John Mitchell and Philip Vogol were convicted of treason shortly after the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, the first cases of the crime in United States history. It was a curious incident, entirely about recouping money to pay off debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. Mitchell and Vogol were distillers, and essentially gangsters. When the ‘whiskey tax’ was put in place by Congress, these two men and their henchmen refused to pay, and began a three year crime spree (today this would be called terrorism). Then were sentenced to hang. President George Washington pardoned the two men, himself not particularly in favor of the whiskey tax, seeing it as a violation of the newly won American freedom.
Here is a list of names, most of them unknown today:
- John Fries (also a rebellion about taxes; also pardoned),
- Thomas Dorr, the once Governor of Rhode Island (yet another rebellion, this time over the expansion of liberty within his state. He lead an army of the poor within against what amounted to a colonial elite which ran the Rhode Island, demanding broader borders and voting rights for all white men. When convicted, Dorr was sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor and solitary confinement. He served 12 months, before the public outrage overwhelmed the new state government, and his sentence was eventually annulled in 1854).
- John Brown (Certainly better know, he led several armed anti-slavery rebellions against the state of Virginia, culminating in the raid on the Harper’s Ferry armory. Brown, a deeply religious man, had intended to rally the anti-slavery forces to overthrow the state, and eventually the nation’s government, in order to end the immoral practice. He was the first American executed for treason, and has since become known as a celebrated hero of a righteous movement.)
- Aaron Dwight Stevens (One of the followers of John Brown, he was executed as well. Became the first well known criminal in American history to have his middle name prominently attached to the news coverage of his trial.)
- William Bruce Mumford (Convicted by a military tribunal for removing the American flag from the US Mint in New Orleans during the Civil War. He was hanged. This is a troubling incident, because the flag had just been raised by an invading Union Navy captain, Henry Morris, without the approval of his superiors. He had also insisted that every Confederate flag be removed. Mumford simply replied that this sign of victory had get to be ordered. He was scapegoated, certainly, and used as a warning to all those who refused to take advantage of triumph during the war.)
- Walter Allen (Convicted of taking part in a miner’s strike against the Coal Industry. He had definite Communist leanings, which was the true reason for his conviction and sentence of ten years in prison. He was railroaded by the coal barons of the era just prior to the collapse of the stock market in 1929. His case was appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court. While out on bail Allen disappeared. It has been suggested that he was murdered by thugs employed by the coal mine owners, and President Warren G. Harding has been considered potentially responsible, but this has never been proven, and it was reported that he merely escaped, thus condemning Allen to permanent villain status in American history.)
- Martin James Monti (An Air Force pilot who defected to Germany during World War II, becoming a proud Nazi, and a celebrated hero in his new nation until the end of the war. He was rapidly convicted of treason and served a prison term until 1960. In prison he was responsible for helping to form a white nationalist faction, which persists to this day.)
- Robert Henry Best (A freelance foreign correspondent for the United Press, during World War II he was one of the chief pro-Nazi propagandists in English, becoming a notorious radio talk show host. He was convicted of treason in 1948 and sentenced to life in prison.)
- Iva Toguri D’Aquino (The famous “Tokyo Rose,” who broadcast pro-Japanese news, which was ultimately simply anti-American propaganda, during World War II. She was convicted of treason in 1949. For some reason Gerald Ford pardoned her right around the time he pardoned Richard Nixon.)
- Mildred Gillars (Another pro-Nazi propagandist, Mildred was actually employed by the Third Reich to try and recruit Americans to the cause. She had been living in Germany since the rise of the Nazi party, and when American nationals were told to return to the United States in 1941, she chose to remain with her fiance. She spent thirty years in prison.)
- Tomoya Kawakita (An interesting case, Kawakita was a duel American-Japanese citizen. He had been born in California, but moved to Japan before World War II began. Once the war broke out he renounced his US Citizenship. During the war he served as a POW camp soldier, and was known to routinely torture and starve American captives. When the war ended, Kawakita sullenly returned to the US, tried to keep his past a secret, and enrolled in college. He was recognized by a former POW whom he had abused and was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. John F. Kennedy repealed the death sentence and had Kawakita deported to Japan, as Japanese opposition to China became a priority. Kawakita’s defense during his trial had been that he could not be convicted of treason because he had renounced his citizenship. It had been rejected by the courts at the time.)
- Herbert John Burgman (The last American convicted of treason, Burgman had been a state department employee in Germany at the end of World War I. He married a German woman and developed a deep love and sympathy for the nation. When the Nazi Party rose he became an enthusiastic member. During the war he became a radio conspiracy theorist, spreading rumors about STDs American soldiers were spreading, homosexual conduct, black soldiers raping German women and children, and blamed the whole war on FDR, the Jews who controlled him, and the Communists who had overtaken the United States government. At the end of the war he was arrested in Germany and dragged back to the US, where he faced 69 different charges of treason. He had a heart attack during his trial and his lawyers attempted to play this off, claiming Burgman was a sympathetic victim who had been forced to broadcast for the past ten plus years. This defense was ignored, he was convicted of 13 counts, and sentenced to six to twenty years in federal prison. His heath rapidly deteriorated and he died there in 1953.
There are of course other cases in the American past, notably Benedict Arnold and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, but those were not actually cases of treason. The Rosenbergs were convicted under the Espionage Act, not of treason. They were of course executed, despite the fact that proof of Ethel’s involvement is nowhere to be found. As for Benedict Arnold, well, America wasn’t a nation yet, and he switched sides during the war to gain independence, so it is difficult to make a case that he betrayed a nation that did not yet exist. Colonial citizens who had sided with the British during the war were also not imprisoned, but merely scorned, occasionally murdered, and many of them ran away to the motherland to escape persecution.
This essay is not meant to imply that President Trump is necessarily guilty of treason, nor that he deserves to be treated this way. As the President says, “Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t.” I have little doubt that Paul Manafort is guilty of treason. Trump, from what I can surmise, had no intentions of betraying the nation, and I am not arguing that he is some blind fool either, manipulated by far more cunning actors. I simply think he does not care. It is all about money, about business, and an international merger is simply part of the practice of securing profit. Now I don’t think Trump is a very good businessman either, despite the fact that he was elected based upon this assumption. He is a bully, and probably has always been a terrible boss, so self-consumed and willing to claim credit for other’s hard work. But treason? I guess you could make a case. I do not know, however, if you can be convicted for simply being greedy. The lies and cover-ups are certainly criminal in nature, but it sounds more like a case of corruption and abuse of power. Of high crimes and misdemeanors, whatever that is meant to imply.
And so this is something to consider as we rant and rally both against and in favor of Donald J. Trump. Clearly we are living an existential crisis, the whole western world, the complete idea of our liberal Democracy and the meaning of the United States of America itself, its revolution and the transformation of the world. Look at Great Britain, suffering a similar, or perhaps even more drastic problem with its identity. But giving Vladimir Putin all the credit isn’t really fair. Plenty of people are to blame. Most of us are to blame. Even with outside agitation, the fact that we are so divided on these issues falls upon us. I have been saying this a lot lately, but we really do get what we deserve. I just hope we can someday soon slog our way out of this ever deepening swamp.