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What is Treason?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Treason is defined as an act of disloyalty against a nation or national sovereign by a citizen of that nation. It is usually treated very seriously by the penal system, as a single calculated act can utterly destabilize an entire government. In most countries, conviction of high treason is accompanied by a death sentence, a long term of imprisonment, or a substantial fine. Someone who commits this crime is called a traitor. Anyone can be a traitor, including ordinary citizens, members of the government, or active duty military.

The word for treason was first used in the English language in the 1200s, and appears to be related to a French word, traison, which means to hand over or surrender. A major act of treason would be an activity that is designed to lead directly to the overthrow of a government, or carrying out a threat to a major state figure, such as a member of the royal family or a president. If the nation is involved in a war, fighting on the side of the enemy is treason, as is assisting enemy combatants. Spying and other acts of disloyalty are usually prosecuted under the same laws, as they are viewed as betrayals of trust that ultimately operate to undermine the government in power.

In the United States, treason is very narrowly defined, due to a European tradition of accusing political opponents of this crime, which the nation's founders wanted to avoid. In other nations, such acts may be less clearly spelled out in books of law, which can lead to unfair persecution. Far more people are prosecuted in America for sedition, an action or speech that is supposed to incite disloyalty, hatred, or treasonous behavior. Several sedition acts have been passed in the United States during wartime to allow the government to more easily punish agitators.

Sometimes the line between treason and politically legal activity can be very narrow. For example, some critics believe that anti-war protesters are traitors because they are being unpatriotic. In other cases, individuals from within or outside a government may be advocating for radical changes that would completely reshape their nation. This could be viewed as treasonous by the party in power, as it would technically alter the status quo, although it not necessarily lead to collapse of the nation as a whole. Some political hardliners believe that their opponents are traitors, as demonstrated by the popular book Treason, by Ann Coulter, attacking the political views of the American left.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon337895 — On Jun 08, 2013

When you commit treason, do you die?

By CarrotIsland — On Dec 23, 2010

@oceanswimmer: Aaron Burr was acquitted of treason charges in September of 1807. He was acquitted on the grounds that he was not guilty of treason because he did not engage in an “overt act”, which is a requirement of the law governing treason. He clearly conspired against the United States but beat the charges on a technicality. Public opinion condemned Burr and he was forever labeled a traitor, which is why he fled to Europe.

By OceanSwimmer — On Dec 22, 2010

@carrotisland: How was Aaron Burr acquitted?

By CarrotIsland — On Dec 19, 2010


Aaron Burr was the 3rd Vice President of the United States from 1801-1805. He was a Revolutionary War hero and had a lot of political experience. The very, very short version of the Burr Conspiracy is that Burr was accused of having committed treason. Apparently, there was a conspiracy to steal Louisiana Purchase lands away from the United States. He would then be a hero or some kind of emperor of those people. He was also accused of attempting to declare an illegal war against Spanish possessions in Mexico. At the time, that was called filibustering.

Burr and several others were charged with treason and arrested in 1807. Burr was later acquitted. He lived in exile in Europe for several years and then returned to New York City to practice law.

By dega2010 — On Dec 16, 2010

Can anyone provide any information on Aaron Burr and his treason trial?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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