See his autobiography, Yankee from the West (with P. F. Healy, 1962).
Wheeler was born in Hudson, Massachusetts. He grew up in Massachusetts, attending the public schools and working as a stenographer in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from the University of Michigan law school in 1905. He initially headed for Seattle, Washington, but after getting off the train in Butte, Montana and losing his belongings in a poker game, he settled there and began practicing law.
He became a Montana state legislator in 1910 where he gained a reputation as a champion of labor against the Anaconda Copper Mining Company which dominated the state. He then served as a United States Attorney where he most famously refused to hand down a single sedition indictment during World War I, especially significant as Montana was a large stronghold of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In 1920 he ran for Governor of Montana as a candidate of the Non-Partisan League. The ticket included a multi-racial set of candidates, unusual for 1920, including an African-American and a Blackfoot Indian. Wheeler was defeated by Republican Joseph M. Dixon, but ran for U.S. Senator two years later.
Wheeler won election to the United States Senate from Montana in 1922 with 55% of the vote over Republican congressman Carl W. Riddick and served four terms, being reelected in the 1928, 1934 and 1940 elections. He broke with the Democratic Party in 1924 to run for vice-president of the United States on the Progressive Party ticket led by Robert La Follette, Sr. He returned to the Democratic Party after the election, which was not successful for the Progressives or the Democrats. Wheeler supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt's election, and many of his New Deal policies, but broke with him over his opposition to Roosevelt's court-packing schemes.
In 1930, Wheeler gained national attention, when he successfully campaigned for the reelection to the US Senate of his friend and Democratic colleague Thomas Gore, the colorful "Blind Cowboy" of Oklahoma. Wheeler is often credited for steering public opinion in Gore's favor with a series of speeches in which, with characteristic hyperbole, he repeatedly implied that he would personally play the part of the Blind Cowboy's horse on his ride to Washington.
As tensions mounted in Europe, he became a supporter of the anti-war America First Committee. As chair of the Senate Interstate Commerce Commission, Wheeler announced in August of 1941 he would investigate “interventionists” in the motion picture industry. Most studio heads, he would soon be surprised to learn, were Jews. Wheeler questioned why so many foreign born were allowed to shape American opinion.
After the start of World War II in Europe, he opposed any aid to Britain or the countries involved in the war. The United States Army secret Victory Plan was leaked on 4 December 1941 to Wheeler who passed the Plan on to three newspapers. Wheeler did not, however, vote against America's participation in World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, saying the only thing left to do was "to lick hell out of them". Wheeler sought renomination in 1946 but was defeated by Leif Erickson in the Democratic primary. Erickson was then defeated by Republican Zales Ecton. Wheeler did not return to politics and returned to his law practice. He died in Washington, D.C.
In the alternate history novel The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth, Wheeler serves as Vice President in the administration of President Charles Lindbergh. Roth depicts Wheeler imposing martial law in Lindbergh's absence, whereas the real Wheeler had been a leading opponent of the martial law imposed in Montana during World War I. Author Bill Kauffman describes Wheeler as being, in fact an "anti-draft, antiwar, anti-big business defender of civil liberties".
The Plot Against America: Senator Wheeler and the Forces Behind Him is also the name of a pamphlet by David George Kin published against Wheeler during the 1946 campaign by supporters of the Communist Party USA, which accused both Wheeler and Harry S. Truman of a fascist conspiracy |}