What Is Treason?

How the United States Defines Aiding and Comforting Enemies

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In United States law, treason is the crime of a citizen of the United States betraying his or her country. The crime of treason is often described as giving "aid and comfort" to enemies either on U.S. or foreign soil; it is an act punishable by death. 

The filing of treason charges is rare in modern history. There have been fewer than 30 cases in U.S. history. A conviction on charges of treason requires a confession by the accused in open court or testimony from two witnesses.

Treason in the U.S. Code

The crime of treason is defined in the U.S. Code, the official compilation of all general and permanent federal laws enacted by the U.S. Congress through the legislative process:

"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."

Punishment for Treason

Congress spelled out the punishment for treason and aiding and traitor in 1790:

"If any person or persons, owing allegiance to the United States of America, shall levy war against them, or shall adhere to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States, or elsewhere, and shall be thereof convicted on confession in open Court, or on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act of the treason whereof he or they shall stand indicted, such person or persons shall be adjudged guilty of treason against the United States, and SHALL SUFFER DEATH; and that if any person or persons, having knowledge of the commission of any of the treasons aforesaid, shall conceal, and not, as soon as may be, disclose and make known the same to the President of the United States, or some one of the Judges thereof, or to the President or Governor of a particular State, or some one of the Judges or Justices thereof, such person or persons, on conviction, shall be adjudged guilty of misprision of treason, and shall be imprisoned not exceeding seven years, and fined not exceeding one thousand dollars."

Treason in the Constitution

The U.S. Constitution also defines treason. In fact, defying the United States with an act of severe sedition by a traitor is the only crime spelled out in the document.

Treason is defined in Article III, Section III of the Constitution:

"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."

The Constitution also requires the removal of the president, vice president, and all of their offices if convicted of treason or other acts of sedition that constitute "high crimes and misdemeanors." No president in U.S. history has been impeached for treason.

First Major Treason Trial

The first and most high-profile case involving allegations of treason in the United States included former Vice President Aaron Burr, a colorful character in American history primarily known for his slaying of Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Burr was accused of conspiring to create a new independent nation by convincing the U.S. territories west of the Mississippi River to secede from the Union. Burr's trial on charges of treason in 1807 was lengthy and presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall. It ended in acquittal because there wasn't enough solid evidence of Burr's sedition.

Treason Convictions

One of the most high-profile treason convictions was that of Tokyo Rose, or Iva Ikuko Toguri D'Aquino. The American stranded in Japan at the outbreak of World War II broadcasted propaganda for Japan and was subsequently imprisoned. She was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford despite her acts of sedition.

Another prominent treason conviction was that of Axis Sally, who real name was Mildred E. Gillars. The American-born radio broadcaster was found guilty of broadcasting propaganda in support of the Nazis during World War II.

The United States government has not filed charges of treason since the end of that war.

Treason in Modern History

Though there there haven't been any official charges of treason in modern history, there have been plenty of accusations of such anti-American sedition leveled by politicians.

For example, actress Jane Fonda's 1972 trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War sparked outrage among many Americans, particularly when it was reported that she had sharply criticized U.S. military leaders as "war criminals." Fonda's visit took on a life of its own and became the stuff of urban legend.

In 2013, some members of Congress accused a former CIA techie and ex-government contractor named Edward Snowden of committing treason for exposing a National Security Agency surveillance program called PRISM.

Neither Fonda nor Snowden were ever charged with treason, however.

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Murse, Tom. "What Is Treason?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-treason-3367947. Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). What Is Treason? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-treason-3367947 Murse, Tom. "What Is Treason?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-treason-3367947 (accessed March 30, 2023).