Understanding Treason: History of the U.S. Treason Law and Modern Cases

Benedict Arnold was a hero of the American Revolutionary War. He helped capture Fort Ticonderoga from the British in 1775 and played an essential role in surrendering a British general in 1777. But he became disillusioned by what he perceived as a lack of recognition for his service.

In 1779, Arnold colluded with the British to help capture the U.S. base at West Point in exchange for money and a lucrative post with the British army. The U.S. discovered the plot and Arnold fled to New York, joining the British army. His attempt to thwart the American Revolution earned him the status of the most-reviled traitor in U.S. history.

Less than a decade later, the United States Constitution added the charge of treason. Perhaps with Arnold's betrayal still fresh in the minds of the Founding Fathers, it is the only crime defined in the Constitution. But what does federal law say, and what precisely makes up an act of treason in the United States? Explore this severe crime against the government in more detail below.

Treason: What the Constitution Says

The gravity of the crime of treason is indeed heavy. It is the only crime explicitly worded in the United States Constitution, described in Article III Section 3. It states that treason is levying war against the United States or adhering to their enemies by giving them aid or comfort.

One of the reasons for adding the crime of treason to the Constitution was to limit the ability of Congress to define or modify it for political purposes. The Constitution only maintained the power of Congress to declare the punishment for this act.

The Statutory Prohibition on Treason: Overview

The United States Code 18 U.S.C. § 2381 repeats the definition of treason as stated in the Constitution. This section in the U.S. Code elaborates on the penalties provided to those convicted of this crime. A person guilty of treason may face severe consequences. The Constitution specifically defined its range from imprisonment of a minimum of five years to a death sentence. The court can also impose a fine of at least $10,000. Additionally, the individual convicted is barred from holding any official position in the country.

As with any other crime in our judicial system, the prosecution must prove the necessary elements to get a conviction for treason. These include the following:

  • The accused, an individual who must owe a level of allegiance to the United States, supported an enemy of the United States or undermined the United States without necessarily supporting a specific enemy;
  • The accused had the specific intent to betray one's country; and
  • The accused must have committed an "overt act" of treason, an active attempt to commit treason beyond just mere intent.

In the U.S., according to the Constitution, one can prove treason using one of two methods:

  • Testimony by a minimum of two eyewitnesses to the same overt act; or
  • Confession given in open court. A confession to the police isn't sufficient.

Understanding Treason in the Modern Context

In the past, treason cases like that of Benedict Arnold were prevalent. They were often associated with acts of assisting enemies of the United States and direct betrayal against the country. As our nation grew and evolved, the legal landscape surrounding these crimes likewise changed.

The focus of treasonous acts has shifted to related acts of betrayal against the country. Although not synonymous with treason, acts like seditious conspiracy, sedition, and misprision of treason have gained more prominence.

The U.S. Code defines seditious conspiracy as the act of two or more persons conspiring to overthrow, put down, or destroy by force the U.S. Government. It also includes levying war against the government or opposing its authority by force.

Misprision of treason is abetting or aiding acts of treason by failure to report the same to proper authorities. It applies to those who owe allegiance to the United States and who knew of the act or the plan to overthrow the government.

Modern acts of treason present as a rebellion or dissent against the U.S. government. One of the most recent and prominent examples of seditious conspiracy is the case of the Proud Boys.

Recent Conviction of Seditious Conspiracy

On May 4, 2023, four members of Proud Boys, a far-right organization, were found guilty of seditious conspiracy, a rare criminal charge involving treason.

The members were charged with the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. The prosecutors argued that the members were waging violence against the government of the United States. The defense argued that the members had organized themselves to stop the certification of President Joe Biden's win, which they incorrectly believed to be fraudulent.

Treason Throughout U.S. History: Examples

The U.S. Government has filed treason charges about 30 times, leading to approximately a dozen convictions. Below are some examples of treason cases:

  • The Whiskey Rebellion (1794) -- Several farmers led an armed rebellion against the newly imposed whiskey tax. The court convicted two men, who President George Washington later pardoned.
  • Aaron Burr (1807) -- The third U.S. vice-president, famous for killing first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel, conspired to invade Mexico and form an empire that included parts of the United States. The court acquitted Burr because they found no "overt act" beyond the conspiracy.
  • Thomas W. Dorr (1844) -- Dorr led a rebellion against the state of Rhode Island, protesting against the state's lack of a bill of rights. Through a dubious process he was elected governor, leading to two administrations for about a year. The Rhode Island Supreme Court convicted him of treason and sentenced him to life in prison.
  • Mildred "Axis Sally" Gillars (1949) -- The German Nazi government hired the American broadcaster to broadcast propaganda during World War II. In 1949, the U.S. government captured her, found her guilty of treason, and sentenced her to 10 to 30 years in prison. She served 11 years before her release in 1961.

Charged With a Federal Crime? Get Legal Representation Today

Although it's rare these days for someone to be charged with treason, it remains a severe offense. Penalties for violating the law of treason could result in life imprisonment or even the death penalty. If you find yourself accused of treason, you should consult a criminal defense attorney. They will assist you in understanding the treason clause and help you navigate the processes imposed by the federal government. A defense lawyer can guide you through potential defenses under criminal law. The lawyer can also ensure the protection of your due process rights.

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