Kurt's Historic Sites

Alben Barkley

Alben Barkley

Interment LocationVisitedSequence in Graves I Have Visited
Paducah, KYJune 12, 20133rd Senate Leader visited; 39th Vice President visited

Photographed June 12, 2013.

My introduction to former Vice President Alben William Barkley came when I was seven years old. He is mentioned on page 37 of my first ever president-related book, So You Want to Be President?, by Judith St. George and David Small. The author, St. George, brings him up in the context of vice presidential obscurity. “Who’s ever heard of Alben Barkley?” she asks. Eleven years later, my father and I visited the one-term veep at his nondescript burial plot in western Kentucky.

So You Want to Be President? notes that — to illustrate the historical insignificance of the second highest office in the Executive Branch — Barkley used to tell a story “about a man who had two sons. One son went to sea, the other was elected Vice President. Neither was ever heard from again.” Barkley did not originate the quip. His predecessor Thomas Riley Marshall — who served from 1913 to 1921 and was never at a loss for a joke — used it in a speech. It even predates Marshall’s vice presidency, as there are records of its use as early as 1896. The parable’s relevance across those multiple eras speaks for itself. The position was not truly elevated until Walter Mondale took office in 1977.

Photographed June 12, 2013.
Photographed June 12, 2013.

In a political, non-HBO setting, the term “veep” is most often associated with Alben Barkley. The nickname was coined by his ten-year-old grandson, Stephen Truitt. 

Following his vice presidency, Barkley was re-elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954 after a six-year absence. The man who had once been Kentucky’s senior senator and the leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus was his state’s junior senator. Barkley commented on the change in his station in the keynote address he delivered on April 30, 1956 at the quadrennial mock convention at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. “I’m glad to sit on the back row,” Barkley bellowed from the stage, “for I would rather be a servant in the House of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty.” Mere seconds later, as the attendees were still cheering and applauding the senator, he suffered a heart attack and dropped dead immediately. Those who wish to hear the audio recording of the end of Barkley’s last speech, click here.

Photographed June 12, 2013.

Fast Facts

Born: November 24, 1877 in Lowes, Kentucky

Spouses: Dorothy Brower Barkley (m. 1903-1947); Jane Hadley Barkley (m. 1949-1956)

Political Affiliation: Democratic Party

Senate Democratic Caucus Leader Tenure: 1937-1949

Vice Presidential Term: 1949-1953 under Harry S. Truman

Died: April 30, 1956 in Lexington, Virginia

Cause of Death: Heart Attack

Age: 78

Last Words: “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.”

Interment: Mount Kenton Cemetery, Paducah, Kentucky

"What is a bureaucrat? A bureaucrat is a Democrat who holds an office that some Republican wants."
- Alben Barkley

July 13, 1948 in the keynote address of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sources Consulted and Further Reading

Alben W. Barkley – Topic. “His Last Speech.” YouTube video, 1:45. May 30, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8P-k6sI19w.

Popik, Barry. “’A bureaucrat is a Democrat who holds an office that some Republican wants.’” Big Apple. December 14, 2010. https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/a_bureaucrat_is_a_democrat_who_holds_an_office_that_some_republican_wants/.

Popik, Barry. “’One son went to sea and one became vice president; neither was ever heard of again.’” Big Apple. October 4, 2016. https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/one_son_went_to_sea_and_one_became_vice_president.

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