In law, treason is the crime of disloyalty to one's nation. A person who betrays the nation of their citizenship and/or reneges on an oath of loyalty and in some way willfully cooperates with an enemy, is considered to be a traitor. Oran's Dictionary of the Law (1983) defines treason as: "...[a]...citizen's actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the [parent nation]."


History of Treason

United Kingdom

The English law of treason is entirely statutory and has been so since the Treason Act 1351 (25 Edw. 3 St. 5) c. 2, which is unusual for English Criminal Law, although originally the act provided for a reference to the King in Parliament to determine whether a new situation was or was not treason. Since that date the offence has been both widened, and narrowed by further statutes.

The Treason Act 1351 distinguishes two varieties of treason: high treason and petty treason. The distinction being the consequences of being convicted: for a high treason, not only was the penalty death but the traitor's property would escheat to the Crown; in the case of a petty treason property escheated only to the traitor's immediate Lord.

Petty treason was the murder of one's lawful superior: that is if a servant kills his master, a wife her husband or anyone their prelate. High treason covered acts that constituted a serious threat to the stability or continuity of the state, including attempts to kill the king, to counterfeit coins or to wage war against the kingdom.

An 18th century law defines four basic types of high treason:

  1. When a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the king, of our lady his queen, or of their eldest son and heir
  2. If a man do rape the king's companion, or the king's eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of the king's eldest son and heir
  3. If a man do levy war against our lord the king in his realm
  4. If a man be adherent to the king's enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere.

The punishment for treason was an often extended and especially cruel death which was often used to suppress any resistance to government policy and indeed it was not properly reformed until the 19th century, prior to this (in theory) any method could be used to carry out the death penalty, most popularly in the middle-ages hanging, drawing and quartering. In the United Kingdom treason was still theoretically punishable by death until 1998, although the last death sentence for treason was given in 1945, and this last hanging carried out in 1946). The death penalty for treason was abolished in the United Kingdom by the assent of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. (Go to see also for details of the abolition of the death penalty.)

The United States

To avoid the abuses of the English law, treason was specifically defined in the United States Constitution. Article Three defines treason as only levying war against the United States or "in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort," and requires the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act or a confession in open court for conviction. This safeguard may not be foolproof since Congress could pass a statute creating treason-like offences with different names (such as sedition, bearing arms against the state, etc.) which do not require the testimony of two witnesses, and have a much wider definition than Article Three treason. For example, some well-known spies have generally been convicted of espionage rather than treason. In the United States Code the penalty ranges from "shall suffer death" to "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."

In the history of the United States there have been fewer than forty federal prosecutions for treason and even fewer convictions. Several men were convicted of treason in connection with the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion but were pardoned by George Washington. The most famous treason trial, that of Aaron Burr in 1807, resulted in acquittal. Politically motivated attempts to convict opponents of the Jeffersonian Embargo Acts and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 all failed. Significantly, after the American Civil War, no person involved with the Confederate States of America was charged with treason, and only one major Confederate official, the commandant of the Andersonville prison, who was charged with war crimes, was charged with anything at all.

Several people generally thought of as traitors in the United States, such as the Walker Family, or Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were not prosecuted for treason per se, but rather for espionage.

Treason has become largely a wartime phenomenon in the 20th century, and the treason cases of World Wars One and Two were of minor significance. Most states have provisions in their constitutions or statutes similar to those in the U.S. Constitution. There have been only two successful prosecutions for treason on the state level, that of Thomas Dorr in Rhode Island and that of John Brown in Virginia.

In 1964, an author named John A. Stormer wrote a book considered a backstairs political classic and titled it None Dare Call It Treason—the book unexpectedly sold seven million copies with little or no advertising. It was revised and reissued by the original author in 1990. The title phrase comes from a 17th-century epigram by John Harington: "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?/For if it prosper, none dare call it treason." Since its popularization by Stormer, it has been reused and paraphrased many times and has become part of popular culture.

List of persons convicted or accused by some of treason, by country

This list is by nature highly subjective, even for those convicted of treason. One person's traitor is another's patriot. In a civil war or insurrection the winners may deem the losers traitors. Some countries, such as the U.S., have a high constitutional hurdle to conviction for treason, while historically in many countries, especially monarchies and dictatorships, anyone who disagrees with or disappoints the ruler, or even consorts with those who do, may be deemed traitors.


  • Vasak Siuni, Lord Prince of Siunik (? - 452 AD), conspired with Persian rulers of Armenia to introduce Zoroastrian faith to Armenia. Betrayed leaders of the Armenian uprising of Vardan Mamikonian to Persian King of Kings Yazgederd.
  • Meruzhan Artzruni, Lord Prince of Vaspurakan (? - 369 AD), conspired with Persian King Shapuh II against his liege lord, Armenian King Arshak II, and betrayed the latter to the Persians. Was captured by Arshak's son King Pap and executed.







Soviet Union

United Kingdom

United States


See also

Further reading

  • Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman, The Spy Next Door : The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen, The Most Damaging FBI Agent in US History, Liittle Brown, 2002 ISBN 0-316-71821-1de:Hochverrat

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