kentucky delegation arrived at the 1928 Democratic National Convention, they approached Smith supporters with a view to pairing Barkley to their candidate. They were received cordially, but Smith's advisors thought placing candidates with such differing views on the ticket would seem contrived to the electorate. They did not tell Barkley of their decision until after he seconded Smith's nomination for President. Smith then announced Arkansas Senator Joseph T. Robinson as his preferred running mate. The Kentuckians nominated Barkley in spite of Smith's preference, but the overwhelming majority of delegates voted for Robinson, and Barkley announced that Kentucky was changing its support in order to make the nomination unanimous.
Barkley maintained that Hoover's response to the continuing depression and the severe drought in 1930 were inadequate and pointed out that the $45 million in loans to farmers that he approved amounted to less than half the losses sustained by Kentucky's farmers alone. He was angered that Hoover refused to call a special legislative session to adopt relief measures after the regular congressional adjourned in early March 1931. He planned a series of speeches condemning Hoover beginning in June but was injured in an automobile accident on June 22, limiting his political activities for the remainder of the year.
Barkley supported Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932, but facing a re-election bid himself, he did not announce his support, fearing that his message might not resonate with Kentucky voters. Roosevelt supporters offered Barkley the keynote address and temporary chairmanship of the 1932 Democratic National Convention if he would endorse their candidate. Both opportunities would help Barkley's re-election chances, so he announced his support for Roosevelt on March 22, 1932. In his keynote, Barkley warmly recalled the Wilson administration and denounced more than a decade of Republican dominance. Applause frequently punctuated the speech, with the longest interruption – a 45-minute near-riot – erupting after Barkley called for a platform plank directing Congress to repeal prohibition. According to Libbey, the remark was not a repudiation of his prohibitionist position but a Desire for the people to express their will on repeal. Prohibitionist constituents still supported Barkley because, for most of them, the depression trumped all other concerns.
Barkley and Mississippi Senator Pat Harrison were the leading candidates to succeed Robinson as Democratic floor leader when he died on July 14, 1937. Harrison's tenure in the Senate was eight years longer than Barkley's, and he was supported by conservative Southern Democratic senators opposed to Roosevelt's court-packing plan. Harrison had helped secure Roosevelt's nomination at the 1932 Democratic National Convention by convincing Mississippi Governor Martin Sennet Conner to keep his state's delegation loyal to Roosevelt, but Roosevelt preferred Barkley because of his support of the New Deal. A letter from Roosevelt praising Barkley's legislative accomplishments and addressed to "My Dear Alben" was seen as an endorsement. Although Roosevelt remained publicly neutral, he pressured Illinois' william H. Dieterich and Missouri's Harry S. Truman to support Barkley instead of Harrison; Dieterich acquiesced, but Truman remained loyal to Harrison. Many senators resented Roosevelt's interference in a traditionally legislative prerogative. Ultimately, Barkley was elected by a single vote.
Recognizing that the defeat of his hand-picked floor leader would be a repudiation of his agenda, Roosevelt began a tour of the state in Covington on July 8, 1938. Chandler, the state's chief executive, was invited to welcome the President. Although clearly campaigning for Barkley, Roosevelt made courteous remarks about Chandler in the spirit of party unity, but in Bowling Green, he chastised Chandler for "dragging federal judgeships into a political campaign".
With his caucus divided between conservatives and liberals, Barkley failed to secure passage for Roosevelt's court-packing plan. After the successive failures of several administration-backed domestic bills, the press dubbed the Senate Majority Leader "bumbling Barkley". He was able to salvage an appropriations bill to cover overspending by the WPA, although it allocated much less funding than Roosevelt had wanted. He helped secure the Hatch Act and The Washington Daily News called a 1940 amendment that prohibited campaigning by federally funded state employees a "monument to Alben Barkley's persistence and parliamentary skill". Despite this mixed record, Roosevelt believed some Democratic partisans hoped to nominate Barkley for President at the 1940 Democratic National Convention, but the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, deepened his resolve to seek a third term.
