Treason in United States

Treason Definition

At Common Law. This word imports a betraying, treachery, or breach of allegiance. Treason was either:

  • High treason, which was the compassing of the king’s death, the aiding and comforting of his enemies, the forging or counterfeiting of his coin, the counterfeiting of the privy seal, or the killing of the chancellor, or either of the king’s justices.
  • Petit treason, which was where a wife murdered her husband, a servant his master, or an ecclesiastic his lord or ordinary. 4 Bl. Comm. 73. In the United States. The constitution of the United States (article 3, § 3) defines treason against the United States to consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid or comfort This offense is published with death. Act April 30, 1790 (1 Story, U. S. Laws, 83). By the same article of the constitution, 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.

Read more about the Treason meaning in the legal Dictionaries.

High Treason Definition

In English law. The compassing of the king’s death; the aiding and comforting of his enemies; the forging or counterfeiting of his coin; or the killing of the chancellor or either of the king’s justices. 4 Bl. Comm. 73. See “Treason.”

Treason Felony Definition

An offense under 11 & 12 Vict. c. 12, consisting of compassing, etc., to depose her majesty, or to levy war to intimidate parliament, etc. Mozley & W.

Treason against the United States Case: “Tokyo Rose”

On September 29, 1949, Ikuko “Iva” Toguri d’Aquino – who has become widely associated with the World War II radio personality “Tokyo Rose” – was convicted of treason for participating in Japanese propaganda efforts. She received a ten-year prison sentence and was fined $10,000.

A Japanese American who had recently graduated from UCLA with a zoology degree, d’Aquino was visiting Japan when the war started. Stranded, she reluctantly agreed to produce Radio Tokyo broadcasts under the handle “Orphan Ann.” The programs featured American music and war updates – which led the U.S. military to claim that she seemed overly familiar with its war operations.

When it was reported that she wanted to return to the United States after the war, the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco brought the treason case against her, the most expensive in American history at the time.

Scholarly and investigative accounts have since provided support that d’Aquino was innocent (although this point remains in debate). For example, one article noted that d’Aquino was misled into a confession when Cosmopolitan offered a substantial reward if she told her story to the magazine. Moreover, “Tokyo Rose” didn’t actually exist; she was a fictional construct of numerous female radio personas.

D’Aquino was released from prison in 1956, and successfully fought deportation. In 1977 President Gerald Ford pardoned her and restored her citizenship. She retired to live out her days quietly in Chicago.

Treason in Foreign Legal Encyclopedias

For starting research in the law of a foreign country:

Link Description
Treason Treason in the World Legal Encyclopedia.
Treason Treason in the European Legal Encyclopedia.
Treason Treason in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia.
Treason Treason in the UK Legal Encyclopedia.
Treason Treason in the Australian Legal Encyclopedia.

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Treason in the United States Constitution

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, about its article titled TREASON, treason is the only crime defined in the United States Constitution. Article III, section 3, declares that 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 in other cases.


See Also

    • Conspiracy
    • Sedition
    • Federal Bureau of Investigation History
    • Federal Criminal Jurisdiction
    • Domestic Terrorism
    • Arnold’s Treason
    • Civil Rights
    • Civil Liberties
    • Davis Trial
    • Davis Imprisonment
    • Rosenberg Case
    • Attainder of Treason
    • Petit Treason
    • Found Guilty of Treason
    • Whiskey Rebellion
    • Shays’ Rebellion
    • Davis v. Beason
    • Fries’ Rebellion

Further Reading (Books)

Abrams, Stuart E. “Threats to the President and the Constitutionality of Constructive Treason.” Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems 12, no. 3 (1976): 351-392.

Chapin, Bradley. The American Law of Treason: Revolutionary and Early National Origins. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964.

Hill, L. M. “The Two-Witness Rule in English Treason Trials: Some Comments on the Emergence of Procedural Law.” American Journal of Legal History 12 (1968): 95-111.

Hurst, James Willard. The Law of Treason in the United States: Collected Essays. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971.

Rehnquist, William H. All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

–. “Civil Liberty and the Civil War: The Indianapolis Treason Trials.” Indiana Law Journal 72 (1997): 927-937.

Simon, Walter G. “The Evolution of Treason.” Tulane Law Review 35, no. 4 (1961): 667-704.

