William Wheeler was born on June 30, 1819, in the upstate New York town of Malone, near the Canadian border. His father, Almon Wheeler, had attended the University of Vermont and was a promising young attorney and local postmaster who died at the age of thirty-seven, when William was just eight years old. Left in debt, his mother, Eliza, took in boarders from the nearby Franklin Academy to support her two children. William attended the academy, farmed, and did whatever he could to save money for college. At nineteen, with the help of a loan from a friend, he entered the University of Vermont in Burlington. There he studied for two years, at times living on bread and water, until "an affection of the eyes" caused him to drop out.
William Wheeler returned to Malone, taught school and studied law. In 1845, shortly after he was admitted to the bar, he married one of his former students, Mary King.
A Whig, Wheeler was soon running for office. He became town clerk, school commissioner, and school inspector. In later years he recalled that the thirty dollars a year he earned as town clerk, recording deeds and laying out roads, "were of more value to me than the thousands I have since attained." He served as district attorney for Franklin County from 1846 to 1849 and, from 1850 to 1851, served in the state assembly, where he chaired the ways and means committee.
Joining the new Republican party, he moved to the state senate in 1858 and was elected its president pro tempore. Wheeler also conducted a private law practice until "throat trouble" interfered with his courtroom advocacy and convinced him to abandon the law in favor of running a local bank and serving as a railroad trustee, positions that he held until "driven from business in 1865, by broken health."
Wheeler was elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1861 to 1863. He then returned to New York, where he chaired the state constitutional convention, a prestigious body whose members included two future presidential candidates, Horace Greeley and Samuel J. Tilden. Although Wheeler spoke infrequently, his words carried weight, and he gained high marks for fairness as presiding officer.
In 1868 he again won election to the House, where he chaired the Committee on Pacific Railroads. It was at this time that Iowa Representative Oakes Ames, acting as an agent for the Crédit Mobilier, the construction company for the Union Pacific Railroad, began spreading railroad stock among high-ranking members of Congress, "where it would do the most good." Wheeler not only refused all stocks offered to him, but resigned his chairmanship to avoid further temptation. In 1872, when the Crédit Mobilier scandal broke in the newspapers, Wheeler remained clean as some of the most prominent members of Congress were caught with the stock. His rectitude even inspired him to oppose an appropriation to construct a post office in his home town of Malone.
In March 1875, the House endorsed the "Wheeler compromise," a plan which essentially undid federal Reconstruction of Louisiana and held out hope for peace between the North and South a decade after the Civil War had ended. When Louisiana Democrats violated the spirit of the compromise by unseating even more Republican state legislators, in order to elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, most northern politicians and newspapers ignored the violations. The North seemed relieved to escape the responsibilities of Reconstruction. Representative Wheeler observed that northerners had expected too much from the South and declared that it was time to admit the failure of efforts to promote peace with the sword. His compromise taught northern Republicans how to cut their losses. Thereafter the party concentrated on preserving its power in the North while scaling down its military efforts in the South, even if that meant abandoning the political rights of the freedmen.
In the wake of the Grant-era scandals, both the Republican and Democratic parties searched for untarnished candidates as they approached the presidential election of 1876. Democrats chose one of their most prominent leaders, New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, who had won national attention by taking on the Tweed Ring in New York City. Republicans passed over their party's bigger names, men who had been stained by various exposés in the press, and settled instead on a ticket of Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes and New York Representative William A. Wheeler. Although neither man was very well known to the nation, both had reputations for scrupulous honesty and independence.
Nominated for vice president by the Republicans in 1876 on the ticket with President Rutherford B. Hayes he was installed in office through the decision of the Electoral Commission, and at the end of his term he retired from public life. He died at Malone on the 4th of June 1887.