treason, legal term for various acts of disloyalty. The English law, first clearly stated in the Statute of Treasons (1350), originally distinguished high treason from petit (or petty) treason. Petit treason was the murder of one's lawful superior, e.g., murder of his master by an apprentice. High treason constituted a serious threat to the stability or continuity of the state. It included attempts to kill the king, the queen, or the heir apparent or to restrain their liberty; to counterfeit coinage or the royal seal; and to wage war against the kingdom. Especially cruel methods were used in executing traitors. Court decisions developed the English law of treason into an instrument for suppressing resistance to governmental policy. Any degree of violence in expressing opposition to parliamentary enactments was held to be a levy of war and a threat to the king's life. In the 19th cent., the English law was reformed; petit treason was abolished, cruel methods of executing traitors were forbidden, and many types of treason (e.g., counterfeiting) were made felonies that involved a lesser penalty than death. To avoid the abuses of the English law, treason was specifically defined in the U.S. Constitution (definitions of other crimes were not deemed necessary). Article 3 of the Constitution thus provides that treason shall consist only in levying war against the United States or in giving aid and comfort to its enemies and that conviction may be had only on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act or on confession in open court. There have been fewer than 40 federal prosecutions for treason and even fewer convictions. Several men were convicted of treason in connection with the Whiskey Rebellion (1794) 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 cent., 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.
See M. Boveri, Treason in the Twentieth Century (tr. 1961); J. W. Hurst, The Law of Treason in the United States (1971); C. Pincher, Traitors (1987).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.