Stillman, Arthur M., and Arner, Frederick R. Federal Case Law concerning the Security of the United States. 83d Cong., 2d sess. Printed for use of the Special Subcommittee on Security Affairs. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1954.

Wiener, Frederick Bernays. “Uses and Abuses of Legal History: A Practitioner’s View.” Law Society’s Gazette 59, no. 6 (1962): 311-315.

Chapin, Bradley. The American Law of Treason: Revolutionary and Early National Origins. Seattle: University of Washing ton Press, 1964.

Elliot, Jonathan. Debates in the Several State Conventions on Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Philadelphia, 1836, p. 469 (James Wilson).

Hurst, James Willard. The Law of Treason in the United States: Collected Essays. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing, 1971.

Kutler, Stanley I. The American Inquisition: Justice and Injustice in the Cold War. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.


Further Reading (Articles)

Treason in the Age of Terrorism: An Explanation and Evaluation of Treason’s Return in Democratic States, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law; November 1, 2009; Eichensehr, Kristen E.

Treason, Defined and Enforced: Calls for Charges of Treason Have of Late Been Hurled with Abandon – against People Such as Julian Assange and President Obama – but Are They Justified?, The New American; February 7, 2011; Wolverton, Joe, II

Treason, Encyclopedia of the American Constitution; January 1, 2000

Constructive Treason and Godwin’s Treasonous Constructions, Mosaic (Winnipeg); June 1, 1995; Helfield, Randa

Rebecca Lemon. Treason by Words: Literature, Law, and Rebellion in Shakespeare’s England.(Book review), Comparative Drama; September 22, 2007; Ross, Charles

Defining a British State: Treason and National Identity, 1608-1820.(Book Review), Albion; December 22, 2002; O’Gorman, Frank

Charge of Treason Difficult to Prove, Legal Experts Say; Al-Qaeda Videos Led to Indictment, The Washington Post; October 13, 2006; Dan Eggen – Washington Post Staff Writer

Ministers Clash over Treason Charge Plan, Daily Mail (London); August 10, 2005; Doughty, Steve

TREASON, Young Students Learning Library; January 1, 1996

No, Edward Snowden Probably Didn’t Commit Treason (Posted 2013-06- 12 14:05:26), The Washington Post; June 12, 2013; Matthews, Dylan

Treason and the State: Law, Politics and Ideology in the English Civil War.(Book Review), Canadian Journal of History; August 1, 2003; Woolf, Daniel

Imagining the King’s Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide 1793-1796.(Book Review), Criticism; January 1, 2002; Scrivener, Michael

Analysis: Whether John Walker Lindh should be charged with treason, NPR Talk of the Nation; January 16, 2002; NEAL CONAN

Treason is hard to prove, prof says: Misericordia academic says term ignites emotions, especially in times of war., The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, PA); October 16, 2006

Is treason protected by freedom of the press?, The Herald News – Joliet (IL); June 29, 2006

Treason at the Times, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review; July 2, 2006; Coulter, Ann

50 Years after the Execution of the Rosenbergs: Treason & Patriotism in Post 9/11 America, Peacework; June 1, 2003; Anonymous

50 years after the execution of the Rosenbergs: Treason & patriotism in post 9/11 America, Peacework; June 1, 2003; Meeropol, Robert

EDITORIAL: Call it treason.(Editorial), The Lima News (Lima, OH); October 14, 2006

De la Trahison (about Treason), The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences; January 1, 2003; Granek, Michel

Treason in 1899 (United States)

The following information about Treason is from the Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States by the Best American and European Writers.

TREASON (IN U. S. HISTORY). Under the confederation there was no such legal offense as treason against the United States, since there was no such thing as allegiance to the United States. (See ALLEGIANCE, I.) Treason and allegiance had reference only to the state. A remnant of this feeling made the definition of treason, when it was first introduced into the convention of 1787, Aug. 6, consist in levying war against the United States, or any of them, and in adhering to the enemies of the United States, or any of them.

The clause was fully debated, Aug. 20, and changed to its present form. (See CONSTITUTION, Art. III., § 3.) But all the debaters professed themselves dissatisfied with it. Gouverneur Morris acutely pointed out the fact, that in case of a contest between the United States and a particular state, the people of the latter must be traitors to one or the other authority.

