Treason: Its Meaning and History


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“In the modern world of nation states, treason has replaced the medieval world’s heresy as the highest crime. American colonists, having committed treason against the British government, were careful, in writing a new constitution, to define treason in specific terms that made conviction difficult. To criticize the President, for example, or to speak out against a particular war, is not treason….”

Author: Larry Gara is Emeritus Professor of History at Wilmington College. Lenna Mae Gara is a homemaker, writer and editor
Published in: The PeaceWorker in Salem, Oregon
Date: March 1, 2008

For the full article:
Treason: Its Meaning and History
(606 words)
by Larry Gara and Lenna Mae Gara
In the modern world of nation states, treason has replaced the medieval world’s heresy as the highest crime. American colonists, having committed treason against the British government, were careful, in writing a new constitution, to define treason in specific terms that made conviction difficult. To criticize the President, for example, or to speak out against a particular war, is not treason.

Article III, Section 3, paragraph one of the U.S. Constitution defines treason as follows: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”

Because of its narrow definition there have been few treason trials in our history and even fewer convictions. In 1794 farmers in western Pennsylvania protested a tax on distilled whiskey by threatening to attack Pittsburgh. When President Washington called out 12,900 troops the rebels disbanded without firing a shot. Of the twenty farmers arrested, only two were tried for treason and Washington pardoned them both, calling one a simpleton and the other insane.

President Jefferson had Vice-President Aaron Burr arrested for treason, charging that Burr had conspired with the British to remove part of the western country from the United States. Chief Justice John Marshall, who presided over the trial, found Burr not guilty because he had not committed an “overt act” against the government.

In 1859 John Brown led an armed uprising to free the slaves and was convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, even though he had been captured by federal troops. Very likely he was the only person ever charged with treason against one of the states. By constitutional definition and Union opinion, those who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War had committed treason. After the conflict, many voices in the North called for punishment, yet only Jefferson Davis was indicted for treason. He was held, sometimes in shackles, in Fort Monroe, Virginia for two years but finally released without a trial.

Two famous charges of treason resulted from World War II. Ezra Pound, a major American poet living in Italy, broadcast anti-Semitic and pro-fascist speeches during the war. Later indicted for treason, he never stood trial but was confined to a mental hospital for twelve years. His release followed a flood of protests by poets and civil libertarians. The case of Mrs. Iva Ikuko Togura D’Aquino, called “Tokyo Rose,” resulted from her broadcasting propaganda mixed with music and entertainment to U.S. troops in the South Pacific. American born, she was convicted of treason and served a ten-year sentence.

Even during times of war the government has tried to minimize use of the charge of treason. Lincoln believed Congressman Clement L. Valandigham was a traitor, but had him tried by a military court and exiled to the Confederacy. Later the Supreme Court ruled that procedure unconstitutional. Eugene Debs was tried under the Espionage Act for making an antiwar speech in Akron, Ohio in 1918. Neither Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, nor leaders of the Communist Party USA were ever charged with treason.

All Americans have increased freedom because of strict limitations on charges of treason. It is the highest crime in any nation state and should not be invoked lightly. Indeed, calling dissenting opinions treasonous could lead to libel suits if the intention is to damage a reputation. We can be thankful that the writers of the Constitution defined treason so precisely, while leaving us the Bill of Rights to protect our cherished freedom of speech.

Larry Gara, Emeritus Professor of History at Wilmington College, is the author or editor of six books and numerous scholarly articles. Lenna Mae Gara is a homemaker, writer and editor. They have lived in Wilmington since 1962.