In case you’re not following the news, Hillary Clinton is facing some legal trouble, having turned her e-mail server over to the FBI as part of an investigation into her alleged insecure storage of highly classified material. Of course, the server itself is blank—it was professionally wiped clean before she handed it to the Feds.
While there’s been a lot of bandying about of terms like “treason” with regards to Mrs. Clinton’s activities at the State Department, particularly in relation to her role in the Benghazi terror attack, you may be surprised to know that treasonous acts are more likely to originate from a much different source.
While there’s some possibility of Clinton being charged under federal statutes governing storage of classified information (18 U.S.C. § 793, for instance), it’s highly unlikely we’ll see her charged with treason. In fact, only a handful of Americans have ever been convicted of treason.
In 1860, Aaron Dwight Stevens and John Brown were convicted of treason against Virginia for their raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal. Ironically, and totally by accident, the Federal officer who ended the raid was none other than Colonel Robert E. Lee. Lee, on leave from his Army post in Texas, happened to be the only command-grade officer in the area. Lee reported for duty in civilian clothes to lead a contingent of US Marines (the only available troops), retake the arsenal and capture Brown, who, along with Stevens, was hung for his crime.
Another instance of treason occurred in Rhode Island in 1842, when Thomas Wilson Dorr led an armed revolt against the government, having been elected governor of the state under a new charter voted in by the state’s own citizens. It was all legal, except that it wasn’t.
Rhode Island’s 1663 charter, decreed by King Charles, had a major problem: voting rights—suffrage—was only granted to men who owned $140 of real property (that’s $4,000 today). With the rise of industrialization and immigration, only rural farmers and the wealthy qualified to vote.
After the state legislature unsuccessfully attempted to pass a new constitution, Dorr conducted a People’s Convention and drafted his own, granting suffrage to all white men with over one year’s residence. He conducted a referendum (including the newly eligible voters) that approved the new constitution, and in 1842, the government and the People’s Convention both held statewide elections, with Dorr winning the governor’s seat.
Since Governor Samuel Ward King was also elected governor, and stubbornly refused to quit his position, Dorr organized about 300 men, stole a cannon, and attacked the state arsenal in Providence. His cannon misfired and his “army” retreated in disarray, and Dorr fled to New York in defeat.
He returned a few months later and tried to rally some supporters in the hamlet of Chepachet, but was only able to attract a few hundred men. When word of the state militia’s approach came, his group disintegrated, and Dorr again fled into hiding. He was finally captured in 1843 and sentenced to life in prison for treason.
Ironically, in 1842, the legislature waived the property ownership requirement, the very thing Dorr rebelled against—although it would not apply to immigrants until 1888. Dorr was so popular that Rhode Island let him out of prison in 1845, and pardoned him in 1854, shortly before his death.
In both Brown’s and Dorr’s case (and John Fries tax rebellion in 1800), their treason was not against the government to impose tyranny, but to liberate from it, or at least from its burdens.
Though Clinton may be in deep trouble because of her e-mail, our history shows that we’re more likely to see truly treasonous acts from supporters of Donald Trump. Some Trump supporters lean toward his boisterous use of threatening and vulgar language; maybe one of them may embark on a pointless and stupid escapade into treason.
Then again, with open rebellion in Rowan County, Kentucky, where the clerk refused to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple in defiance of a federal court order, maybe treason will be coming to America again sooner than we think.
(published in the Houston Home Journal 8/19/15)