The topic for this Constitution Monday comes from Article III, Section 3, and Clause 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.” This provision plainly states that Americans can charge anyone with treason if they wage war against the United States or give aid and comfort to our enemies.
W. Cleon Skousen further explained this provision: “In colonial times, according to Blackstone, England had seventeen different acts which were described as `treason.’ The penalty was death by hanging until unconscious, followed by revival, then disemboweling, beheading, and quartering. [This sounds gruesome to me!]
“In the Constitutional Convention it was proposed that the Congress be allowed to specifically define treason because the Founders felt that this might be abused by federal officials as it had been in England. Treason became the only crime to be defined in the Constitution. It was limited to two offenses, namely, levying war against the United States and adhering to its enemies by giving them aid and comfort.
“It is noteworthy that treason can be committed by any citizen living either in the United States or abroad. Treason can also be committed by an alien living within the United States and consequently receiving the benefit of its protection” (The Making of America – The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, pp. 621-622).
Skousen also explained that no foreign nation can be considered as an “enemy” unless Congress declares war against it. There were people who were sympathetic to the communists in both North Korea and North Vietnam, but they could not be tried for treason because Congress did not declare war. [I believe that Jane Fonda was treasonous during the Vietnam War.]
Bradley C.S. Watson of The Heritage Foundation explained the purpose for including treason in the Constitution. “Reflecting the American Founders’ concern with protecting individual rights and their fear of arbitrary governmental power, the Framers of the Constitution sought a precise and permanent definition of treason, the permissible means of proving it, and the limitations on the punishment for it. The drafters of the Constitution reached back (as had the Continental Congress) to language in the statute of 25 Edward III (1350), which limited treason, among other things, to compassing or imagining the death of the king, levying war against the king, or adhering to the king’s enemies, giving them aid and comfort. But the Framers’ work was even narrower. They did not include the language of `compassing or imagining,’ which had been the basis of the English doctrine of `constructive treason,’ an effective and easily abused method for dealing with political opponents. Thus, in the Constitution, treason consists only in levying war against the United States or adhering to its enemies by giving them aid and comfort. It may be proved only by confession in open court, or on the testimony of no fewer than two witnesses to the same overt act” (The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, p. 264).