Alben William Barkley was born in a log cabin to a poor tenant-farming family in Graves County, Kentucky, on November 24, 1877. He spent much of his youth in farm labor, going to the local county school when he could, between the fall harvest and the next spring planting. In 1892 young Mr. Barkley convinced the president of Marvin College, a Methodist school in Clinton, to let him enroll in exchange for working there as a janitor—and with the understanding that he could skip the first and last month of the academic year, to go back home and help on the family farm.
Barkley graduated from Marvin and studied law at the University of Virginia, returning to Kentucky to practice in Paducah after he was admitted to the bar in 1901. From there, he would put his work ethic, personal charm, and integrity to good use, building one of the most influential political careers in Kentucky’s—and the nation’s—history.
Off and Running
Barkley won his earliest election, as county attorney, in 1905, followed by a judgeship, election to the House of Representatives in 1913, and then a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1926. Over these years, Barkley earned the nickname “Iron Man” for his fortitude on the campaign trail, where he pounded out as many as sixteen speeches in a day. “Christianity, Morality, and Good Government” was his slogan. He was a master storyteller, which helped him relate to voters. “A good story is like fine Kentucky bourbon,” he said. “It improves with age and, if you don’t use it too much, it will never hurt anyone.”
In office, Barkley’s reputation was for saving taxpayers money and fighting corruption even within his own Democratic Party. He started out on the party’s more conservative side but grew progressively liberal over time, especially while working with President Woodrow Wilson, whom he considered the greatest statesman of his lifetime.
Barkley would serve in the Senate from March 1927 to January 1949, as Democratic majority leader from 1937 to 1947, and as minority leader in 1947 and 1948.
From Paducah to the White House
The Bluegrass State’s “Iron Man” was considered for the vice presidency as early as 1928. The Kentucky delegation wanted to bank on his appeal to rural agricultural voters. This would balance Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, longtime governor of New York, who was strongly tied to the Big Apple. The party instead went with Arkansas senator Joseph T. Robinson. Barkley didn’t make a fuss; he was famous for his Democratic loyalty, and he threw his own support behind Robinson to show solidarity.
In the 1930s, Kentucky’s Senator Barkley seemed to be everywhere on the national political scene. Presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt handpicked him to give the 1932 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
When Joseph T. Robinson was Senate majority leader in the early 1930s, Barkley assisted him in passing New Deal legislation, including the Securities and Exchange Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Social Security Act. After Robinson died in July 1937, Barkley succeeded him as Senate majority leader.
A year earlier, Robinson’s profile had appeared on the 1936 Arkansas Centennial half dollar. Before that particular coin came to be, Senator Barkley in 1934 championed a commemorative with a theme closer to his native Kentucky: the Daniel Boone Bicentennial half dollar. Its purpose was to raise money to buy land and build a Pioneer National Monument in the Bluegrass State, as a permanent memorial to the bravery, sacrifices, and successes of the nation’s frontiersmen. Senator Barkley, working with Representative Virgil Chapman, sponsored the coin’s bill and won the support of President Roosevelt. More than 80,000 of the coins were produced from 1934 through 1938, at all three U.S. Mint facilities: Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco.
President Roosevelt died in 1945, and Vice President Harry S. Truman inherited the role of chief executive. When Truman ran for the presidency on his own accord in 1948, his popularity was on a downturn until Senator Barkley gave a rousing keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. A grateful Truman chose Barkley as his running mate, and they won the election.
Barkley’s young grandson couldn’t pronounce the words “vice president,” and from that, Barkley got the nickname “Veep.” Since then, the term has been popular shorthand for the office a heartbeat away from the presidency.
A Distinguished Public Servant
Truman valued Barkley’s House and Senate experience and connections. He had the vice president attend Cabinet meetings and the president’s weekly legislative conferences, and included him in the newly created National Security Council. Kentucky’s “Iron Man,” as always, was everywhere all at once. As the main spokesman for the Truman administration, and a gifted orator, he gave 40 major speeches in his first eight months on the job.
