Defining the Crime of Treason
against the United States
[20 August 1787]
The Committee of Detail report had defined treason as a crime limited to “levying war against the United States, or any of them; and in adhering to the enemies of the United States, or any of them” (Farrand, Records description begins Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (4 vols.; New Haven, 1911–37). description ends , II, 182).
Mr. Madison thought the definition too narrow. It did not appear to go as far as the Stat. of Edwd. III.1 He did not see why more latitude might not be left to the Legislature. It wd. be as safe as in the hands of State legislatures; and it was inconvenient to bar a discretion which experience might enlighten, and which might be applied to good purposes as well as be abused.
1. This 1350 law defined treason as a crime committed “if a Man do levy War against our Lord the King in his Realm, or be adherent to the King’s Enemies … giving to them Aid and Comfort, in the Realm, or elsewhere” (25 Edw. 3, chap. 2, “A Declaration which Offences shall be adjudged Treason,” The Statutes at Large [1769 ed.], I, 261).