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Protesters: The False Traitors

Treason is the highest crime in the United States, and can be punishable by death. Some feel that people who protest against the government are committing treason by showing that the country is politically divided. But treason should be reserved for individuals that willingly make plans to hurt the country, rather than protestors expressing their freedom of speech.

Historically, treason laws were far reaching, meaning that dissenters could be accused of treason. This was especially true in English law, where a person could be sentenced to death for imagining the death of the king or violating the queen. According to University of Michigan professor David A Porter's course site, "High Treason," Eighteenth century English law demanded that such traitors "be hanged by the neck and then cut down alive," (1) have their "entrails be taken out and burned" (1) decapitated, and then drawn and quartered. While such punishments were usually reserved for those who fought against the king, English law included a provision of constructive treason. According to the Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003 article, "Treason", constructive treason was used to "discourage resistance against the crown" (2) and "extended the offenses to include words instead of deeds" (2). The article notes that "in 1663, a writer was convicted of treason for writing an article suggesting that the king was accountable to the people," (2) meaning that those who dared to question government policy were signing their death warrants.

Unlike the old British laws, the United States Constitution excludes dissent from its definition of treason. According to Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution, "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." Because English treason laws were frequently abused, the founders wanted to make sure that Congress could only charge someone with treason for deliberately aiding an enemy. Indeed, the Constitution makes it difficult for a person to be convicted of treason at all. It explains that "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." Because of this clause, individuals like Aaron Burr - a former vice-president involved in a conspiracy against the government - have been acquitted of treason charges. In light of this, Congress will typically charge would-be traitors of espionage because of the easier conviction. Dissent is specifically not mentioned in the Constitution because the founders themselves were committing high treason by breaking from England. They wanted to create a central government that could run the country but would not persecute its citizens when they protested.

Historical events like the so-called "Whiskey Rebellion" of 1794 explain why dissenters should not be treated as traitors. The Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003 article, "Whiskey Rebellion," describes the event as a "series of disturbances in 1794 aimed against the enforcement of a U.S. federal law of 1791 imposing an excise tax on whiskey" (1). Farmers who were affected by this tax felt that the law was an "an attack on their liberty and economic well-being," (1) and so rose up against government officials in western Pennsylvania, even tarring and feathering some of them. The government attempted to negotiate with the dissenters, but eventually resorted to using state militias to quell the riot. While "two offenders were convicted of treason," (2) the article notes that "they were pardoned by Washington" (2), who thought of them as simple people hurt by the tax, not traitors trying to hurt the country. In England, such dissent would have been met with swift executions, but in the case of the Whiskey Rebellion, few people were charged, and most were exonerated. This event would set a precedent for more serious protests...
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