But a motion to give congress the sole power to define the punishment of treason was lost, five states voting for it, and six against it. Seldom has the omission of a single word had more momentous effects. In this case it left to congress and the states, as almost all the speakers acknowledged, a concurrent power to punish for treason; and so it enabled a seceding state to offer to its minority a choice between treason against the state and treason against the United States. Had the vote been six states to five for the insertion of the word, the state sovereignty and secession arguments would hardly have been worth the trouble of refuting.

-Had the constitution given to congress the sole power to define the punishment of treason, the states would have been remitted, for protection against such domestic disturbances as Dorr’s rebellion (see that title), to a simple law against seditious assemblages; and the protection would have been efficient. As it is, most of the states have inserted in their constitutions a provision that treason against the state of-shall consist only in levying war, etc., following the constitution of the United States. These provisions have always been practically in nubibus: there has hardly been a case of indictment for treason against a state, excepting the action of Rhode Island in the Dorr case, and that came to nothing. But they fostered the idea of allegiance to a state, and thus carried into secession the multitude who disliked secession, but dreaded to commit treason against the state.

-At the end of the rebellion there were no prosecutions for treason. It has been roundly asserted that the reason for this was the consciousness of the government of the United States that it had been illegally suppressing a misnamed rebellion, that treason could only hold against a state, and that Jefferson Davis and his associates had committed no crime and engaged in no treason, in any sense known to the constitution or its framers. Those who so argue forget that Mr. Lavis, at least, was no prisoner of war; that his surrender was unconditional and in a territory under military occupation; and that, if there had been any such impotent spite against him as this theory assigns to the government, a drum head court martial and a file of men would quickly have made it patent, treason or no treason. The fact seems to be that his escape was due entirely to lack of spite. The collapse of the rebellion had been too complete to allow of spite. The nation stood aghast as it realized the thoroughness of its work; and its controlling impulse was to efface as rapidly as possible all evidences of the conflict. Treason trials would have been a festering sore in the body politic, and they were avoided.

-There can be no doubt that this policy was just, as well as wise. For seventy years before 1860, men who did not realize the full force of what they said had been boasting of the voluntary nature of the union, in contrast with the effete despotisms of Europe. (See NATION.) The nation’s long laches in asserting its paramount authority in the last resort gave Jefferson Davis and his associates an exemption from the animus of treason which can never be claimed again. All men have now had fair warning, as Jefferson Davis had not in 1860, that the Union is not voluntary, so long as the nation is determined to maintain it; and that any attempt to break it up is treason to the United States, even if it is obedience to a state. It might be that a future rebellion would be suppressed with a similar generous forbearance from ultimate vengeance; but the chance is an uncommonly small one.

-The act of April 30, [933] 1790, made death the penalty for treason, as defined in the constitution, on conviction by confession in open court, or on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act.

It also made fine and imprisonment the punishment of misprision of treason, the concealment of it. For seventy years this act was sufficient. There were few trials under it, the principal one being that of Burr (see his name); and these were practically failures. In 1861 an act was passed making conspiracy to oppose the laws or seize the property of the United States a high crime, but this was punishable only by fine and imprisonment. The act of July 17, 1862, provided, that, if any person should thereafter commit the crime of treason against the United States, his slaves, if any, should be declared free, and he himself should suffer death, or fine and imprisonment, at the discretion of the court; that any one convicted should forever be incapable of holding office under the United States; and that it should be the duty of the president to seize and apply to the use of the army the property of six classes of leaders of the rebellion, who seem to have been considered prima facie guilty of treason. There were, finally, no southern prosecutions under it. Davis and others were indicted, but never brought to trial. The few prosecutions were in northern states.

More about Treason in the Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

-See Story’s Commentaries, §§ 1290, 1790; ib., § 1795 (for law cases); Whiting’s War Powers (10th ed.), 95; the state sovereignty view of treason is in Bledsoe’s Is Jefferson Davis a Traitor? and Centz’s Republic of Republics, 413 foll., (see also index under Treason); Indianapolis Treason Trials; for the indictment against Davis see Schuckers’ Life of Chase, 534; the act of April 30, 1790, is in 1 Stat. at Large, 112; the act of July 17, 1862, is in 12 Stat. at Large, 589.

Author of this text: Alexander Johnston.

Treason: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Treason. This part provides references, in relation to Treason, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Treason by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Treason and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Treason or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Treason and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Treason. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Treason should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Treason when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

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