In 1949 Congress voted to officially recognize Alben W. Barkley’s lifetime of “distinguished public service and outstanding contribution to the public welfare” by awarding him a Congressional Gold Medal. These are national medals created by the United States Mint. Their tradition dates back to the American Revolution, when they were first used to express the highest national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions to the United States.
Numismatic historian Pete Smith, in American Numismatic Biographies, notes that Barkley was the first vice president to be honored on a medal produced by the United States Mint. His medallic tribute was designed by acclaimed Philadelphia-based sculptor Beatrice Fenton. The Treasury Department announced that “Approximately 13 ounces of gold having a fineness of .999, practically pure gold, will be used in the medal. It will be approximately 2-3/4 inches in diameter.” Bronze versions were made available for public purchase. Today you can occasionally find these large bronze medals at auction or in private sales, often for less than $100.
President Truman surprised Vice President Barkley by personally appearing on the Senate floor to present the Congressional Gold Medal and hand him a gavel made from timber used to renovate the White House after the burning of Washington in 1814.
Once More Unto the Breach
Harry Truman didn’t seek a second full term, so in 1952 Vice President Barkley considered running for the Oval Office himself. By that time, he was nearly 75 years old, a bit long in the tooth for some of his Democratic colleagues. Despite his many endorsements, they ultimately backed a man a generation younger, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson. Barkley withdrew from the presidential race, and, ever the loyal Democratic Party stalwart, hosted a picnic and campaign rally for Stevenson at his old Kentucky home in Paducah.
After leaving the executive branch in January 1953, Barkley retired from public life . . . for a while. He recorded a series of commentaries for NBC (the TV show was called “Meet the Veep”), worked the speakers circuit, and started on his memoirs. Politics pulled him back in, though, and in 1954 he again ran for U.S. Senate, campaigning with his “Iron Man” vigor as if to explode those 1952 accusations that he was too old for the presidency. His victory over the Republican incumbent won the Democrats a one-vote advantage in the Senate, making Lyndon B. Johnson majority leader.
After fifty years in public service, many leadership positions, and a Congressional Gold Medal, Kentucky’s elder statesman was once again a freshman senator! He wouldn’t be seated on the front row with the Senate’s senior members, but on the back row with the newcomers. As a courtesy, West Virginia’s Democratic senator, Colonel Harley Kilgore, offered Barkley his seat, but Barkley declined. His experience wasn’t overlooked, of course; he was assigned to the Committee on Foreign Relations, a position no other incoming senator would reasonably expect.
Barkley’s Famous Last Words
Senator Barkley was at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, on April 30, 1956, giving a fiery, humor-infused keynote speech for the school’s mock Democratic presidential convention. He commanded the stage in front of nearly 2,000 students and visitors, making everyone laugh when he quieted a would-be heckler. He praised his own party and excoriated the opposition with his trademark wit and charm.
Toward the end of his address, the former vice president, who had given hundreds if not thousands of orations, finally seemed to feel the sweltering heat of the packed basketball arena. He promised he wouldn’t keep the audience much longer.
He concluded by describing his long public service and referring to his new junior position in the Senate. “I’m willing to be a junior, I’m glad to sit in the back row,” he said, “for I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty!”
Immediately after speaking those words, with cheers and applause ringing in the hall, Kentucky’s old Iron Man leaned forward and collapsed on the stage. The delegates of the convention stood up in alarm. Their chairman rushed to fan him while a doctor was summoned in “an air of disbelief.” Ten minutes after giving his last thundering speech, Senator Alben W. Barkley—far from Kentucky but very much at home—was dead of a heart attack.
Dennis Tucker is a Fellow of the Academy of Political Science, numismatic specialist on the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, and the publisher of Whitman Publishing, a leading producer of books, storage and display supplies, and other resources for collectors and hobbyists. He was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel in March 2021 for his career in book publishing and his promotion of the Commonwealth’s status as an important subject in numismatics. His column “From the Colonel’s Desk” explores the Bluegrass State’s rich connections to American coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts. To read more, visit the “From the Colonel’s Desk” archives. Other columns by Col. Tucker include “Notes Published” (about books and publishing in general, with a special emphasis on antiques and collectibles) and “Behind the Scenes: First Spouse Gold Coins” (about the United States Mint’s gold coin program).