Treason Research Paper

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Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution of the United States provides:

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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.

State constitutions today contain similar limiting definitions of treason against a state. Since national independence there has been almost no action or doctrinal development under the state provisions; the law of treason in the United States has been almost wholly the product of the national Constitution and decisions of federal courts.

Treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution, and basic to the treatment of this offense has been a mingling of values protective of government and of individuals. The crime of treason strikes at the foundations of the legal order and deals with the most serious threats to the existence of the state. Congress has reflected this judgment in prescribing penalties that may mount to death or life imprisonment. Where charges have fallen plainly within the bounds of the constitutional definition, judges have firmly applied the law. On the other hand, the limiting language of the Constitution (treason shall consist ‘‘only’’ in the two named forms of the offense), constitutional history, and the responses of judges bear witness to a restrictive approach in marking the outer boundaries of the crime. Thus the treason clause not only protects the security of the legal order but is functionally analogous to the Bill of Rights, protecting the civil liberties of individuals.

The restrictive dimension departs from the main directions of the statute and case law in England and in this country before 1789, which gave clear primacy to the security of government, often to serve the interests of those holding official power at a given time. Into the late eighteenth century, English political history was marked by aggressive resort to charges of treason as weapons of partisan conflict, with much vindictive prosecution and loose use of evidence. Security in the most elemental sense was at stake for the English colonies in North America under the threat of the French and Indian Wars, and in the new states torn through the Revolution by bitter divisions between those loyal to the Crown and those asserting independence. Thus the legislation of the colonies and of the new states in the Revolutionary years was studded with broad and sometimes vague definitions of subversion, in sharp contrast to the limited definition written into the national Constitution.

Records from the framing and ratification of the Constitution contain little information about the treason clause. But what is there shows sensitivity to lessons drawn from English experience of the dangers that loose resort to treason prosecutions might present to individual and political liberty. Two fears were prominent: that holders of official power would misuse the treason charge to suppress peaceful political opposition and destroy those who were out of official favor, and that under the dread charge popular fear and emotion might be stirred to produce convictions without proper evidence. Subsequently, federal judges recognized this restrictive background in decisions limiting extension of the offense. In Cramer v. United States, 325 U.S. 1, 47 (1945), the first treason case to reach the United States Supreme Court, the Court reaffirmed the restrictive construction of the scope of treason.

Elements of The Offense

Three key elements are necessary for an offense to constitute treason: an obligation of allegiance to the legal order, and intent and action to violate that obligation. Treason is a breach of allegiance and of the faithful support a citizen owes to the sovereignty within which he lives. A citizen of the United States who is subject to the law of a foreign state may owe allegiance to that state at the same time he owes fealty to the United States. But this dual nationality does not relieve him of obligation to refrain from volunteering aid or comfort to the foreign nation if it is at war with the United States. Although the matter has not been presented to a court in this country, an individual present here and enjoying the nation’s protection owes it his obedience while he is resident, and thus may be guilty of treason if he commits what would be the offense when done by a citizen.

Wrongful Intent

Wrongful intent is a necessary element of the crime of treason, varying in character according to which of the two forms of the offense is in issue. To be guilty of levying war against the United States, the individual must intend to use organized force to overthrow the government. Under older, broad doctrines of treason in English law, intent by group force to prevent or overcome enforcement of a particular statute or other lawful order or to obtain any particular group benefit contrary to law was treason. A similar tendency was shown in two early American instances involving violent group resistance: the first, to a federal excise on whiskey (the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794), and the second, to a property excise (Fries’s Rebellion of 1799); in both, federal courts found treason. However, the later interpretation is that no intent short of intent to overthrow the government suffices to constitute the offense. After the Homestead Riot of 1892 several labor leaders were indicted for levying war against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But the indictments were later quietly dropped, and use of the treason charge met with prompt and unanimous criticism from conservative jurists. Violent group actions short of challenge to the existence of the government are now treated as riot or unlawful assembly.

Adhering to an enemy requires intent to render the enemy tangible support (‘‘aid and comfort’’). Long-established doctrine has defined enemies as only those against whom a legally declared state of war exists. However, in the twentieth century the reality of such undeclared shooting hostilities as the Korean War raises questions about the older limitation. That the accused may have acted with mixed purposes, such as to make money by selling goods to the enemy, does not rebut existence of the requisite intent for treason, if one of his purposes was in fact to render performance useful to the enemy. In many crimes the law holds an individual responsible as intending the foreseeable consequences of his conduct, even though he pleads that he did not mean to bring about the particular outcome for which he is charged. In treason cases, however, the prosecution must prove that the accused had a specific intent to levy war or aid enemies. This requirement does not necessitate proof by explicit statement or direct admission of guilty purpose; the prosecution may prove the guilty intent by strong inference from the context of the accused’s behavior.

Overt Act

The commission of some overt act to effect a treasonable purpose is a distinct element of the crime that the government must prove in addition to proving wrongful intent. The most striking, restrictive feature of the Constitution’s definition of treason was the omission of any analogue of that branch of old English law that punished one who would ‘‘compass or imagine the death of our lord the King’’ (Treason Act, 1351, 25 Edw. 3, stat. 5, c. 2 (England)). The Crown had used this charge to suppress not only action likely to lead to the king’s death, but also the mere speaking or writing of views critical of exercise of royal authority. Pursuing that line, the government obtained convictions of individuals because the ‘‘natural’’ consequences of their speaking or writing might endanger the state.