The New York Times saw the primary as "the Gettysburg of the party's internecine strife" over control of the Democratic National Convention in 1940. Early on, Chandler portrayed himself as a supporter of Roosevelt – since Roosevelt was popular in Kentucky – but opposed to the New Deal. He pointed to his fiscal conservatism as governor, including reorganizing and downsizing the executive branch and reducing the state's debt. Polls showing Barkley with a comfortable lead and an overwhelming victory by New Deal supporter Claude Pepper in Florida's May Senate primary convinced Chandler to shift his focus from the New Deal. He criticized Barkley as "a stranger to the state" and obliquely referred to "fat, sleek senators who go to Europe and have forgotten the people of Kentucky except when they run for election". Forty years old – 20 years Barkley's junior – he referred to Barkley as "Old Alben".
Tension developed between Roosevelt and Barkley during the war, however. In 1943, Roosevelt refused to appoint Barkley to a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and Barkley criticized the War Production Board for awarding contracts for the production of war-related materials to large companies rather than small businesses. Their most notable clash occurred in February 1944 when Roosevelt requested that Congress approve tax increases to generate over $10 billion in revenue for the war. Barkley and the Senate Finance Committee negotiated a bill containing only $2.3 billion in tax increases. Feeling the measure was insufficient, Roosevelt convened the "Big Four" on February 21 and told them he would veto it. They urged him not to do so, assuring him that the bill they had drafted was the best one that they could pass. Roosevelt vetoed the bill the next day, marking the first time a U.S. President vetoed a revenue bill.
Barkley was among 12 nominated at the 1944 Democratic National Convention to serve as Roosevelt's running mate in the presidential election that year, receiving six votes. Delegates favored dropping vice President Henry Wallace from their ticket in favor of Barkley, but Roosevelt refused to consider him, telling a July 11 meeting of Democratic Leaders that he was too old. Instead, he took the recommendation of Democratic National Committee chairman Robert E. Hannegan and choose Harry S. Truman. Despite his differences with Roosevelt, Barkley faced no serious challengers in the 1944 Democratic primary and defeated his Republican challenger, Fayette County Commonwealth's Attorney James Park, by a vote of 464,053 to 380,425.
In the 1946 elections, Republicans wrested control of both houses of Congress from the Democrats for the first time since the Great Depression and gained control of the majority of state governments. The power of labor unions had expanded under Roosevelt and the Democrats, and when a 1946 railroad worker strike exacerbated a post-war recession the Republican majorities – over Barkley's objection – curbed union power via the Taft–Hartley Act. They also passed the Twenty-second Amendment, limiting the President to two terms, a posthumous slap at Roosevelt.
Barkley's wife became an invalid due to heart disease. Barkley had closed his law practice when he was elected to the Senate, so to pay for his wife's care, he supplemented his $10,000 annual salary with speaking engagements. He was the Democratic Speakers Bureau's most requested orator, surpassing Truman. A Pageant magazine poll of legislators chose Barkley and Republican Robert A. Taft as the hardest-working members of their respective parties. The Barkleys sold their Washington, D.C., home and moved into an apartment to reduce expenses. Marny Clifford, wife of Truman's Naval Advisor Clark Clifford, nicknamed Barkley "Sparkle Barkle" for his care of his wife, who died March 10, 1947. When Barkley won the Collier Award in May 1948, he donated the $10,000 prize to the University of Louisville School of Medicine in his wife's honor.
Barkley was disappointed that he was not Truman's first choice as running mate, but over the next six weeks, he crisscrossed the country by plane, making over 250 campaign speeches in 36 states. Playing off Barkley's keynote speech, Truman called a special congressional session on July 26, 1948, challenging Republicans to enact their agenda. They were unable to pass any significant legislation, seeming to confirm Barkley's characterization of them as a "do-nothing Congress".
In 1949, Emory University chose Barkley to deliver its commencement address and awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws. The following year, the university's debating society renamed itself the Barkley Forum. The university also created the Alben W. Barkley Distinguished Chair in its Department of Political Science.
Barkley tried to mentor Scott Lucas and Ernest McFarland, his immediate successors as floor leader, by teaching them to work with the vice President as he had during Truman's vice presidency, but Truman's unpopularity made cooperation between the executive branch and the legislature difficult. After the U.S. entered the Korean War, Truman focused on foreign affairs, leaving Barkley to campaign for Democratic candidates in the 1950 midterm elections. He traveled over 19,000 miles (31,000 km) and spoke in almost half of the states during the campaign. He felt ill when he arrived in Paducah on election day, and a Doctor diagnosed him with a "tired heart". Returning to Washington, D.C., he spent several days in Naval Hospital, but was able to preside when the Senate opened its session on November 28, 1950. Democrats lost seats in both houses but maintained majorities in each.
