Alben Willie Barkley was born on November 24, 1877, in a log cabin near Lowes, Kentucky. He was born Willie Alben Barkley, but went by Alben and had his names reversed when he was old enough. His father was a poor tobacco farmer and railroad worker. As a boy, Barkley had to spend a good deal of his time working and received a limited education in county schools. When he was fourteen, he was able to afford school at a small college in Clinton, Kentucky, by working as a janitor. When he graduated from Marvin College in 1897, he enrolled at Emory College in Georgia for a year but had to leave because of limited funds. By 1902, he had saved up enough money to attend a summer law course at the University of Virginia. While in Charlottesville, Virginia, he studied Thomas Jefferson and took from him an enduring ideal of the common man that informed his political beliefs throughout his career.
Barkley began his career as a prosecuting attorney in McCracken County, Kentucky, and then as a county judge. He served as a judge until 1912, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representative as a member of the Democratic Party. Barkley spent almost fifteen years there before being elected to the Senate in 1926. While in the House, he was a loyal supporter of President Woodrow Wilson's agenda and established a strong liberal voting record. After his election to the Senate, he rapidly rose to positions of leadership, becoming assistant majority leader by 1932. When Majority Leader Joseph Robinson died in 1937, Barkley entered into a contentious battle to succeed him. With strong support from President Franklin Roosevelt, Barkley won the contest by a single vote.
During the Roosevelt years, Barkley was one of the most powerful men in his party and an indispensable ally in ushering critical components of the New Deal through Congress. By the time he took over as majority leader, however, Roosevelt's ambitious agenda had opened stark divisions in the Democratic Party between progressive and conservative factions. Despite a 76-16 Democratic majority, Barkley often had trouble forging workable coalitions.
Barkley may have contended for the vice presidential nomination in 1944 and eventually ascended to the presidency had it not been for a dramatic confrontation with President Roosevelt earlier that year. After Roosevelt offered stinging remarks and a veto in response to a tax bill he deemed insufficient, Barkley delivered a dramatic speech in which he rebuked the administration, rallied the Senate to override the bill, and resigned his post as majority leader. He was unanimously reelected the next day but the split with Roosevelt took him out of vice presidential contention.
As FDR's majority leader, the "long suffering" Barkley endured the scorn of colleagues and journalists. Conservative Democrats, led by Harrison, banded with the Republicans to kill the controversial Court packing plan at the start of Barkley's leadership. The following month, he experienced an embarrassing procedural defeat when the Senate chose to follow Minority Leader Charles McNary's motion to recess. Senators who considered Barkley an illegitimate leader referred to him as "Dear Alben" to underscore his subordinate relationship to Roosevelt. Over time, however, Barkley effectively marshaled his colleagues in support of the administration. He was particularly successful in defending Roosevelt's foreign policy in the tense times just before World War II, leading the fights for repeal of the Neutrality Act, and the Arms Embargo Act, and for extension of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements. In January 1941, he sponsored the crucial Lend-Lease Act, and skillfully maneuvered it around numerous crippling amendments.
Barkley dramatically broke with FDR on February 23, 1944. At issue was the president's veto of a tax relief bill which Roosevelt charged was "not for the needy but for the greedy." Having helped shape the bill, Barkley denounced the president's statement as "a calculated and deliberate assault upon the legislative integrity of every member of Congress." He called upon his colleagues to override the veto, and then he resigned as majority leader. The next day, Senate Democrats unanimously reelected him to the post. "Make way for liberty!" shouted the burly senator from Texas, Tom Connally, when a delegation of senators pushed their way out to notify Barkley in his office. Barkley then appeared before the cheering conference. "By his one-vote margin in the 1937 contest when he was first elected leader the impression was given, and it has been the impression ever since, that he spoke to us for the President," said Senator Elbert Thomas. "Now he speaks for us to the President."
Although President Roosevelt sent a hasty apology and endorsed his reelection as leader, the break probably cost Barkley the vice presidential nomination in 1944, which went instead to Missouri's Senator Harry Truman. After Roosevelt died and Truman became President, Barkley continued to support the administration, both as majority leader, and in the 80th Congress as minority leader.
In 1948, once more the keynote speaker before a Democratic convention, Barkley so lifted the delegates from their lethargy and defeatism with his fighting speech that they nominated him for vice president. At seventy-one, he demonstrated his physical endurance by conducting the first "prop stop" campaign by airplane. He covered twenty-six states, made innumerable speeches, and helped the Truman ticket win an upset victory over Thomas E. Dewey.
Nicknamed the "Veep" by his grandson, Barkley was the last vice president to routinely preside over the Senate. During Senate recesses, he traveled around the nation promoting Truman's Fair Deal program. The widower vice president also won a reputation as a romantic for his whirlwind courtship and marriage to the thirty-eight-year-old Jane Hadley, which received widespread national publicity. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952, but withdrew in the face of charges that he was too old for the job.