Article III, Section 3, Clause 1-2
1: 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.
2: 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.
The issue of role of loyalty to one’s own country isn’t nearly as simple a matter as it might appear. Of course, most people have a natural affinity for the country where they were born or at least spent most of their life in. Moreover, should the government actually have the authority to compel you to love your country? Finally, what does it mean to be disloyal? There are crucial distinctions between the right to exercise dissent, criticism and disagreement and the actual disloyalty to one’s own country.
Merriam-Webster defines treason as “the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family”
Throughout history, many rulers have used the issue of loyalty to the country or sovereign as a tool to oppress their critics or even as a pretext for mistreating unpopular individuals in the country. At the same time, treason is considered perhaps the worst possible crime both because the victims aren’t individuals but all of the society that live in a given country.
Depending on the nature of the treasonous activity engaged in, the citizens of the entire nation may suffer financial harm or in extreme circumstances face loss of life or limb. Unlike the laws of many nations which can be changed at will, the U.S. Constitution specifically defines treason and does so in a way that seems obvious in impact.
“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.”
In fact, this is the only crime that is specially outlined in the Constitution. Recognizing the severity of the threat that treason posed to the new nation, one of the first acts of the United States Congress made treason a capital offense:
“If any person or persons, owing allegiance to the United States of America, shall levy war against them, or shall adhere to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States, or elsewhere, and shall be thereof convicted on confession in open Court, or on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act of the treason whereof he or they shall stand indicted, such person or persons shall be adjudged guilty of treason against the United States, and SHALL SUFFER DEATH;
The language tracked the Constitution and gave clear guidance to every American that dissent and political debate were not to be considered in any way an example of disloyalty to the nation. At the same time, the new statute made it clear that the new nation would deal severely with those convicted.
Most readers quickly understand that joining others to levy war against our country would constitute treason, but what of “adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” The founders recognized that there were some actions that were so uniquely inimical to loyalty that they could be punished even if they didn’t involve actual war-making against America. Examples of “adhering to their enemies” might include selling the designs for a subterranean entry into the White House or making and providing false identification cards to foreign agents to allow them to enter the Pentagon. “Aid and comfort” refers to counseling, abetting, plotting, assenting, consenting, and encouraging any act against the United States being carried out by an enemy of America.
While treason charges have most often been used in the context of war between nations there is no specific provision limiting treason charges to actions by a person on behalf of an enemy country. In other words, the Constitution does not limit a treason charge to an individual supporting an enemy nation such as Cuba or the former Soviet Union. Support for terrorists such as Al Qaeda, which have no specific nationality, can just as easily result in a charge of treason.
In addition, it’s no coincidence that the standard of proof for a conviction for treason in the Constitution was rigorous. This provision tracked the “English Treason Act of 1695” which precisely required a treason trial to require evidence of at least two witnesses to whatever act of treason was charged as a way to minimize the ability of the sovereign to accuse his political enemies of treason and have him or her executed.
The second provision is straightforward:
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.
Like most countries, the United States Congress has for nearly 200 years consistently insisted that the maximum punishment that could be levied against those convicted of treason would be execution. While our Congress has that authority, they are not unlimited in this area. Congress is not allowed to pass a statute that works a “corruption of blood” – a law that would interfere with the transfer of property from father to son – unless the property is confiscated prior to the death of the treasonous person.
Treason is insidious and truly dangerous because it involves crimes in which people who should owe a degree of loyalty abuse that trust in a way that endangers all of society. Cicero explains, “A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within.”