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Wed November 16, 2011
Dr. Brian Carso, Misericordia University - Treason, Free Speech, and Political Rhetoric
Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Brian Carso of Misericordia University traces the fine line that separates treason and loyal opposition in the American political process.
Brian Carso is Assistant Professor of History and Pre-Law Program Director at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania. In 2006 he published, Whom Can We Trust Now?" The Meaning of Treason in the United States, from the Revolution through the Civil War. He has also practiced law and holds a Ph.D. from Boston University.
Dr. Brian Carso - Treason, Free Speech, and Political Rhetoric
There's only one criminal law in the Constitution, and that's the Treason Clause. A mere three sentences long, it is one of the most complex laws in western jurisprudence. In 1807, the great Chief Justice John Marshall wrote 25,000 words grappling with the meaning of a single sentence of the Treason Clause.
But Treason is in the Constitution for good reason: allegiance is a necessary precondition of government, and treason law is one way to define the citizen's duty of loyalty. At the same time, in a democratic republic that depends on disagreement and energetic debate, the restrictive nature of our treason law protects the loyal opposition. So when presidential candidates in the 21st century suggest that each other's policies are treasonous, we know that no one will be marched to the gallows.
In fact, throughout American history, accusations of treason have been much more prevalent as political rhetoric than as matters of law. The quintessential act of treason was Benedict Arnold's failed attempt to hand West Point over to the British in 1780. Arnold escaped capture, but his countrymen promised that posterity would forever condemn his treachery. Tellingly, in the months prior to the outbreak of civil war in 1860, Harper's Weekly magazine featured a full-page illustration of Arnold meeting his British contact in the wilderness, with a snake listening-in from a branch overhead, the whole scene an obvious reference to the Garden of Eden. In the story of America's creation, Arnold's betrayal had become Original Sin.
When Washington learned of Arnold's treason, he asked, "Whom can we trust now?" which gets to the crux of the matter. For all its hyperbole and incendiary color, talk of treason is a rhetorical shorthand that still conjures deep-seated feelings of loyalty, national identity, and trust.