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Treason Punishment & Examples | What is Treason?

Abby Conklin, Jeremy Battista
  • Author
    Abby Conklin

    Abby has worked with grades 1 through 8 as a specialist and teaching assistant for over five years. They have been writing ELA and SS curriculum for almost ten years. They have a Bachelor's degree in the humanities, specializing in American Indian studies and radical pedagogy from Michigan State University, and are currently earning an MEd from the University of Toronto in Indigenous knowledge and decolonizing education.

  • Instructor
    Jeremy Battista

    Jeremy has a master of science degree in education.

Understand what is treason in legal terms. Learn about the US definition of treason and the types of treason. See famous treason examples from history. Discover about what is the punishment for treason and the US penalty for treason. Updated: 11/06/2021

The Meaning of Treason

Treason is defined as betrayal, or an act of infidelity. Treasonous conduct can occur on a personal level, as well as professional and state levels. In a personal context, one friend might commit treason against another by widely sharing a deeply painful secret that the latter has shared in confidence. On a professional level, treason can take the form of one co-worker arranging to get another co-worker fired, in order to clear the path towards a promotion. And in terms of state-level treason, the traitor (enactor of the treason) may attempt to take the life of their nation's sovereign.

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.

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What is Treason's Legal Definition?

In legal contexts, treason is defined as an act, or activities, intended to overthrow a government or harm a sovereign. Treason is performed by a citizen of the country whose government or sovereign they are attempting to compromise. This may also take the form of a citizen's supporting their home country's enemies, as those enemies seek to compromise that citizen's government or sovereign.

The US Definition of Treason

In the United States Code, a collection of all permanent American laws, treason is defined in Chapter 115-- Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities. As per section 2381, "Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or 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."

It is very difficult, however, to actually convict someone of treason in the U.S. A clause in the Constitution stipulates that "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 challenge of securing two witnesses to a singular act of treason, or a confession from the accused, is enormous. Additionally, if the accused carries dual citizenship with the U.S. and another nation, or is NOT a citizen of the U.S., they cannot be convicted of treason at all.

Determining whether or not someone is guilty of treason is quite challenging.

Scales of justice

Two Types of Treason

There are two types of treason: Levying War and Providing Aid or Comfort.

Levying War

The original understanding of "levying war" as an act of treason had roots in the ongoing factional disputes the U.S. experienced during its nascent century post-Revolution. Lawmakers sought to ensure that partisan infighting would not compromise the federal government. Lawmakers also established, though various public trials, such as that of Burr (1807) and that of those involved with Whiskey Rebellion (1794), that traitorous preparations were not the same as traitorous actions. To this day, the legal expectation that treasonous acts must be committed, not merely planned for, in order to garner a conviction of treason, still stands.

Providing Aid or Comfort

To provide aid or comfort to enemies of a national government or sovereign, such that that enemy is better able to threaten the strength of the national government or sovereign, is to commit treason. This can be as simple as donating money to identified enemy groups, or as significant as helping enemy groups stage an attack on a federal government building.

Famous Treason Examples from History

Examples of treason from history include:

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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Video Transcript

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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Frequently Asked Questions

Who was the last person charged with treason?

Tomoya Kawakita is the last American to have been convicted of treason in U.S. courts. In 1952, he was convicted on the grounds of having mistreated American prisoners of war in service of the Japanese military during World War II.

What crimes are considered as treason?

Crimes of treason are those that compromise a nation, its government, or its sovereign. Acts of war against the nation, acts of support of the nation's enemies, or direct collaboration with enemies are all examples thereof.

Is treason still punishable by death?

In certain countries, treason is still punishable by death. However, the global community and various human rights organizations have been pressuring these nations to ban the practice completely for many years.

What is an example of high treason?

If a general in the U.S. military were to be proven guilty of aiding an enemy in an attack on the U.S. military, courtesy of witness testimonies from two individuals who witnessed the same act of treason, they would be convicted of high treason.

What is considered treason in the United States?

In the United States, "levying war" against the nation or "aiding or giving comfort to" enemies of the nation is considered treasonous behavior.

Can you be executed for treason in the US?

The death penalty, or execution, is a possible consequence of committing treason, but increasingly less likely to be selected as the ultimate punishment. Convicted traitors will be more likely to receive lengthy prison sentences.

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