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In law, treason is the crime of disloyalty to one's nation. A person who reneges on an oath of loyalty or a pledge of allegiance, and in some way willfully cooperates with an enemy, is considered to be a traitor. Oran's Dictionary of the Law (1983) defines treason as: "...[a]...citizen's actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the [parent nation]."

The English Statute of Treasons (1350) distinguished high treason from petty treason. Petty treason was the murder of one's lawful superior, such as when a wife killed her husband, or a servant his master. High treason covered acts that constituted a serious threat to the stability or continuity of the state, including attempts to kill the king, to counterfeit coins or to wage war against the kingdom. An 18th century law defines four basic types of high treason:

  1. When a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the king, of our lady his queen, or of their eldest son and heir
  2. If a man do violate the king's companion, or the king's eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of the king's eldest son and heir
  3. If a man do levy war against our lord the king in his realm
  4. If a man be adherent to the king's enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere.

The punishment for treason was often extended and was an especially cruel death (treason was still theoretically punishable by death in Britain until 1998, although the last death sentence for treason was given in 1945, and the last hanging carried out in 1946). The law was used in England to suppress any resistance to government policy and it was not reformed until the 19th century.

To avoid the abuses of the English law, treason was specifically defined in the United States Constitution. Article Three defines treason as only levying war against the United States or "in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort", and requires the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act or a confession in open court for conviction. This safeguard may not be foolproof since Congress could pass a statute creating treason-like offences with different names (such as sedition, bearing arms against the U.S., etc.) which do not require the testimony of 2 witnesses, and have a much wider definition than Article Three treason. In the United States Code the penalty ranges from "shall suffer death" to "shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States."

In the United States, the accusation of treason has at times been levelled at those who dissented against the government's foreign policy, especially during military actions. However, actual prosecutions have been very rare, and even very well known spies have generally been convicted of espionage rather than treason.

In the history of the United States there have been fewer than 40 federal prosecutions for treason and even fewer convictions. Several men were convicted of treason in connection with the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion but were pardoned by George Washington. The most famous treason trial, that of Aaron Burr in 1807, resulted in acquittal. Politically motivated attempts to convict opponents of the Jeffersonian Embargo Acts and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 all failed. Significantly, after the American Civil War, no person involved with the Confederate States of America was charged with treason, and only one major Confederate official, the commandant of the Andersonville prison who was charged with war crimes, was charged with anything at all.

In the 20th century, treason has become largely a wartime phenomenon, and the treason cases of World Wars One and Two were of minor significance. Most states have provisions in their constitutions or statutes similar to those in the U.S. Constitution. There have been only two successful prosecutions for treason on the state level, that of Thomas Dorr in Rhode Island and that of John Brown in Virginia.

In 1964, an author named John A. Stormer wrote a book considered a backstairs political classic and titled it None Dare Call It Treason -- the book unexpectedly sold seven million copies with little or no advertising. It was revised and reissued by the original author in 1990. The title phrase has been reused and paraphrased many times in the ensuing 40 years, and has become part of popular culture.


List of alleged traitors


Great Britain

United States


Marie Antoinette Louis XVI


Last updated: 02-07-2005 04:47:09
Last updated: 02-22-2005 02:14:24