See M. Boveri, Treason in the Twentieth Century (tr. 1961); J. W. Hurst, The Law of Treason in the United States (1971); C. Pincher, Traitors (1987).
Offense of attempting to overthrow the government of one's country or of assisting its enemies in war. In the U.S., the framers of the Constitution defined treason narrowly—as the levying of war against the U.S. or the giving of aid and comfort to its enemies—in order to lessen the possibility that those in power might falsely or loosely charge their political opponents with treason. Seealso sedition.
Learn more about treason with a free trial on Britannica.com.
In law, treason is the crime that covers some of the more serious acts of disloyalty to one's sovereign or nation. Historically, treason also covered the murder of specific social superiors, such as the murder of a husband by his wife (treason against the king was known as high treason and treason against a lesser superior was petit treason). A person who commits treason is known in law as a traitor. Such a person may also be colloquially termed a turncoat, Judas or quisling.
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]." In many nations, it is also often considered treason to attempt or conspire to overthrow the government, even if no foreign country is aided or involved by such an endeavour.
Outside legal spheres, the word "traitor" may also be used to describe a person who betrays (or is accused of betraying) their own political party, nation, family, friends, ethnic group, religion, social class, or other group to which they may belong. Often, such accusations are controversial and disputed, as the person may not identify with the group of which they are a member, or may otherwise disagree with the group leaders making the charge. See, for example, race traitor.
At times, the term "traitor" has been levelled as a political epithet, regardless of any verifiable treasonable action. In a civil war or insurrection, the winners may deem the losers to be traitors. Likewise the term "traitor" is used in heated political discussion typically as a slur against political dissidents, or against officials in power who are perceived as failing to act in the best interest of their constituents. In certain cases, as with the German Dolchstoßlegende, the accusation of treason towards a large group of people can be a unifying political message.
Murder is now generally considered the worst of crimes, but in the past, treason was thought of as worse. In English law high treason was punishable by being hanged, drawn and quartered (men) or burnt at the stake (women), the only crime which attracted those penalties (until the Treason Act 1814). The penalty was used by later monarchs against people who could reasonably be called traitors, although most modern jurists would call it excessive. Many of them would now just be considered dissidents.
In William Shakespeare's play King Lear (circa 1600), when the King learns that his daughter Regan has publicly dishonoured him, he says They could not, would not do 't; 'tis worse than murder: a conventional attitude at that time. In Dante Alighieri's Inferno, the lowest circles of Hell are reserved for traitors; Judas, who betrayed Jesus, suffers the worst torments of all. His treachery is in fact so notorious that his name has long been synonymous with traitor, a fate he shares with Benedict Arnold, Marcus Junius Brutus, and Vidkun Quisling.
A person is not guilty of treason under paragraphs (e), (f) or (h) if their assistance or intended assistance is purely humanitarian in nature.
The penalty for treason is life imprisonment.
In New South Wales the offence of Treason is contained within the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). This Act provides that treason shall constitute the overthrow of Her Majesty, Her Majesty's Government, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, or the Parliament of New South Wales. It also states that the Treason Act 1351 (25 Edward III, c. 2) is still in force in New South Wales. Therefore, this English Act forms part of the law of New South Wales.
It is also illegal for a Canadian citizen to do any of the above outside Canada.
The penalty for high treason is life imprisonment. The penalty for treason is imprisonment up to a maximum of life, or up to 14 years for conduct under subsection (2)(b) or (e) in peacetime.
Article 411-2 prohibits "handing over troops belonging to the French armed forces, or all or part of the national territory, to a foreign power, to a foreign organisation or to an organisation under foreign control, or to their agents". It is punishable by life imprisonment and a fine of 750,000 euros. Generally parole is not available until 18 years of a life sentence have elapsed.
Articles 411-3 to 411-10 define various other crimes of collaboration with the enemy, sabotage, and the like. These are punishable with imprisonment for between thirty and seven years. Article 411-11 make it a crime to incite any of the above crimes.
Besides treason and espionage, there are many other crimes dealing with national security, insurrection, terrorism and so on. These are all to be found in Book IV of the Code.
is guilty of treason. It is punishable with life imprisonment.
Section 82 defines treason against a German state.
The Treason Act 1939 gave legislative effect to Article 39, and provided for the imposition of the death penalty on persons convicted of committing treason within the state and on citizens convicted of committing treason against Ireland outside of the state. The Act also created the ancillary offences of encouraging, harbouring and comforting persons guilty of treason, and the offence of misprision of treason. No person has been charged under this Act.
For other offences against national security, see the Offences against the State Acts 1939-1998.
Section 1(1) of the Treasonable Offences Act 1925 (enacted under the 1922 Constitution) defined treason as:
The maximum punishment was death. The Act also defined the offences of misprision of treason and of encouraging, harbouring, or comforting any person engaged in levying Saorstát Éireann or engaged, taking part, or concerned in any attempt to overthrow by force of arms or other violent means the Government of Saorstát Éireann as established by or under the Constitution of 1922.
The Treasonable Offences Act 1925 was the first comprehensive and permanent measure designed to deal with offences against the state. Section 3 reenacted portions of the Treason Felony Act 1848, while sections 4 and 5 dealt, respectively, with the usurpation of executive authority and assemblies pretending to parliamentary functions. Section 6 prohibited the formation of pretended military or police forces and section 7 proscribed unauthorised drilling.
Although Gardaí prosecuted a number of persons under section 1.1(d) in 1925 and 1926, the Minister for Justice, Kevin O'Higgins, believed that such serious charges were not 'desirable in the present conditions'. Rather more bluntly, in March 1930 Eoin O'Duffy, the Garda Commissioner, wrote that the prospect of charging IRA members with 'levying war against the State' or with usurping executive authority would make a 'laughing stock' of the Gardaí.
