Monday, June 29, 2009

June 30: “When there is no hope tell the man so.”

Do you know who this is?
-He was the 19th Vice President of the United States.
-While he was involved in state and national politics for thirty years, he was virtually unknown outside of his home district.
-He resigned from a House Committee in order not to be tempted by bribery.

Like many of our Vice Presidents – the ‘forgotten men’ of American political history who’s sole job, as described by a wit, was to ask every morning “Is the President alive?” – there is not a huge amount of online information available on William Almon Wheeler, 19th Vice President of the United States. Yet Wheeler – like Gerald Ford in the 1970s – was a crucial element in restoring confidence in the government after a series of national scandals shook the nation.

He was born in Malone – Franklin County – in northeastern New York, on June 30, 1819. His father, Almon Wheeler, was an attorney and postmaster of Malone, who died when Wheeler was only eight years old, leaving his mother in debt. His mother, Eliza Wheeler, took in boarders from Franklin Academy to support her two children. Because of his father’s early death, Wheeler would be concerned over his health during his entire life.

Wheeler himself would attend Franklin Academy in Malone, and as a teenager would study at the University of Vermont for two years (1833-1835), but was forced to leave the college before graduation because of the an eye ailment. Subsequently, he returned to Malone and began to study law under Asa Hascall as well as to teach school. He also met and married Mary King. In 1845 he was admitted to the bar. He also became politically active, receiving the positions of town clerk, school commissioner and school inspector. He succeeded his mentor, Hascall, as the United States district attorney of Franklin County, New York from 1846-1849.

A serious throat infection caused Wheeler to abandon his legal practice in 1851. While he would serve in the political arenas of New York and Washington D.C., he would also hold positions in private industry. Wheeler would be an officer of a bank in his hometown of Malone from 1851 until 1866 as well as a President of the Northern Railroad in New York.

His political sympathies at the start of his political career – like Abraham Lincoln’s – lay with the Whig Party. Under their political banner he was elected to the New York state assembly in 1849, serving 1850-1851. In 1856 he moved into the newly formed Republican Party, remaining a Republican until his death. He was elected as a Republican to the New York State Senate, 1858-1860 - where he was the President pro Tempore from 1858-1859. He was elected as a Republican to the thirty-seventh Congress, March 4, 1861 to March 3, 1863 – where he was as the opening shots of the Civil War were fired. He only served one term, then returned to his railroad and banking interests.

He would return to politics in 1867, first as the president of the New York constitutional convention, then returned to the US House of Representatives in 1869 where he served continuously until 1877.

While in Congress Wheeler was involved with several important committees. He was chairman of the Committee on Pacific Railroads – with a special interest in the railroad lines stretching across the nation to bind east and west together. He was also a member of the Southern Affairs Committee, which dealt largely with the prostate South after the Civil War. It was as a member of the latter committee that he devised what became known as the Wheeler Compromise, settling a violent and potentially divisive election issue in Louisiana in 1872.

He did maintain a reputation for honesty during an era noted for its graft and corruption in local, state, and national politics. When agents for Credit Mobilier – a railroad construction company – began bribing members of Congress for favorable legislation, Wheeler not only turned them down: he resigned from the Committee on Pacific Railroads in order to avoid temptation. When the scandal broke, many prominent members of Congress were found to have accepted bribes. In another example of Wheeler’s exemplary honesty: In 1873 Congress voted itself a pay raise, making it retroactive for five years. Wheeler voted against the raise – then returned his pay raise to the Treasury department.

Wheeler generally maintained a low profile as a Congressman, and few outside of his district knew of him. He preferred to be cautious, and to work behind the scenes, in committees, rather than to battling issues publically. Perhaps it was because of this low profile that he was asked to run for Vice President with Rutherford B. Hayes as President in 1876. National politics had hit a new low as the scandals of the Grant administration became public, and the restlessness of the South for full reinstatement into the Union was increasing. Wheeler was a delegate to the July 1876 Republican convention.

Both political parties were looking for honest candidates to counter the public perception of and disgust with corrupt politicians. While several names were mentioned, it was decided that in the search for untarnished candidates and men with a reputation for honesty, Wheeler was an excellent choice. However, Wheeler was surprised when his name was nominated by acclamation the next morning, winning the position with 366 votes. His nearest rival, Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, would receive 89 votes. Frelinghuysen would later serve on the Electoral Commission.

Supposedly Governor Hayes said of the matter: “I am ashamed to say: Who is Wheeler?”.

Wheeler would not be involved in active campaigning. Citing his ill health, he wrote:

“I greatly regret my physical inability to do little in the way of speaking on his canvas. But I have no reserve of strength to draw upon.”

He would be inaugurated, along with the President, on March 4, 1877. A widower – his wife passed away three months before the inauguration, Wheeler would become a frequent guest of the Hayes’ at the White House. He would fulfill his Constitutional job as the President of the Senate faithfully, even though he found the job to be tedious. He also would give solid advice to the President. When dealing with job seekers, Wheeler advised the Administration to tell job seekers:
“When there is no hope tell the man so. He will be disappointed at the time, but it is the best way.”
When Hayes declined to run for reelection, Wheeler too stepped down. He was a tired and ill sixty-two year old. He retired from politics and his business interests, and would pass away in Malone on June 4, 1887. He was buried at Morningside Cemetery, Malone, New York.


No biographies of William A. Wheeler are available at our local library.


Biographical Dictionary of the US Congress
Famous Americans
Find A Grave
Vice Presidents of the United States


01. Portrait: Library of Congress
02. Portrait: Library of Congress
03. Campaign poster
04. Gravestone: Find A Grave

1 comment:

  1. Wheeler deserves a place on the list of people who have led a “Great Life in History.” Thanks for writing such a nice piece about him. I began to take an interest in the man when I lived in Malone, NY, his hometown, and was president of the Franklin County Historical and Museum Society. One of my duties was to give a speech about him at his graveside as part of the Society’s celebration of his birthday every June 30th. After moving to Long Island having given three birthday speeches, I began to do more extensive research on his life with the goal of writing his biography – my attempt to save him from the dustbin of history.

    As you have pointed out, one of the most admirable things about Wheeler was his “exemplary honesty” at a time when graft and corruption at all levels of public life ran rampant. Another admirable aspect of Wheeler’s character was his moral courage. In his foreword to the inaugural edition of John F. Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, the well-known American historian and biographer, Allan Nevins, used the following incident involving Wheeler to illustrate the meaning of courageous integrity. At the time of this exchange, Wheeler was a rising political figure on the New York and national political stage and Roscoe Conkling was a U. S. Senator and the formidable Republican party boss in New York. According to Nevins, Conkling said, “Wheeler, if you will act with us, there is nothing in the gift of the State of New York to which you may not reasonably aspire.” Wheeler replied, “Mr. Conkling, there is nothing in the gift of the State of New York which will compensate me for the forfeiture of my self-respect.”