The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday comes from Article III, Section 3, and Clause 2: “The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason….” This provision in the Constitution preserves two rights: the right of the Congress to declare the punishment for treason and the right of the accused to know who will be affixing the punishment.
“In 1790 Congress prescribed death by hanging as the punishment for treason. In 1862 Congress enacted a law punishing the traitor by death, as well as liberating his slaves; or imprisoning him for not less than five years, with a fine of not less than $10,000, and liberating his slaves.
“Today the punishment is death, or imprisonment and fine, and the loss of any right to hold office under the United States” (W. Cleon Skousen, The Making of America – The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, pp. 624-625).
Skousen gave the following explanation about a very famous case of treason – Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. “During World War II the atomic bomb was developed by the United States in an atmosphere of the most profound secrecy. Through subversive activities, the Soviet Union used its allied status to secretly secure vast quantities of uranium salts and the associated ingredients necessary to construct an atomic bomb. However, they were unable to obtain a detonator and therefore employed two Americans to get the U.S. design. To the surprise of everyone, the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb many years before they were expected to do so, thereby creating an ominous tension throughout the world. Under the umbrella of this new advantage, Joseph Stalin then launched a series of military conquests, and the United States soon found itself involved in heavy warfare as a result of its obligations to help defend its allies. The United States was in Korea in the midst of a most costly conflict – in both treasure and bloodshed – at the time the FBI identified the two spies who had helped the Soviet Union get the plans for the detonator. They were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were tried and convicted in 1951 and were executed in 1953. Although there was a worldwide campaign to have their sentence commuted to life, the execution took place” (Making of America, p. 625).
Bradley C.S. Watson of The Heritage Foundation wrote, “The actual punishments for those convicted of the federal crime of treason have generally been more lenient than the statutory maximums. Those convicted for their part in the Whiskey Rebellion were pardoned by President George Washington. The United States government regarded Confederate activity as a levying of war, but all Confederates were pardoned by presidential amnesty. Max Haupt, convicted for giving aid and comfort to his alien son, was spared death and sentenced to life imprisonment. (His son Herbert was convicted by a military tribunal for his role as saboteur, and executed.) Tomoyo Kawakita, convicted of treason for abusing American prisoners of war, was sentenced to death but had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. By contrast, the Rosenbergs’ espionage convictions brought death sentences” (The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, p. 266).