treason, n. The offense of attempting to overthrow the government of the state to which one owes allegiance, either by making war against the state or by materially supporting its enemies.
— Also termed high treason; alta proditio. Cf. SEDITION. [Cases: Treason
1. C.J.S. Treason §§ 2–3, 5.] — treasonable, treasonous, adj.
“The judgment of high treason was, until very lately, an exception to the merciful tenor of our judgments. The least offensive form which is given in the books is, that the offender ‘be carried back to the place from whence he came, and from thence to be drawn to the place of execution, and be there hanged by the neck, and cut down alive, and that his entrails be taken out and burned before his face, and his head cut off, and his body divided into four quarters, and his head and quarters disposed of at the king’s pleasure.’ Some of the precedents add other circumstances, of still more grossness and aggravation. But this horrible denunciation was very seldom executed in its more terrible niceties.” 1 Joseph Chitty, A Practical Treatise on the Criminal Law 702 (2d ed. 1826).
“[S]everal important characteristics marked off high treason from all other crimes. For one thing, it earned a peculiarly ghastly punishment. For another, it was ‘unclergyable,’ while every felony was ‘clergyable’ unless some statute had otherwise ordained. Thirdly, while the felon’s land escheated to his lord, the traitor’s land was forfeited to the king. This last distinction influenced the development of the law.” 2 Frederick Pollock & Frederic William Maitland, History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I 500 (2d ed. 1899).
“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.” U.S. Const. art. III, § 3.
1. Speech that manifests a desire or intent to make war against the state or materially support an enemy, even though the speech is unaccompanied by acts that further the desire or intent. • There is no crime of constructive treason in U.S. law because treason requires an affirmative act, and intent alone cannot substitute for an act. Cf. SEDITION.
2. Hist. Speech that is critical of the government. • This sense arose during the reign of Henry VIII of England. Critical speech remained a capital crime until the early 18th century.
petty treason. Archaic. Murder of one’s employer or husband. • Until 1828, this act was considered treason under English law. — Also spelled petit treason.
“The frequent reference to high treason is a carry-over from an ancient division of the offense that has long since disappeared. In the feudal stage of history the relation of lord to vassal was quite similar to the relation of king to subject. The relation of husband to wife came to be regarded in the same category, as also did the relation of master to servant, and that of prelate to clergyman. And just as it was high treason to kill the king, so a malicious homicide was petit treason if it involved a killing of (originally, lord by vassal, and later) husband by wife, master by mistress or servant, or prelate by clergyman. When the special brutality provided by the common law for the punishment of petit treason disappeared, this crime became merged with murder and only one crime of treason remained.” Rollin M. Perkins & Ronald N. Boyce, Criminal Law 498–99 (3d ed. 1982).