William A. Wheeler was born in Malone New York on June 30th 1819. His father Almon Wheeler was a successful lawyer but died when William was only eight. His mother took in boards from the Franklin Academy which helped to pay William’s tuition. He studied law at the University of Vermont however financial and health problems forced him to drop out so he never earned a formal degree although he received a number of honorary ones later in life. After he left school he went to work for Asa Hascall where he finished out his education and became a lawyer in 1845.
Wheeler entered politics when he became the town clerk and later was elected the local school commissioner and inspector. In 1846 he was elected the District Attorney and in 1850 he was elected to the State Assembly where he served until being elected to the State Senate in 1858, the same year he joined the Republican Party. In 1861 he was elected to the House of Representatives where he served for the next two years. He returned to New York where he worked on the state’s Constitution and established himself with the Republican Party. In 1868 he was elected back to the House where he chaired the committee on Pacific Railroads. At the time the Union Railroad was bribing politicians for favorable contracts in what would become as the Credit Mobilier Scandal. Wheeler refused the bribes and even resigned his position in order to avoid any further connection to the situation. In 1872 the New York political machine tried to push Wheeler into the position of Speaker of the House but he refused, citing throat problems. He even considered resigning but was convinced to remain in Congress.
Wheeler went mostly unnoticed as a member of Congress until 1874. The state election of Louisiana came down to a tie. Grant named the Republican Kellogg as the new Governor but hostilities broke out resulting in the death of 52 people during a riot in New Orleans. Kellogg was removed from office by a mob so Grant sent federal troops to restore the peace and reinstate Kellogg to office.
The House eventually sent a committee to settle the dispute. After much debate they eventually voted for the Wheeler Compromise, an agreement that kept Kellogg in the position of Governor but allowed the Democrats to make appointments. The agreement allowed the federal troops to withdraw from the state and was seen as the first step towards the end of the Reconstruction Era. When the Democrats violated the terms of the agreement the federal government turned a blind eye to the situation in order to not start a new war. In 1873 Congress voted itself a 5 year retroactive pay raise. Wheeler saw this as an excessive use of power and voted against it but the bill still passed. He retuned the pay raise to the treasury out of principle.
In 1876 Wheeler attended the Republican convention where Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated to be the Presidential candidate. After the last two Republican Vice Presidents had both been named in the Credit Mobilier Scandal they needed someone with a clean reputation and Wheeler’s name was placed on the ballot. After the first vote the other candidates withdrew and he won the nomination. The election became hotly disputed as the parties split the northern vote, the election was thrown to the southern states. The Republicans promised the South that they would end the Reconstruction and withdraw the federal troops in exchange for their support. Hays became President and southern Blacks were left to the discretion of the states governments, which would result in segregation policies for the next hundred years.
As Vice President Wheeler found himself outside of Hays’ inner circle and mostly just presided over the business of the Senate, including casting the tie breaker vote six times. He also found himself coming between the President and the New York political machine. He knew Hays would need the support of the powerful Republican machine but he also knew that any association with a scandal would damage the party as a whole.
In the next election Hays decided not to run, he had been battling with the New York political machine and saw no chance of winning the nomination. The Republicans chose James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur, who was friendly with the leader of the New York machine and its top boss Roscoe Conkling. Wheeler’s final act as Vice President was to swear in Arthur. Wheeler retuned to New York where he ran for the Senate in 1881 against Conkling. Wheeler didn’t want to win, he just wanted to keep Conkling out of the Senate, in the end he managed to split the vote and Ambrose Clark won the election.
After the Senatorial election Wheeler’s health began do decline. When Arthur became President he offered Wheeler an appointment to a commission studying tariff laws but Wheeler turned him down. He retuned to his home in Malone New York and on June 4th 1887 he died.
William Wheeler was perhaps the most honest man ever elected Vice President. He avoided involvement in the corruption of the day and tried to keep the peace. As such he is also the most forgotten Vice President as they are usually remembered for either being involved in some kind of controversy or how they died. Perhaps being forgotten isn’t such a bad thing after all.
So, if you vote for me as Vice President I promise to be so uncontroversial you won’t even know I’m in the office, since I plan to spend most of my time hanging out at the free pool anyhow.