Treason is a legal term for acts of disloyalty to one's nation or rulers.
The English Statute of Treasons (1350), distinguished high treason from petty treason. Petty treason was the murder of one's lawful superior. High treason covered acts that constituted a serious threat to the stability or continuity of the state, including attempts to kill the king, to counterfeit coins or to wage war against the kingdom. An 18th century law defines four basic types of high treason:
- When a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the king, of our lady his queen, or of their eldest son and heir
- If a man do violate the king's companion, or the king's eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of the king's eldest son and heir
- If a man do levy war against our lord the king in his realm
- If a man be adherent to the king's enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere.
The punishment for treason was often extended and especially cruel. The law was used in England to suppress any resistence to government policy and it was not reformed until the 19th century.
In the United States, mindful of the abuses of the English system, the Constitution states in Article 3 that "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 the confession in open court. The Congress shall have the power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attained". In the United States Code the penalty ranges from "shall suffer death" to "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."
In the United States, the accusation of treason has often been levelled those who dissented against the government's foreign policy, especially during military actions. It has thus been used as a tool to stifle dissent and restrict free speech. Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, accused those who criticized the US government policy on military tribunals of "aiding terrorists" (in other words, the enemy) and "eroding national unity"; by implication he suggested that they were committing treason.