The calculated omission of this feature in the definition of the crime emphasized the need to show specific intent to prove treason as defined in the United States. Moreover, the omission underlines the need to prove substantial action by the accused. The function of the overt act element, said the Supreme Court in Cramer, is to ensure ‘‘that mere mental attitudes or expressions should not be treason’’; the prosecution must show that the accused moved from the realm of thought, plan, or opinions into the world of action. However, the Supreme Court’s treatment of the act element has clouded this requirement. In Cramer the Court seemed to say that the act must itself be evidence of the treasonable intent, a position apparently contrary to the general insistence that the intent and act elements are distinct. In Haupt v. United States, 330 U.S. 631 (1947), the Court clarified the matter somewhat: behavior proved by the required testimony of two witnesses need not indicate wrongful intent. But where the charge was aiding the enemy, if the proven overt act can be demonstrated to have given aid to the enemy only when appraised in light of evidence of other conduct of the accused, then that other conduct—as well as the particular overt act—must be proved by two witnesses. On the other hand, to prove the offense, it is not necessary to show that the accused succeeded in delivering aid to the enemy; it is enough that he took overt action to attempt delivery. More than mere planning must be shown. To establish treason by levying war, the government must prove an armed assembly; conspiracy alone does not prove the crime.

Application of The Law in The United States

Since national independence, fewer than fifty cases involving the application of the law of treason as defined in the national or state constitutions have been brought to court in the United States. A tally of the thirty-eight major instances indicates that the cautious moderation sought by those who wrote the Constitution has been fulfilled in practice. Only eight cases show what critics might call broad interpretations of the offense; sixteen cases fall within explicit dimensions of the crime as set forth in the Constitution; in fourteen instances judges have taken a restrictive approach, refusing to enlarge the reach of the offense. This record suggests regard for the restrictive aspects of the constitutional history and probably indicates that by and large the country has enjoyed substantial political stability. In any event, the record shows little vindictive resort to the charge of treason, and few cases carrying politically controversial tones.

During the American Revolution most actions taken against British Loyalists were to confiscate property. Treason cases arising out of the Whiskey Rebellion, Fries’s Rebellion, the Burr conspiracy, Jefferson’s Embargo Act, and resistance to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law grew out of differences over domestic political issues. Decisions in these cases were rendered in 1795, 1800, 1807, 1808, and 1851, respectively, but were of limited practical impact. Treason prosecutions by state authorities incident to the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island (1842) and John Brown’s raid (1859) were exceptional because of their broad political repercussions. Because of the scale of the Civil War there was no resort to prosecution for treason, although clearly supporters of the seceded states levied war against the United States. Some cases had tones of domestic ideological conflict over the country’s entry into World War I. In United States v. Werner, 247 F. 708, 710–711 (E.D. Pa. 1918), the defendant was indicted for treason by giving aid to the enemy through publication of newspaper stories unfavorable to the cause of the United States. The trial court ruled for the government on the demurrer. On appeal, the Supreme Court disposed of the case on other grounds, but its opinion made clear that the prosecution carried a strong ideological tone (Schaefer v. United States, 251 U.S. 466 (1920)). But this cast was notably absent from treason prosecutions incident to World War II.

In the practice of Congress and in decisions of the courts, the constitutional definition of treason has never barred creation of other statutory offenses involving subversion of the legal order. Thus, United States v. Rosenberg, 195 F. 2d 583 (2d Cir. 1952) held that the defendants were validly convicted of conspiracy to violate the federal Espionage Act, 18 U.S.C. § 794 (1976) by communicating protected information to the USSR. However, established doctrine forbids Congress to enlarge beyond the constitutional definition the kinds of conduct that may be punished as treason, and assures the protection of the twowitness requirement where the charged conduct amounts to levy of war or adherence to enemies. Nonetheless, legislators might seek to punish it under another name. Loose use of the epithet treason amid the Cold War emotions of the 1950s showed that there was still potential power in the dread cry as a weapon of partisan or ideological combat. But the limits set by the constitutional definition have curbed resort to treason prosecutions to suppress or harass peaceful, legitimate political competition.


  1. ABRAMS, STUART ‘‘Threats to the President and the Constitutionality of Constructive Treason.’’ Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems 12, no. 3 (1976): 351–392.
  2. CHAPIN, BRADLEY. The American Law of Treason: Revolutionary and Early National Origins. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964.
  3. 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.
  4. HURST, JAMES WILLARD. The Law of Treason in the United States: Collected Essays. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971.
  5. REHNQUIST, WILLIAM All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
  6. REHNQUIST, WILLIAM ‘‘Civil Liberty and the Civil War: The Indianapolis Treason Trials.’’ Indiana Law Journal 72 (1997): 927–937.
  7. SIMON, WALTER ‘‘The Evolution of Treason.’’ Tulane Law Review 35, no. 4 (1961): 667–704.
  8. STILLMAN, ARTHUR, 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.
  9. WIENER, FREDERICK BERNAYS. ‘‘Uses and Abuses of Legal History: A Practitioner’s View.’’ Law Society’s Gazette 59, no. 6 (1962): 311–315.
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