What defines treason against the United States?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Article III of the US Constitution specifically defines treason as a citizen either waging a war against the US or aiding an enemy who is waging a war against the nation. John Brown, for example, was convicted of treason in 1859 for attempting to organize an armed revolt against the...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Article III of the US Constitution specifically defines treason as a citizen either waging a war against the US or aiding an enemy who is waging a war against the nation. John Brown, for example, was convicted of treason in 1859 for attempting to organize an armed revolt against the state of Virginia in opposition to slavery. In this case, Brown was convicted of treason because he was basically waging a war against the government. Another good example is Benedict Arnold who attempted to surrender West Point to the British during the Revolutionary War.

The authors of the Constitution were aware of the ways in which laws can be manipulated and broadly interpreted, which is why treason has very specific criteria: the person is either attempting to wage a war against their government or helping the enemy during wartime. The case of John Brown, for example, was considered treason because he was actively trying to start a war with the state of Virgina. Benedict Arnold, on the other hand, was an American actively supporting the British effort during the Revolutionary War.

Because few Americans have ever tried to start a war with their own country, very few people have been convicted of treason on those grounds. As for the other criterion (aiding an enemy), it's important to know that this only applies during wartime. For instance, if a person were to give or sell classified American military information to Russia tomorrow, they couldn't be convicted of treason because the US isn't actively engaged in a war with Russia. They could, however, be charged with sedition or espionage, which is covered under a different set of laws. Moreover, in order for someone to be convicted of treason there must be at least two witnesses to the crime.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team