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 wilfully 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 state of Florida's constitution defines treason as: "[Treason is] levying war against [the state], adhering to its enemies, or giving them aid and comfort..."
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:
- 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
- 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
- If a man do levy war against our lord the king in his realm
- If a man be adherent to the king's enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere.
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 giving aid and comfort to its enemies, and requires the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act or a confession in open court for conviction. 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.
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.
In the 20th century, treason has become largely a wartime phenomenon, and the treason cases of World Wars I and II 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.
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2 US Traitors
3 Other Traitors