The Life of Carl Albert

Speaker of the U. S. House

of Representatives

Carl Albert Portrait
The Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma was named after Carl B. Albert (1908-2000), the 46th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives (1971-1976). The following short biography summarizes the life and career of this great American.
Carl Albert as an infant

Carl Albert was born on May 10, 1908, in a mining camp near McAlester, Oklahoma, and he grew up in a log cabin on a nearby farm. His parents were Ernest Homer Albert, a coal miner and farmer, and Leona Scott Albert.

In high school he polished his speaking skills to win a regional oratorical contest in 1927 and a national competition in 1928. Perhaps the grandest accomplishment of his youth came after graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 1931: he won a Rhodes Scholarship. The next three years were spent at Oxford University, from which he received a Bachelor of Arts in Laws and a Bachelor of Civil Laws.

After his return from England in 1934, Albert worked for the Federal Housing Administration for three years. During this time he was admitted to the Oklahoma Bar. He then spent six years in the practice of oil law in Oklahoma, Illinois, and Ohio. In 1941 he entered the armed forces as a private, serving briefly in the Third Armored Division but largely in the Judge Advocate General Corps. While in the Army he married Mary Harmon, in 1942.

Albert left the service as a Lieutenant Colonel in February 1946. When he returned to Oklahoma, he planned a career as an attorney. Instead, he ran for Congress. He filed as a candidate for the Democratic primary of Oklahoma's U. S. Congressional Third District on the very day the incumbent decided to retire. It was the hardest race he ever faced. There was no clear winner in the primary, so he was forced into a runoff that he squeaked through by 329 votes. He easily beat his Republican opponent, however, in the general election. Albert never had a problem winning the fourteen other congressional elections in which he ran.

The Third District of Oklahoma has always lain in the state's southeast, a region called "Little Dixie" because its settlers came from nearby Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, and because its agricultural economy is based on cotton and peanuts. Its voters almost always vote Democratic. Albert, because his work outweighed his small stature, became known as "the little giant from Little Dixie."

Carl and Mary Albert as newlyweds
Carl Albert campaign brochure

During three decades of service, Albert promoted the interests of his state in Congress. He supported public works projects, such as those on the Arkansas and Red Rivers, that literally transformed the face of Oklahoma. Legislation he sponsored reflected the needs and concerns of his constituents. One of his earliest accomplishments was passage of a rider that prevented cuts in acreage devoted to peanut cultivation, and over the years he introduced other bills and amendments benefiting cotton and peanut growers in his district. One of the last bills he introduced, in 1969 with other members of the Oklahoma delegation, called for the repeal of existing gun control laws. Albert's district was home to a large number of hunters. As his leadership responsibilities increased, the number of his bills in the hopper decreased. As Speaker of the House, he followed the tradition of not introducing legislation at all.

Albert's career in the House of Representatives, 1947-1976, was distinguished. He served on several standing committees-- Agriculture (1949-1962), Post Office and Civil Service (1947-1948), House Administration (1949-1952), Science and Astronautics (1963- 1967), and Education and Labor (1968)--as well as the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress (1949-1952) and the Select Committee to Investigate Lobbying Activities (1949-1951). In 1955 the lawmaker was chosen majority whip and began his ascent of the House leadership ladder. Serving with Sam Rayburn and John McCormack, Albert succeeded the latter as Majority Leader in 1962 and as Speaker in 1971.

In each of his leadership positions, Carl Albert made his mark. As whip he increased the number of whip zones and shifted emphasis from counting votes to influencing members. As majority leader he helped persuade Speaker John McCormack to revive the Democratic Caucus (1969). Among other congressional reforms, he worked for a system of recording votes of members of the House. He also played a major role in directing President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society legislation through the House. In conjunction with being a congressional leader, he was a Democratic party leader, and in 1968 he chaired the tumultuous Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Carl Albert and Lyndon Johnson
Carl Albert, Spiro Agnew, and Richard Nixon
Carl Albert was the 46th Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1976, a period when the issues troubling the country--Vietnam, busing, the economy, the energy crisis, and Watergate--were played out in the chambers of Congress and the Oval Office of the White House. The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive and saw Albert, who favored peace on terms acceptable to the United States, pitted against members of his own party, such as Bella Abzug, who favored immediate withdrawal. But another issue saw the Speaker butting heads with President Richard Nixon. In 1973 Nixon impounded congressional appropriated funds for domestic social programs, a move Albert saw as damaging to society's well-being and an attack upon the constitutional separation of powers.
Even more crucial in 1973 and 1974 was Watergate. Albert found himself making unique and difficult decisions. After Vice President Spiro Agnew's resignation, he was second only to the president. Simultaneously, he presided over the only body with power to impeach. A crescendo of voices, many from Democratic members of Congress, demanded Nixon's immediate removal. Albert could have made himself president, but he didn't. The Speaker preferred to proceed cautiously and judiciously.

During the 1970s he oversaw further changes in the conduct of the House. Under Albert the Speaker became the chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and gained the right to nominate all Democratic members of the Rules Committee. And with the War Powers Resolution the leader of the House had a greater role in foreign policy. One of his last acts as Speaker was to host Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain during the American Bicentennial.

Albert last won election in 1974 and retired at the end of the congressional session in 1976 (his term officially ended on January 3, 1977). He had served in Congress longer and held more power than any other Oklahoman. After retirement he returned to McAlester, Oklahoma. He passed away on February 4, 2000.

Carl Albert and Queen Elizabeth

Carl Albert has reflected on his life and career in the book Little Giant: The Life and Times of Speaker Carl Albert (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).

The Carl Albert Center's Congressional Archives is home to Speaker Albert's collection of papers. To access the complete inventory and collection description online, please click this link.

Copyright © 2007 Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma
Last Modified 07/02/07
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