Before Irish independence, treason was governed under the laws of the United Kingdom. Many historical Irish nationalist insurgents now considered heroes or freedom fighters in contemporary Ireland were executed for treason against the British or English Crown.
The penalty is life imprisonment, except that the maximum for conspiracy is 14 years. Treason was the last capital crime in New Zealand law, with the death penalty not being revoked until 1989, years after it was abolished for murder.
Subsequent sections provide for further offences against state security, such as armed rebellion and forcible seizure of power.
The British law of treason is entirely statutory and has been so since the Treason Act 1351 (25 Edw. 3 St. 5 c. 2). The Act is written in Norman French, but is more commonly cited in its English translation.
The Treason Act 1351 has since been amended several times, and currently provides for four categories of treasonable offences, namely:
- "when a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the King, or of our lady his Queen or of their eldest son and heir";
- "if a man do violate the King’s companion, or the King’s eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of the King’s eldest son and heir";
- "if a man do levy war against our lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere"; and
- "if a man slea the chancellor, treasurer, or the King’s justices of the one bench or the other, justices in eyre, or justices of assise, and all other justices assigned to hear and determine, being in their places, doing their offices".
Another Act, the Treason Act 1702 (1 Anne stat. 2 c. 21), provides for a fifth category of treason, namely:
- "if any person or persons ... shall endeavour to deprive or hinder any person who shall be the next in succession to the crown ... from succeeding after the decease of her Majesty (whom God long preserve) to the imperial crown of this realm and the dominions and territories thereunto belonging".
By virtue of the Treason Act 1708, the law of treason in Scotland is the same as the law in England, save that in Scotland the slaying of the Lords of Session and Lords of Justiciary and counterfeiting the Great Seal of Scotland remain treason under sections 11 and 12 of the Treason Act 1708 respectively. Treason is a reserved matter about which the Scottish Parliament is prohibited from legislating. Two acts of the former Parliament of Ireland passed in 1537 and 1542 create further treasons which apply in Northern Ireland.
The penalty for treason was changed from death to a maximum of imprisonment for life in 1998 under the Crime And Disorder Act. Before 1998, the death penalty was mandatory, subject to the royal prerogative of mercy. Since the abolition of the death penalty for murder in 1965 an execution for treason was unlikely to be carried out.
Treason laws were used against Irish insurgents before Irish independence. However, IRA and other republican guerrillas were not prosecuted or executed for treason for levying war against the British government during the Troubles. They, along with loyalist militants, were jailed for murder, violent crimes or terrorist offences.
William Joyce was the last person to be put to death for treason, in 1946. (On the following day Theodore Schurch was executed for treachery, a similar crime, and was the last man to be executed for a crime other than murder in the UK.)
As to who can commit treason, it depends on the ancient notion of allegiance. As such, all British nationals (but not other Commonwealth citizens) owe allegiance to the Queen in right of the United Kingdom wherever they may be, as do Commonwealth citizens and aliens present in the United Kingdom at the time of the treasonable act (except diplomats and foreign invading forces), those who hold a British passport however obtained, and aliens who - having lived in Britain and gone abroad again - have left behind family and belongings.
See also the Treason Felony Act 1848.
The Treason Act 1695 enacted, among other things, a rule that treason could be proved only in a trial by the evidence of two witnesses to the same offence. Nearly one hundred years later this rule was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution, which requires two witnesses to the same overt act. It also provided for a three year time limit on bringing prosecutions for treason (except for assassinating the king), another rule which has been imitated in some common law countries. The Treason Act 1661 made it treason to imprison, restrain or wound the king. Although this law was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1998, it still continues to apply in some Commonwealth countries.
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.
However, Congress has, at times, passed statutes creating related offenses which undermine the government or the national security, such as sedition in the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, or espionage and sedition in the 1917 Espionage Act, which do not require the testimony of two witnesses and have a much broader definition than Article Three treason. For example, some well-known spies have been convicted of espionage rather than treason.
The Constitution does not itself create the offense; it only restricts the definition and permits Congress to create the offense. The crime is prohibited by legislation passed by Congress. Therefore the United States Code at states "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." The requirement of testimony of two witnesses was inherited from the British Treason Act 1695.
In the history of the United States there have been fewer than 40 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 President George Washington. One of American history's most notorious traitors, in which his name is considered synonymous with the definition of traitor, is Benedict Arnold. The most famous treason trial, that of Aaron Burr in 1807 (See Burr conspiracy), resulted in acquittal. Politically motivated attempts to convict opponents of the Jeffersonian Embargo Acts and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 all failed. 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.
After the American Civil War, no person involved with the Confederate States of America was tried for treason, though a number of leading Confederates (including Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee) were indicted. Those who had been indicted received a blanket amnesty issued by President Andrew Johnson as he left office in 1869.
Several people generally thought of as traitors in the United States, including Jonathan Pollard, the Walker Family, Robert Soblen, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were not prosecuted for treason, but rather for espionage. John Walker Lindh, an American citizen who fought for the Taliban against the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance, was convicted of conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals rather than treason.
The Cold War saw frequent associations between treason and support for (or insufficient hostility toward) Communist-backed causes. The most memorable of these came from Senator Joseph McCarthy, who characterized the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman administrations as "twenty years of treason." McCarthy also investigated various government agencies for Soviet spy rings; however, he acted as a political fact-finder rather than criminal prosecutor. Despite such rhetoric, the Cold War period saw few prosecutions for treason.
On October 11, 2006, a federal grand jury issued the first indictment for treason against the United States since 1952, charging Adam Yahiye Gadahn for videos in which he spoke supportively of al-Qaeda.