"To Aid Their Rebel Friends": Politics and Treason in the Civil War North
White, Jonathan W
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In "To Aid Their Rebel Friends" I argue that Civil War-era politicians relied on meanings of treason from old English law and Revolutionary-era America to broaden the definition of treason beyond the narrow definition found in the Constitution. In doing so, they gave new meaning to words and phrases in the Constitution that had been dormant for many years. Treason is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." The next sentence states that treason must be an "overt Act," thus precluding judges or politicians from declaring that conspiracy or words might be deemed treason. In defining treason narrowly the Framers hoped to depoliticize a crime that for centuries had been political in nature. In early modern England kings could define treason however they chose and force judges to convict the accused, simply to eliminate political opposition. Moreover, since the fourteenth century it was a treasonable offence to imagine or compass the king's death. The Founders hoped to avoid such occurrences on American soil. Despite the Founders' precaution of carefully defining treason in the nation's fundamental law, the Civil War transformed how treason was understood in American legal and political culture. The definition of treason broadened to include more than just overt acts of war. Included in its meaning were also disloyal or treasonous words. Sedition was punished, though not always as a defined crime. Speech codes were enforced in several northern states, and loyalty oaths were required at all levels of government and in nearly every jurisdiction. Violations of these laws, or refusals to take prescribed oaths, opened up northern citizens to charges of treason and disloyalty. In essence, the line between words and deeds blurred so that someone might be considered a traitor for speaking "traitorously" or for harboring "disloyal" sentiments. Beyond looking at the federal level, this dissertation also examines how understandings of treason broadened at the state and local levels, something that no scholar has yet attempted to do.