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How Legitimate Forms Of Protest Are Distinguished From Treason


The word treason holds a special power in the U.S. It's a crime specifically defined in the Constitution. Now, after last week's violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol, it's a word being used to describe the actions of President Trump and those who stormed the Capitol building. Historian John Reeves has written about the history of treason, particularly after the Civil War.

John Reeves, welcome to the program.

JOHN REEVES: Thank you.

CORNISH: So we said treason is defined in the Constitution. What does the word actually mean?

REEVES: Yeah. So in our Constitution, it refers specifically to levying war against the United States or giving aid and comfort to our enemies. It's defined specifically. And that's because our definition of treason borrows a lot of the language from the English version that goes back to the 14th century, but with a specific difference. And that is over time, the English version started to come into play to mean speech and to mean particular positions on things or even a political party. And the founders wanted to be very careful that it didn't start spreading into these areas. So they want to define it specifically to mean levying war or giving aid to enemies.

CORNISH: You're the author of the book "The Lost Indictment Of Robert E. Lee." And I do want to ask about the Civil War.


CORNISH: Why were treason charges brought against Confederate leadership, and why were those charges eventually dropped?

REEVES: Shortly after the Civil War, you know, the Johnson administration - Andrew Johnson had replaced Lincoln after Lincoln's assassination - brought charges of treason against 37 Confederates. And this was as soon as June 7, 1865. And it was because, particularly after the Lincoln assassination, there was a lot of anger, and they felt like we need to hold these folks accountable.

I won't go into the long story about why the charges were dropped. But long story short, it was sort of a comedy of errors. The Johnson administration was committed to it, but they wanted to do it in a traditional courtroom and not a military court. There were so many problems. And then, of course, Johnson just got so frustrated that the administration dropped the charges.

CORNISH: When you look at the events of the past week, does treason fit what you saw or is there some other term we should be thinking about?

REEVES: Yeah, so I think probably the events at the Capitol - I don't think those - you know, at least in my opinion, I don't think that rises to treason, per se, because American law has tended to have a very narrow view of treason and have it be, you know, clearly war involved and some kind of military force involved.

The events at the Capitol look more like sedition. I mean, if you look at, you know, the interruption of lawmaking at the Capitol - probably more appropriate. You're seeing people referring to the 14th Amendment. And one of the clauses in the 14th Amendment had to do with not allowing those who are found guilty of insurrection to hold public office. And that particular clause was designed specifically for the former Confederate leaders. And now we're seeing it being introduced as part of the possible impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives.

CORNISH: Was it ever used? And is it something you're curious to see if there'll be more traction on now?

REEVES: Yeah, so it really was used and - but in a different context after the Civil War because it just prevented former Confederates from taking public office unless they were able to get an exemption from a two-thirds vote in Congress. In the post-Civil War period, to them, it was clear that the Confederate leaders had definitely committed insurrection against the United States. Now I think the bar is different because you would have to prove that someone had committed insurrection first before that section of 14th Amendment would apply.

CORNISH: And you said you didn't feel what you saw reached the threshold of treason. Does it reach the threshold for violating this section of the 14th Amendment?

REEVES: I think it is certainly a reasonable proposition to put forward as part of an impeachment proceeding against the president. There was clear incitement for - you know, for over two months denying the election victory for Biden and kind of stirring up his followers and then having them arrive on January 6 and then the violence that occurred and the disruption of the Electoral College vote. So I think that, you know, in inciting a crowd to insurrection, you know, this is a clear example of that. And so I think the introduction of the 14th Amendment into that is an effective take.

CORNISH: John Reeves is author of "The Lost Indictment Of Robert E. Lee."

Thank you for your time.

REEVES: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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