It’s TREASON, I Tell You!

By: Warner Todd Huston

Treason! The word is thrown about quite a lot lately. Unfortunately, it is almost always hyperbole.

Oh, Americans think they know what treason is, but when you get right down to it, few really do — at least in an American legal context, anyway.

Webster’s defines traitor as one who betrays another’s trust or is false to an obligation or duty, one who commits treason. Treason is defined as the betrayal of a trust, or the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family.

That’s all well and good and on a purely definitional level, that certainly is treasonous behavior. But U.S. law does not work purely on Webster’s definition. In fact, U.S. law has quite a specific meaning to treason and it’s one that makes a true, legal charge of treason quite hard to prove and harder to prosecute.

Now, today, many want to use the word treason against politicians, the media, any person they feel is acting against perceived American interests. For instance, when Barack Obama works to defeat the First Amendment by sending various arms of the law after people conducting their right to free political speech, many want to call that treason. Certainly it is anti-American. Absolutely it is against everything the Founders stood for. But, it isn’t treason. Another charge of treason is often leveled against the New York Times when it prints details of American policy that might end up helping the enemies of this country. It is wrong, it is harmful, it is even prosecutable under the law, above all it is damned stupid, but… nope… not treason.

No, treason has quite a specific and narrow meaning in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the reason the Founders so narrowly defined treason is because of the abuse of the charge of treason by the English Crown previous to our nation’s founding. It got so bad in England that hungry children caught stealing a slice of bread from a street vendor could be hanged by authorities as “traitors” to the Crown. Not to mention that political enemies of those in power at any given time could have charges of treason brought up against them to silence dissent. The Founders prudently wanted to quash the possibility of such abuse by government when they sat down to write the Constitution. So, treason was very specifically defined in Article III, Section III of the U.S. Constitution.

Section 3. 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. The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder* of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

Since it is so hard to get a conviction on the charge, treason has not been leveled against all that many criminals in the over 200 year-old history of the U.S.A. And, even when charged, most have gotten off without conviction. Aaron Burr escaped conviction, even ex-president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was not convicted on the charge.

Additionally, the full punishment, death, has never been inflicted at all, most convictions resulting in life sentences if any punishment was seen. Even the Rosenbergs, guilty of spying for Communist Russia, were executed in 1953 for espionage, not treason.

In any case, using the word “treason” may be emotionally satisfying, but rarely — in fact, almost never — is the charge the legally correct one to make. Throwing around charges of treason merely make the accuser look uninformed, sadly.

So, the next time you want to throw the “T” word around, remember this warning. You may have a perfectly legitimate reason to be against someone or some entity’s actions, but chances are, “treason” it ain’t.

(* Attainder means condemning the property of the accused to be remanded to the state or the action of a “stain” to be permanently placed on the convict’s relatives on into the future.)

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