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The American Experience

People & Events
James Cheetham and the New York Governor's Race

The Republican editor of one of New York's most influential newspapers, the "American Citizen," James Cheetham took aim at Aaron Burr during the governor's race of 1804 with devastating effect. Cheetham's published attacks, though slanderous, helped ensure Burr's defeat.

Shortly after becoming Thomas Jefferson's vice president earlier that year, Burr realized that there was no place for him in the Jefferson administration. He was effectively driven out of the Republican Party, but another option was available. Secession fever had struck New England's Federalists. If Burr allied himself with them, he might be able to regain power.

Burr set his sights on winning the most powerful public office he could find -- the governorship of New York. But to win the governor's race, Burr would have to oppose a powerful group of New York Republicans -- the Clinton and Livingston families.

The Clinton/Livingston alliance had long controlled New York politics. And they had a friend in editor James Cheetham. Despite the fact that Burr had previously been allies with the Clintons, the Clintons put Cheetham on the attack. Even during a time in which campaigns were noted for vicious mudslinging, the campaign of 1804 stood out.

On the pages of the "American Citizen," Cheetham called Vice President Burr a traitor to his party and president. He mocked Burr for his failure to win renomination as Jefferson's running mate. He attacked the few legislators in New York who openly supported Burr. Most damaging was the final smear: Cheetham claimed to have a list of the 20 top prostitutes in New York City, all of whom said Burr was their favorite customer.

Burr fought back. He started a newspaper, the "Morning Chronicle," in which editor Peter Irving counterattacked Cheetham. And he hired New York attorney William Peter Van Ness to write a pamphlet called "An Examination of the Various Charges Against Aaron Burr…And a Development of the Characters and Views of His Political Opponents." But in the end Cheetham's attacks were too brutal for Burr to sustain. When the votes were counted, Burr lost to the Clinton/Livingston candidate, Morgan Lewis, by a landslide.

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