Nattering on about Aaron Burr’s 1807 treason trial this week, I was brought up short by a very simple question: How many treason trials have there been in the United States? I resolved to investigate the question, which yielded the following.
The Framers of the Constitution mistrusted treason prosecutions, seeing them as an easily abused tool of political oppression. Accordingly, they defined treason very specifically in Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution:
Section 3. 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. .
At Burr’s trial, Chief Justice John Marshall adhered closely to this restrictive defiition of treason — particularly the “two witness” rule — which was important to Burr’s acquittal.
So, who else has faced treason charges? Mostly the obscure and the slightly known, with only one name I might have guessed. But it’s not that long a list, not much more than a dozen. Here are a few of the leading figures.
Abolitionish John Brown, 1859 — This is a trick answer to the question, because Brown, who attempted to begin a slave uprising with his raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferr, was actually tried for treason against the state of Virginia(!).
Thomas Dorr of Rhode Island, 1844 — Leader of a movement for universal male suffrage, Dorr headed one of two rival governments of Rhode Island. The previous governor refused to step down after Dorr’s election, then arrested Dorr, and tried and convicted him for treason against the state of Rhode Island. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene on behalf of Dorr, who was released after serviing a year of his sentence.
Iva Ikuko Togun (“Tokyo Rose“) — A Japanese-American trapped in Japan when World War II began, Toguri was featured in propaganda broadcasts intended to sap the morale of American GIs. Convicted of treason, she served only 7 years in prison and was pardoned by President Gerald Ford because of some trial testimony was tainted by misconduct by the government.
- Mildred Gillars (“Axis Sally”) — A propaganda broadcaster for Nazi Germany, Gillars was convicted of treason and served twelve years in prison.
- Whiskey Rebels of 1794 — Farmers in western Pennsylvania rose in rage over a federal tax on whiskey, only to be suppressed by a federal army led by President Washington. Two of the leaders were convicted of treason, but Washington pardoned both.
- John Fries, 1799 — Another Pennsylvania tax rebel, Fries was convicted and then pardoned by President John Adams.
- Tomoya Kawakita, 1952 — An interpreter for the Japanese during World War II, Kawakita was convicted of assisting the torture of American prisoners of war. He is the last person convicted in an American treason trial.
It’s striking that many of the people often referred to as traitors — Benedict Arnold, John Walker Lindh, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the leaders of the Southern Confederacy — never faced treason charges, either for political reasons or because it was easier to convict them of other crimes.
One treason prosecution is still pending. Adam Yahiye Gadahn (who was born Adam
Pearlman in Oregon) has created several propaganda videos for Al-Quaeda. He was indicted for treason in 2006 in a California federal court, but remains at large.