On March 1, 1951 – exactly 38 years from his first day in Congress – Barkley's fellow congressmen presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of his legislative Service. Truman surprised Barkley, appearing on the Senate floor to present the medallion and a gavel made of timbers used to renovate the White House after the burning of Washington in 1814.
To dispel concerns about his age (74), failing eyesight, and heart problems, Barkley arrived in Chicago for the 1952 Democratic National Convention and briskly walked seven blocks from the bus station to his campaign headquarters. The attempt was rendered moot on July 20 when a group of labor Leaders, including United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther, issued a statement calling Barkley too old and requesting that Democrats nominate someone younger like Stevenson. At a meeting with labor Leaders the next morning, Barkley failed to persuade them to retract the statement, which caused delegations from large industrial states like Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania to waver on their commitments to Barkley. On July 21, he announced his withdrawal from the race. Invited to make a farewell address on July 22, he received a 35-minute ovation when he took the podium and 45-minute one at the speech's end. In a show of respect, a Missouri delegate nominated Barkley for President and House Majority Leader McCormack seconded it, but Stevenson was easily nominated. A month after the convention, Barkley hosted a Stevenson picnic and campaign rally at his home in Paducah and later introduced him at a rally in Louisville. Despite Barkley's predictions of a Democratic victory, Stevenson lost in overwhelming fashion to Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
Barkley's term as vice President ended on January 20, 1953. After the election, he had surgery to remove his cataracts. He contracted with NBC to create 26 fifteen-minute commentary broadcasts called "Meet the Veep". Low ratings prompted NBC's decision not to renew the series in September 1953. In retirement, Barkley remained a popular speaker and began working on his memoirs with Journalist Sidney Shallett. He re-entered politics in 1954, challenging incumbent Republican Senator John Sherman Cooper. In a 1971 study of Barkley's Senate career, Historian Glenn Finch argued that Barkley was the only person who could beat Cooper. Few issues differentiated the candidates, and the campaign hinged on party politics; visits to Kentucky by President Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, and Senator Everett Dirksen on Cooper's behalf reinforced this notion. Barkley resumed his Iron Man campaign style, campaigning for up to sixteen hours a day, countering the "too old" charge that cost him the presidential nomination. He won the general election by a vote of 434,109 to 362,948, giving Democrats a one-vote advantage in the Senate.
In an April 30, 1956, keynote address at the Washington and Lee Mock Convention, Barkley spoke of his willingness to sit with the other freshman senators in Congress, he ended with an allusion to Psalm 84:10, saying "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." He then collapsed onstage and died of a heart attack. He was buried in Mount Kenton Cemetery near Paducah.
A dam constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Cumberland River in 1966, and the lake it forms, were named Barkley Dam and Lake Barkley in Barkley's honor. Barkley Regional Airport in Paducah is also named for him. In 1984, the federal government declined to purchase The Angles, his Paducah home, and it was sold at auction. Many personal items owned by Barkley are displayed on the second floor of the historic house Whitehaven in Paducah. In February 2008, Paducah's American Justice School of Law changed owners after failing to secure accreditation from the American Bar Association. It was renamed the Alben W. Barkley School of Law, but remained unaccredited, and closed in December 2008.
In Paducah, Barkley worked as a law clerk for Charles K. Wheeler, an attorney and congressman for the district, accepting access to Wheeler's law library as payment for his services. Despite their political differences – Wheeler supported william Jennings Bryan and Free Silver, while Barkley identified with the Gold Democrats – he hoped that being acquainted with and taught by Wheeler would aid him in his Future endeavors, but congressional duties frequently kept Wheeler away from the office. After two months, Barkley accepted an offer to clerk for Judge william Sutton Bishop and former congressman John Kerr Hendrick, who paid him $15 per month. He read law while completing his duties and was admitted to the bar in 1901. Barkley practiced in Paducah where a friend of Hendrick's appointed him reporter of the circuit court. He continued studying law in the summer of 1902 at the University of Virginia School of Law.