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Trump, treason and the Whiskey Rebellion: a history lesson in law and Western Pennsylvania

| Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, 3:36 p.m.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump walk across the tarmac to greet supporters upon arrival at Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport in Cincinnati on Feb. 5, 2018.
AFP/Getty Images
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump walk across the tarmac to greet supporters upon arrival at Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport in Cincinnati on Feb. 5, 2018.

President Trump this week volleyed accusations of being un-American or perhaps treasonous at Democrats who refused to applaud his State of the Union address.

"Refusing to applaud a politician is fully protected under the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech," Carlton F.W. Larson, a law professor at the University of California-Davis, told the Tribune-Review. "It can't even be made a misdemeanor, much less the highest offense known to the law."

(Larson, who is writing a book on treason and the American Revolution, last year published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post debunking myths about treason and U.S. law in light of calls that charges be filed "against Trump officials but against all kinds of other actors as well — Hillary Clinton, Mitch McConnell, even the state of California.")

Trump made remarks regarding Democrats and treason on Monday while visiting a factory near Cincinnati — which stands along the banks of the Ohio River, which begins its journey in Pittsburgh, which serves as capital of a region with a long history related to charges — and convictions and pardons — related to treason.

First, though...

What is treason?

For starters, treason is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution. And it specifically makes it a crime to adhere to or give comfort to the enemies of the United States.

Discussion of the topic has been around for some time. And by that, we mean a long, long time.

The New York Times reported in "Treason Against the United States" — an article published in 1861:

• Section 110, Article III, of the U.S. 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. 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. The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason."

• The U.S. Congress in 1790 enacted that:

"If any person or persons, owing allegiance to the United States of America, shall levy war against them, or shall adhere to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States, or elsewhere, and shall be thereof convicted on confession in open Court, or on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act of the treason whereof he or they shall stand indicted, such person or persons shall be adjudged guilty of treason against the United States, and SHALL SUFFER DEATH; and that if any person or persons, having knowledge of the commission of any of the treasons aforesaid, shall conceal, and not, as soon as may be, disclose and make known the same to the President of the United States, or some one of the Judges thereof, or to the President or Governor of a particular State, or some one of the Judges or Justices thereof, such person or persons, on conviction, shall be adjudged guilty of misprision of treason, and shall be imprisoned not exceeding seven years, and fined not exceeding one thousand dollars."

• James Madison, founding father and former U.S. president, said:

"The Constitution confines the crime of treason to two species; First, the levying of war against the United States; and Secondly, adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."

Per Cornell University's Legal Information Institute , the legal definition of treason was updated in 1948 to imposed stiffer punishments — short of death, of course.

"... shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States."

Not applauding a speech delivered by a U.S. president does not appear in the definition of treason — then or now.

"The whole concept of treason is an important part of the Constitution," according to the National Constitution Center , a bipartisan institution established by Congress in 1988. "The Founding Fathers knew the British laws about treason all too well. The British laws were much broader than our current definitions, and treasonable offenses include having sexual relations with the king's wife, counterfeiting, and the murder of a husband by a wife.

"In fact, the men who signed the Declaration of Independence knew they risked treason charges if things didn't work out well."

Rarely charged, convicted

Since 1789, there have been about 30 treason trials in the United States, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2001 while exploring whether the crime fit calls for California resident John Walker to be charged with treason for declaring himself a jihadi and joining the Taliban.

Other public calls of treason also were levied against "Hanoi" Jane Fonda and Edward Snowden . Neither ever happened.

Jane Fonda sings anti-war songs by a North Vietnam anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi in 1972.

Photo by Associated Press


Treason charges and convictions in the U.S. include:

• Abolitionist John Brown , convicted of treason against Virginia in 1859 for a raid in Harpers Ferry in hopes of sparking a slave uprising. He was hanged.

William Bruce Mumford , a New Orleans gambler, was convicted of treason and hanged in 1862 for tearing down a U.S. flag during the Civil War.

• West Virginia coal miner Walter Allen was convicted of treason for his part in the 1921 "Battle of Blair Mountain." He was sentenced to 10 years and fined. He disappeared while out on bail during his appeal. Union leader Bill Blizzard was acquitted of treason charges for his role in the violent protest.

Mildred Gillars , or Axis Sally, who broadcast anti-American propaganda from Germany during World War II. She was convicted of treason in 1949 and served 12 years in prison.

• Iva Ikuko Toguri D'Aquino, or Tokyo Rose , who also broadcast anti-American propaganda during World War II and was convicted of treason, She served six years in prison and was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford.

Tried but not convicted

Aaron Burr exhorting his followers at Blennerhassett Island Ohio River 1805.


Former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr in 1807 was charged with treason for seeking British support in establishing an independent country in part of what is Mexico, with the possibility of getting U.S. territories west of the Appalachians to secede. He was acquitted after what was then called the " Trial of the Century ."

Treason, Western PA roots

Whiskey Rebellion, 1794


Congress in 1791 passed an excise tax on whiskey on the suggestion of U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and backing of President George Washington as a way to raise money to help the federal government to pay its debts. Farmers and distillers in Western Pennsylvania protested, sparking what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion .

One federal tax collector was tarred and feathered, and the home of another was burned down near Pittsburgh.

Washington sent a militia of nearly 13,000 men to Western Pennsylvania. They arrested about 150 people and tried them for treason.

John Mitchell and Philip Weigel were found guilty, marking the first two treason convictions in the young country's history. Washington later pardoned both.

To applaud or not applaud

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