Treason: Definition, Examples & Punishment

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  • 0:00 Definition of Treason
  • 0:39 How to Prove Treason
  • 1:57 Famous Examples of…
  • 4:04 Common Punishments for Treason
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeremy Battista

Jeremy has a master of science degree in education.

Treason is one of the highest crimes you can commit, yet ask anyone what it is and how it's defined, and you will most likely receive a multitude of responses. The reasons, definitions, and consequences will be discussed here.

Definition of Treason

Treason can be defined in a number of different ways. For our purposes here, we will define it as any act that helps a foreign country attack, make war, overthrow, or otherwise injure the traitor's own country. If you conspire to help a foreign power attack your country, you are guilty of treason. Those that commit treason are referred to as traitors. In a lesser sense, traitors can commit treason to any group of people, such as a political party or even just friends. Again, here we will be looking at the high crime of treason, the kind that is punishable by law.

How To Prove Treason

The country you live in determines the definition of treason, as well as the requirements for conviction and subsequent punishment. For example, in the United States, it is often difficult to convict someone of treason. In places with a dictatorship, treason is much more easily provable. Following the Cuban revolution, it was easy to convict someone of treason there.

In the U.S., the definition of treason goes as follows: '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.'

It was made much more difficult to prove treason in the U.S. because of numerous instances of it being unfairly levied against citizens from other countries. Treason was rather easy to be convicted of a few hundred years ago - in England, for example, by simply stating that you did not like the king or queen. Our Constitution does not actually spell out what the act of treason consists of, it simply defines what the government cannot do about it. It also adds in the line about needing two witnesses to the act, in order to prove it beyond a doubt.

Famous Examples of Treason in History

A well-known, historical example of someone convicted of treason in the United States is General Benedict Arnold. As you may already know, Benedict Arnold gave the plans for West Point, a military installation, to the enemy British during the Revolutionary War. Arnold was an officer in the Revolutionary Army, but frequently found himself at odds with his superiors and the bureaucracy of the Congress. Being repeatedly passed over for promotions and owed pay, he eventually gave in to his anger and agreed to help the British. Benedict Arnold's name will forever be etched in history as a traitor. His virtues and accomplishments are lesser-known. He single-handedly led the Americans to victory during the Battle of Saratoga. Without his leadership, France would not have come to the rebels' aid. Arnold escaped, however, and could not be tried for treason.

Another example is John Brown. He was an abolitionist who attacked and took control of a federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. He wanted to start an insurrection against the U.S. and establish an anti-slavery stronghold. He had hoped the local slaves would rise up and join him in defending his new 'free state', where other slaves could escape to. Unfortunately, nobody joined him besides his original attack force. He was quickly surrounded and wounded. Most of his men were killed by the local militia. Brown was subsequently captured, tried, and hung by the state government of Virginia for treasonous acts against the United States.

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